The digital political industry finds itself caught between two major conflicts at the moment. The first is over election security and the effects online platforms have on our nation’s politics. The second is a broader debate over consumer privacy and data security online.
Last year in Washington state, Facebook and Google decided to stop selling political ads rather than comply with campaign finance regulations around advertising disclosures. But that hasn’t stopped campaigns in the state from slipping ads through. Ads that do make it through and get enough attention typically get taken down. This is the earliest glimpse we’ve gotten into how difficult a ban on such ads by Twitter will be to enforce.
In California, a new state law that gives consumers additional rights to privacy and adds responsibilities for corporations regarding data protection and usage will go into effect on Jan. 1, but the only probable impact to campaigns seems to be increased costs from vendors who must comply with the law.
This doesn’t mean campaigns are off the hook entirely. A recent study found that just 30 percent of the 2020 presidential field are following best practices when it comes to data privacy and consumer protection. As consumer privacy online continues to be a concern, it’s clear that campaigns and their partners must keep up to speed with best practices, like protecting supporter data, removing voters when they want to opt-out, and not selling or sharing their information in ways they didn’t explicitly agree to. Doing the right thing, whether required by laws and regulations or not, builds trust and respect from your future constituents.
Twitter’s decision last month to ban all political advertising and the policy would take effect this week upended the conversation. Hillary Clinton and others called on Facebook to follow suit. Fortunately, other voices on the left, like Tara McGowan at ACRONYM pointed out that this would be a disaster for any candidate not named Donald Trump.
Banning paid political advertising won’t keep politics or bad actors off the social media platforms. If the big tech platforms – or state regulations – box campaigns into a place where the only way to reach social media audiences is organically, it’ll result in a backfire effect. The only way for a marketer to win at that game is to play up engagement, emotionality, and outrage. That’s clearly not what anyone thinks our political discourse needs more of.
Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook are reportedly considering limiting “microtargeting” for political ads, an approach advocated by FEC chairwoman Ellen Weintraub. This could take a variety of approaches, like banning custom audiences or only allowing geographical targeting. And of course, it’s not clear how any of this would be enforced.
For campaign professionals, journalists, and transparency advocates, the ability to keep track of spending on Facebook and Google was a welcomed improvement and something we had been hoping for for a while. But a ban or restrictions on advertising that moves dollars to other, less transparent channels would be a step backward for those who want more visibility into political spending online.
There’s no doubt that this is a complex issue centered around some very important questions about freedom of speech, election integrity, and privacy. And while some in our industry may disagree about the significance of these issues, a few bad actors, foreign governments, and ill-informed journalists have ensured that they aren’t going away.
Remember why digital targeting is important to us as campaign professionals: We want to reach more voters more efficiently. The bar for efficiency is set pretty high in politics given that broadcast media and cable TV always result in wasted impressions outside of a targeted electorate.
I think too many political marketers have overcompensated by targeting online so narrowly that they exclude likely voters they should be reaching. Even if the match rate for your data is as high as 60-70 percent, only targeting to a voter file means you’re not speaking to 30-40 percent of the target universe online. I think sophisticated digital marketers in the political space will balance their data targeted advertising with advertising targeted around behavior, context, or first-party data.
There’s unfortunately not much that practitioners can do to prepare for potential changes from Facebook or Google. But we can take this opportunity to refocus on what the point of all this data targeting and online advertising is about: winning elections.
What we need to be doing as professionals in the digital political space is ensuring that campaign budgets continue to follow where voters are spending more and more of their time: online.
Digital professionals need to prepare backup plans for online investment in the eventuality that platforms or states change policies in ways that impact your campaign. The worst thing that could happen right now is that money that we have fought for a decade now to go to online flows back into mail, phones, and TV as a sort of default because Facebook and Google ban political advertising. In addition to other ad networks and platforms, like OTT, local media, and publishers, we have to pay attention to building our own infrastructure.
This should include investments in peer to peer text messaging, relational organizing technology, and building owned audiences like email lists, SMS, and websites. The major tech platforms and the attention economy have distracted us from these objectives because we’ve enjoyed the ability to reach voters quickly, easily, and cheaply.
Let’s use this moment as a learning opportunity to refocus on the reason we campaign: to win elections.
Eric Wilson is the founder of Best Practice Digital, LearnTestOptimize.com, and a managing partner of Startup Caucus.