Our firm started as a digitally focused shop. In fact, “digital” was originally part of our name. We believed, and still believe, in the power of digital, and thought that it was being ignored by traditional media consultants in the industry.
We were excited to tell rich stories online, in two-to-four minute videos that broke our clients out of the 30-second TV/radio ad box. These ads we created were exciting and effective because they weren’t just animating a press release.
But in the five years we’ve been doing this, we have found an overcorrection. Subsequently, we’ve pivoted more toward traditional media. Why? Return on investment (ROI).
We have to look a candidate in the eye who has just made fundraising calls all weekend or has taken a second mortgage on his or her house because they want to help their community, and explain where every dollar is going. To justify the expense, we have to employ tactics that clearly demonstrate ROI.
Take a hypothetical $50,000 primary media budget, we either can blast out a radio spot during drivetime and cable ad on Fox News, or can spread it out across digital properties, and have more flexibility in the creative. Which option moves name ID up, positives up, or our competitors negatives up? At the end of the day, our job is to move numbers because that’s what our clients want. They want to win.
Now, some of you may be screaming at your screens: in 2019, more and more voters are basically invisible to traditional polling. We would calmly agree. But we all know that everything in politics has a little bit of alchemy to it.
Just because the navigation instrument is old and twitchy doesn’t mean that we start flying by sense of smell. Unless you give me a better instrument, we’re going to go off the dials we have.
In the conversation around traditional media, another point of contention is its ability to hit younger voters. Indeed, recent studies show that more and more of them aren’t watching television. Let us remind you: campaigns aren’t about getting voters to vote for future hypothetical platforms.
They’re about getting voters to check off your candidate’s name on Election Day because they believe in an idea. Our job is to deliver a message that will get supporters to do that, and right now, today's voters are still absorbing these messages through traditional media.
Don’t get us wrong, there are a lot of great digital tools, and online targeting is superior. Case in point, it’s more efficient to target someone within a congressional district online than on TV. But if your digital ads aren’t moving the needle because of fraud or viewability, or we’re just beating up a small group of people with frequency, then that efficiency is meaningless. A robust TV/cable/radio buy will have a reach of approximately 90 percent of voters in a week—can digital offer that same reach?
To be sure, digital helps expose a message to people who might not otherwise see it. Most candidates aren’t a Beto or an AOC or a Donald Trump. Getting organic views online, or free earned media, is wonderful—but fundamentally, voters have to hear your message over and over again, and then go cast a ballot for you.
For the Trump example, the president’s campaign has certainly leaned into digital. I can’t remember a single Trump TV spot that even had him talking direct-on-camera in it.
Anyone out there thinking Donald Trump is president because of digital targeting was either asleep for 2016 or selling digital targeting. He had a message that was clear and electric, and he was selling it for free all over cable because he’s interesting and entertaining.
We know we sound down on digital, we’re not entirely. There’s been a gigantic benefit from the industry’s digital shift. A lot of our peers, us included, got a seat at the strategy table at a much younger age than was typical because of digital.
Still, the era of just saying some digital jargon and expecting to receive 20 percent of the voter contact budget is over. A lot of the GCs have gotten smart to it. On campaigns, it’s all about getting that poll number up.
If you spend a lot of money on a digital effort that doesn’t move the next set of poll numbers up– well, there’s no way to spin that.
If you can’t tell me a cost per thousand impressions (CPM), or KPI benchmarks for a stand-alone digital campaign that moves big numbers on the backend, I can’t suggest moving money out of traditional channels.
Will Ritter is the co-founder of POOLHOUSE, a Republican media firm.