As a director at a digital consultancy that bridges the progressive political and advocacy advertising industries, I read with interest the recent C&E article “4 Questions Consultants Will Face in 2017.” But when I got to the section on digital advertising, I found a variation of the question digital agencies like ours face frequently: when will digital regain its luster? In reality, it was never lost.
Now, some evidence presented for this luster lost was Jordan Lieberman’s speculation about digital spending. Lieberman has repeatedly questioned the Borrell Associates report on political ad spending, which noted that digital advertising expenditures in the 2016 cycle topped $1.4 billion. That's a 789 percent increase over 2012. Regardless of whether the increase is nearly a 1,000 percent or less, that’s still a significant gain over the previous cycle.
Leaving aside the spitting match over who got more money than whom, there are more substantive things to address in this article, specifically with regard to ad waste and audience.
Digital advertising is a demanding business, requiring serious thought and attention paid to targeting, placements and creative. The truth is, a lot of traditional thinkers who are now faced with a rapidly evolving communications environment don’t want to put in the time that effective digital advertising requires, nor are they set up to. The end result?
Misdirected ads and ad waste.
If a firm doesn’t want to invest in tackling the technological hurdle of ensuring ad quality they need to partner with a new class of agencies, digital agencies, to build a comprehensive media approach that truly reaches, engages and persuades voters and grassroots audiences. To date, that partnership has been limited and framed by traditional thinking rather than forward-looking strategizing, at the expense of overall effectiveness and impact.
To the audience question: the traditional thinkers, and some digital agencies who mistakenly reinforce this notion, seem to have bought into the idea that digital is only for a Millennial audience. It’s not. According to Pew, 64 percent of Americans between the ages of 50 and 64 are on social media. If you want to include 45-year-olds, 80 percent of individuals between 30 and 49 are on social. They’re also on these channels all the time. To wit, 76 percent of Facebook users are on the site daily. Anecdotally, the audiences for the vast majority of our highest performing ads and the most engaged people on our lists are heavily skewed toward older generations.
But social is only one channel. According to Pew, 87 percent of the high propensity voting age bracket is online. In fact, as of three years ago only 13 percent of the U.S. population was not online — surely that number has decreased since then. To fully paint a picture of media consumption among our target audiences, TV must be included in this conversation.
According to the New York Times, only 52 percent of persuadable voters in battleground states get their info from TV, down eight percent from 2012. Meanwhile, 40 percent watch no TV at all.
And now 73 percent of voters own a smartphone. So let’s stop pretending that persuadable voters can’t be reached online and that TV alone holds the key to winning elections or advocacy fights.
We also have to address performance. A Stanford University study revealed that digital ads perform “on par with TV ads on the brand-building metrics that advertisers use and trust.” When we embrace the facts, it becomes clear: it’s the smart application of all relevant forms of media that works. We still haven’t seen most campaigns or organizations take that approach — only the wise few.
Leaving aside all the questions about spending and audience, the fundamental challenge political advertisers must face has to do with content and creative. Trust in all forms of advertising is eroding. As a result, the onus is on all advertisers — TV and digital — to develop trust.
That means more authentic, true-to-life advertisements than the standard polished political ad, which smacks of propaganda. That means longer-term engagements with voters, beginning with first touches online in many cases and extending all the way through the political cycle so that trust relationships are established. For all advertisers, that means more work. The question is: who is willing to put in the effort and who is content with the status quo?
Andy Amsler is director of advertising and advocacy for Mothership Strategies, a digital agency specializing in online advertising, social media management, and email fundraising and marketing for progressive candidates and causes.