When Doug Jones was sworn in as a senator this week, it marked the end of a historic campaign. He’s the first Democratic senator to go to DC from Alabama in 25 years. And it’s gotten a lot of people talking, or at least joining the chorus of pollsters and pundits who say a Democratic wave is coming. Some are even predicting a “bloodbath” for Republicans in November.
But if there’s one lesson to learn from Alabama it’s that even in a wave year, you’ve got to leave it all on the field, regardless of what the forecast is for your race. To wit, Jones won by just over 20,000 votes — and few observers predicted he’d defeat Roy Moore.
His campaign, which we were proud to work on, did a lot of things right. Here are six useful insights we took away from the special election. These can apply almost anywhere, but they are particularly important lessons to heed as Democrats look to continue competing in Deep Red states and districts.
Authenticity is more important than ever
From the very first email we sent to the last ad we placed, it was obvious that voters are craving someone authentic to get behind. Jones had a moving story to tell that resonated with donors and voters. Not every candidate will have this compelling a story, but authenticity matters in both the message and how you convey it.
This is doubly true with online ads. From showing an old, unedited video of a speech Jones gave about his prosecution of KKK terrorists to using campaign footage of Joe Biden speaking on the trail, the content that voters engaged with online was the most authentic content. Forget highly polished ads. Neither of these videos were heavily produced, but the emotion in each was palpable — and voters connected with it.
Think beyond pre-roll
The term pre-roll is often incorrectly used as a blanket statement for all online advertising. This perception also severely undermines the true potential and usefulness of digital. In Alabama, we bought plenty of pre-roll, but we also invested heavily in social and engagement platforms, bought standalone video and audio inventory, used display and rich media strategically and maxed out what was possible on search. We’ve got to stop thinking of digital in terms of pre-roll only and start talking about digital — and leveraging it — as a multi-faceted way to talk to voters.
Not planning digital in a vacuum.
Campaigns’ media spending is often reduced to a game of percentages that goes something like this: Max out TV points to attain parity with the other side, then divide up some lesser amount for digital, mail and (maybe) radio. Usually, digital ends up between 10-15 percent.
But digital has emerged as a major spending battleground. In September to November 2016 Republicans running for Congress outspent Democrats four-to-one online. In Alabama, we didn’t mobilize Democratic voters and persuade enough Republicans by carving out a percent of a budget.
We took an audience-first approach that maximized reach and frequency with our mobilization and persuasion universes, taking into account where we were strong or light on TV and how various voting groups get their news and information. It’s time to ditch the percentage-based strategy in favor of a people-based approach where all marketing channels are considered together.
It’s all about engagement
There’s a direct correlation between ad recall and the amount of time people spend with content and the actions they take during or after viewing it. To get people to remember your ad in an extremely crowded media environment (like we’re in now) you’ve got to get them to engage with it.
In Alabama, we built a lot of our media around engagement platforms. We used the obvious social platforms, but we also looked beyond just Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Snapchat, for instance, provided a great lens into youth voters.
On Election Day, young voters backed Jones by roughly a 20-point margin, a dramatic shift from 2012. This was the first political campaign to use highly-targeted Snapchat filters. We also turned traditional ad units into engagement opportunities through the use of HTML5 and rich media, embedding interactive content and voting resources directly into standard banner sizes. These received almost twice the rate of engagement than other display units. The metrics were clear — in any way you can, focus on building engagement into your ad strategy.
Voters are getting harder and harder to reach through traditional media channels. In fact, 40 percent of voters now watch no TV at all. This is consistent with viewing behavior in other industries. Digital gives campaigns access to voters who are increasingly difficult to reach, but campaigns also have to adapt to new targeting options as they lean on digital more. 1st party voter lists are a good starting point, but don’t offer enough scale to truly reach and surround a voting universe, especially in high turnout scenarios. Campaigns must look beyond the match and get smart about how they use data to expand the impact of online advertising. By Election Day, we had talked to millions of people who fit our ideal voter profile in Alabama — within that group were the people who ultimately turned out to vote for Jones.
Don’t spread it thin
When digital budgeting is done in the old, percentage-based fashion campaigns are often faced with the challenge of trying to fit all of the audiences they are targeting via other channels into one undersized buy.
The result is diminished impact. In Alabama, we started with our primary mobilization audience, devoted significant resources to reaching and engaging them first, and expanded our targeting as the campaign wore on. Too many campaigns try to do too much with too little. In that scenario, it’s best to pick off priority audiences (see: not planning digital in a vacuum) and build the program with that as the starting point.
The political map has changed dramatically in the last year and things will undoubtedly be in flux until November 2018. But these principles, crystallized on the frontlines of the Alabama special election, are important to understand and put into action as we start the New Year.
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.