The field of 2020 presidential candidates has already poured an unprecedented $30 million into reaching voters online this year.
While most are focused on easily measurable list building and fundraising efforts, these campaigns, along with other candidates, PACs, and party committees will soon shift resources to reaching persuadable voters.
But how can they ensure their money is well spent?
Despite press coverage of the power of Facebook ads, it’s not as simple as just putting an ad online on a single channel. Whether capturing peoples’ short attention span, avoiding bots, or delivering a meaningful frequency, advertising is less “set it and forget it” than ever before.
In fact, it’s easier than ever to launch an ad, but harder than ever to make sure it has an impact in today’s fractured and crowded media environment.
These challenges aren’t unique to digital – recent research shows that at least a third of TV ads go unseen, and trust in media is lower than ever. The good news is we have access to better data and tools to identify, analyze, reach, and measure audiences than ever before. But doing so requires a fundamental shift in culture, process, and technology from the way most organizations operate today.
As they’re planning to invest serious resources in voter contact, political advertisers should consider the following:
Plan audience-first, not channel-first.
Every election, we hear the question “What percent of my media budget should be spent on digital versus TV?”
The answer is, it depends on your audience, how they get their information, and the media market they’re in. Campaigns should think about the total amount of times they need to reach an audience across all channels, not in points and impressions separately.
This means – and it’s a scary thought for many – not trying to match opponents point-for-point on TV. And similarly, just because digital spend data is now readily available, avoiding the gamification of a top spot on Facebook or Google’s Transparency Report.
Meet people where they are.
Respect the context in which voters see your content. A person proactively Googling a candidate is in a fundamentally different mindset than someone scrolling through their Instagram feed. The decisions advertisers make about developing creative, targeting an audience, and selecting channels for a media buy need to be made together.
This also means thinking about ads as a part of integrated communications, not a separate silo. Often the role of paid media should be to amplify and reinforce moments and narratives, not to try and break through independently.
Evolve beyond traditional modeling and voter targeting.
For the last decade, campaigns have focused on building persuasion models largely based on messages tested in phone polls and panel surveys. While this dramatically improved efficiency, it’s generally slow-moving, based on signals that don’t necessarily translate to what’s persuasive in the real-world, and casts a narrow net of voters to reach.
Instead, political marketers should focus on prospecting for persuadable voters in the same way leading consumer-focused companies prospect for sales — cast a broad net, run real-world tests, and refine target universes based on what’s actually generating shifts in opinion.
Keep in mind that audience-first marketing doesn’t mean limiting media buys to addressable voter targeting. Extending media buys with smart demographic targeting, identifying new impactful types of media, and driving smart national placements are critical to persuading voters.
Recognize that the same channels have different meanings today.
Effective political media buyers think of “TV” not as broadcast or cable, but as either:
a) The big screen in the household. 35 percent of video consumption for Americans over 18 is via streaming services. And for teens – it’s a whopping 84 percent.
b) Syndicated content that’s consumed on the go. Today, 28 percent of TV viewers watch on a smartphone.
We see a similar change on the audio side. While the average household still listens to some four hours of audio per day, the “share of ear” from streaming audio, podcasts and smart speakers have, of course, shifted dramatically.
Use the right metrics.
There’s a fundamental difference between engagement and persuasion. But the two are often conflated – likes, shares, and clicks don’t necessarily mean that persuadable voters are getting the message. And in fact, content that works for the base can easily cause backlash among a broader group.
Smart organizations will not just test their messages in a controlled environment like a panel or focus group, but tie real-world marketing campaigns to opinions and attitudes to see what’s really moving the needle among the voters who matter.
And when delivering those messages, frequency matters – a lot. While we find different messages take different frequencies to break through, it nearly always takes more than one impression – and separately tracking reach and frequency (and averages vs. medians) is critical for effective media buying.
Optimize for value, not cost.
Campaigns have real fundraising and cashflow constraints, but this shouldn’t take precedence over what might drive meaningful impact. We’ve seen the press focus on the cost of media as the primary measure of success, not what it achieved.
And on a more tactical level, campaign operatives obsess over “working media” ratios, or what portion of a budget goes to the cost of media versus data or ad-tech intended to ensure that media spend is properly targeted and effectively delivered.
This doesn’t mean be spendthrift. There’s limited time, budget, and campaigns and their vendors have a responsibility to be good stewards of donors’ money. But a focus on inputs rather than outputs can limit effectiveness.
Most importantly, don’t forget about delivering a message.
There’s a lot of hype around targeting tactics, new testing platforms, and President Trump’s thousands of Facebook ads. But the reality is, no organization will micro-target its way into a winning message. Groups need to start communicating with voters today in ways that define the issues, address the anxieties they face, and inspire them to take action.
With the average U.S. adult spending half their day consuming media, it’s a tough environment to make a message stick. But by following these principles we hope that candidates and causes, well, some of them, will break through.
Mike Schneider is a partner at Bully Pulpit Interactive.