Advertising tactics need to shift every year to meet the different demands of issue groups. In off-years, public affairs (PA) advertising is aimed at appealing to key stakeholders, such as recently elected public officials, to increase awareness of certain issues.
The work done in off-year campaigns crescendos to on-years. That’s when the foundation for awareness of an issue has been built and will be capitalized on through voter outreach.
Because the audience being targeted with PA advertising is smaller and narrower, media budgets are typically lower than candidate campaigns. That said, these efforts do aim for the same high-frequency contact among the targeted audience, which just happens to be stakeholders instead of the mass-audience targeted by campaign advertising.
This more-focused approach can provide a higher quality of exposure than on-year advertising simply because the ad landscape is less cluttered.
But to maximize exposure correctly in off-years, PA advertisers need to utilize the right tactics. Generally, the objective with off-year advertising is to increase awareness of an issue more so than to drive an immediate action, like registering to vote.
Issue campaigns will be more successful if the ads have a softer call-to-action than during on-years, albeit while using a high-frequency strategy. This approach is enhanced by the less cluttered airwaves and newspaper pages. This media environment creates a more positive experience for that audience, which in turn contributes to increased favorability.
Because off-year PA campaigns are less geared to direct response, they can copy tactics from brand advertisers. For instance, brand campaigns seek to create long-term awareness of a product or company by educating audiences first, then investing the time over months to cement awareness with their target audience. But these campaigns aren’t held to the same timed urgencies that candidate campaigns are, just as off-year PA campaigns aren’t all racing up to the first Tuesday in November.
Like with brand campaigns, the performance of off-year PA campaigns is measured by results that speak to immediate and long-term engagement. Immediacy metrics include visits to key websites, petition signatures or calls to elected officials. But these immediacy metrics are also married with the measurement of these trends over time, which demonstrate unaided awareness.
A PA campaign measures immediate results via click-through rates, but also monitors shifting trends in search lift against keywords relevant to the issue to determine if people are beginning to actively look for related information versus clicking on a banner ad immediately.
Off-year issue advertisers need to understand the immediate impact of their story and longer-term appreciation by the target audience. This approach is supported by media strategies that favor reach and frequency. Reach should be maximized first in order to educate as much of the target audience as possible. Once that desired education level is achieved, ratchet up the ad frequency to cement awareness.
Contextual alignment is another part of the off-year strategy. PA advertising is most effective reaching its targeted audience within news content that’s being accessed to support the stakeholders’ job roles. Just like brand campaigns seeking to reach mothers are going to have more traction advertising in parenting magazines, PA campaigns will be most successful aligning with policy-based content.
As a result, the media spend on awareness campaigns in off-years should be a function of the costs necessary to achieve optimal reach and frequency on the right content channels among a target audience. But where budgets may be limited, reach becomes a lower priority.
Put into practice, if a PA advertiser wants to target members of a key committee but has limited funds, that advertiser should determine which publications cover the issue’s vertical, maximize frequency opportunities there and then seek to increase reach with the same approach across other publications, if there’s money available.
Meanwhile, plan for the transition to the on-year campaign, which will broaden the reach of the effort and shift it toward messaging geared at direct response. The greater quantity of supporter engagements will occur in on-years as budgets increase, but you’ll see higher impact among target audiences based on the work done in off-years.
Jenny is the founder and CEO of InStrat Media, a media strategy and planning firm in Washington, D.C.