As media consumption has evolved over the last decade, successful practitioners have held themselves accountable for studying and adapting to new trends.
It’s no secret that voters aren’t just consuming information from television, but are spending increased amounts of time on their phones, tablets, computers and streaming services.
A recent deep dive report by the Democratic firm Tech for Campaigns (TFC) found that adults spent almost six hours a day on digital media in 2017, double that of 2.7 hours per day just a decade ago in 2008. No wonder spending on digital advertising exceeded spending on TV spots in 2016.
Many campaign strategists cut their teeth in an era when campaigns would budget the vast majority of advertising spending during what was traditionally known as campaign season: the post-Labor Day weeks leading up to voting.
There’s wisdom in the old advertising adage: “Shout loudest when people are paying the most attention.” But there have always been exceptions to the rule.
Before digital was on the scene, campaigns would often purchase inexpensive, rural radio in districts where it made sense. These buys would run throughout the summer to allow for a long, slow burn under the radar. The efficiency of the buy lent itself to building a narrative arc in several parts, raising name recognition and ultimately the appeal of your candidate—sometimes months before voting started.
To be sure, digital is the new rural radio, offering campaigns a cost-efficient means for reaching voters early. But unlike rural radio, it isn’t confined to one geographic segment of society: it’s pervasive, persuasive and potent across all demographic groups.
Moreover, digital is a cost-efficient medium through which to begin targeted GOTV efforts to modeled “turnout” audiences who are likely to support your candidate, but unlikely to participate in an election if not motivated to do so.
GOTV is a time consuming and an often-expensive endeavor through either volunteer resources, or paid efforts at the doors and making telephone calls. And as a staggering number of voters are now casting ballots before election day, as reported by the U.S. Census in April, launching early advertising efforts on digital to encourage turnout among potential supporters is critical.
Now, the recent TFC report shows campaign digital advertising accounted for $623 million of a $9 billion total in political advertising in 2018—roughly 6.9 percent. There were stark differences in 2018 by party in terms of dollars invested on digital, with Democratic campaigns and committees accounting for 56 percent of this spend, while Republican campaigns and committees accounted for 31.3 percent of the total digital spend, after non-party affiliated, independent efforts are included.
Moreover, while Democratic campaigns directly spent five-in-eight dollars on digital in 2018, Republican campaigns actually outsourced to third-party PACs and committees nearly three-in-four digital dollars spent. Republican digital campaigns also started later.
In an environment where there are differences in partisan voting interest, it would serve Republicans well to rip a page out of the Democratic digital playbook. To do that, they need to spend earlier and more often on digital campaigns in order to get a jump in turning out the GOTV universes we need where there is an enthusiasm gap. Why wait until Labor Day when it is cost-efficient to begin a conversation with voters in the months, if not year, prior?
Digital allows campaigns the opportunity to test turnout messages to different audience segments. Whereas a campaign may be able to afford only one TV ad, with a single shot at penetrating the electorate with a key message, digital allows campaigns to run several turnout messages, and to further refine the appeals, until they find what persuades and ultimately mobilizes critical targets.
Data from TFC shows 56 percent of political spending on digital advertising occurred in the final month of the election, with 42 percent of advertisers starting their spending in the final four weeks. This is too late to start a digital campaign, allowing no ramp-up time, no ability to test messages, and no time to adapt.
Not only are advertising rates higher in the closing weeks, but there is more clutter in every advertising medium. Consultants constantly wring their hands about weary voters getting 8-to-10 mailers in their mailbox in the closing weeks of the campaign. Early spending on digital can help alleviate this problem, allowing a candidate to stand out in a less competitive advertising market.
One campaign on the Republican side that clearly and very effectively understands this dynamic is the Trump operation, which invested 44 percent of its budget into digital in 2016. They’re already running a massive digital program as they gear up for 2020. But will Republican candidates for statewide and local offices catch up, even with relatively smaller resources dedicated to necessary GOTV turnout efforts? Majorities in state houses and Congress may depend upon it.
Ashlee Rich Stephenson is a principal & chief strategy officer at WPA Intelligence, a GOP research, analytics, and data science firm.