This was an unprecedented year where even media buying was shaped significantly by the pandemic. While it might seem like the fight against COVID makes 2020 an anomaly, we believe the lessons from this cycle are actually an extension of ongoing trends, which will continue long after the pandemic ends.
In fact, viewers’ media consumption habits have changed drastically over the past decade – and as media buyers, our plans must reflect the changing landscape and speak to a wider audience of voters.
To do that, we look at data from previous election results, campaign pollsters, Nielsen surveys, qualitative surveys, cable set-top boxes, and many other sources. We look at plans that worked previously in districts with similar demographics or geography. We analyze overall trends and think about our own media consumption habits.
Data tell us a lot about where and when people consume media, but we need personal experience to understand how watching television, listening to radio, and scrolling Facebook fit into people’s everyday lives. From this, we craft media plans and execute buys best suited to the media habits of voters in an individual district.
Traditionally, campaigns embraced a broadcast-first strategy, spending as much on television as they could afford before looking to cable, streaming, or other media options. Because voters tended to skew older, that made sense – though people over 50 are consuming more digital and streaming content.
Meanwhile, campaigns have created artificial audience segments: persuasion voters in the suburban and ex-urban areas, turnout targets based on race or socioeconomic status. These universes are merging and morphing in unexpected ways, and we would be well-served by revising our assumptions.
This year, for instance, we relied far more on mail-in voting. We adapted our strategy by running paid communications as close to the beginning of the early-voting period as possible. That meant in some states we ran full-fledged communications programs for eight weeks. While undecided people still waited to vote until closer to Election Day, other campaign departments like field and mail saved money by ending direct communication with people who voted early. Many voters enjoyed the convenience and will likely continue vote from home in post-pandemic years.
The 2020 election also showed that just as in previous election cycles, campaigns cannot rely on paid media alone. We cannot speculate about the specific challenges of running a field operation during a pandemic. We know some Democratic campaigns knocked doors safely, while Republicans’ strategy appeared to remain largely unchanged. And everyone from candidate campaigns to issue groups large and small ramped up phone and text banking this year.
We all embrace competitive tracking because it’s important for campaigns to understand where their allies and opponents are advertising. But using it just to chase your opponents’ points is a losing strategy. We instead need to be strategic about reaching out to our own voter targets. We frequently remind clients that our voters are not the same as our opponents’ voters, and our messages are not their messages. It’s better to follow a media strategy playing to your own strengths and reaching your own targets. Merely mirroring your opponent does not make sense, if for no other reason than your opponent might be bad at their job.
People consume media so differently in 2020 than they did in 2018, much less in 2010. We can no longer dedicate so much of our strategy to airing broad messages on network television while giving short shrift to the plethora of streaming platforms, podcasts, video games, and social media options. And the 2020 election showed that with proper communication, we can, in fact, motivate younger people to turn out to vote. We merely need to reach them where they are and communicate with them about issues that concern them.
Moreover, local knowledge is so important. Just as issues like the pandemic, policing, and the presidential race played out very differently in districts with similar demographics, we must pay attention to the different media consumption habits of different areas. It’s possible to do local, tailored buys even in large DMAs. Broadband and smartphone access, which make it easier for people to access digital content, differ widely depending on income level and geography. Radio is the most local of all media, on which people continue to rely especially during the pandemic. Some campaigns figured this out, but others — limited by time, money, and/or ingenuity – have not adapted quickly enough to our new media consumption landscape.
While we’ll be analyzing the lessons learned in 2020 for some time, several trends are immediately clear. Beyond just asking “what went wrong with polling?” we need to ask the deeper questions of “are we sampling the right audience with our polling?” and “are we reaching that audience on the right platforms?” This conversation will continue to evolve as we move beyond the 2020 election.
Casey Bessette and Lauren Richards are partners specializing in media buying for Democratic clients at Sage Media Planning & Placement, Inc.