Political advertising reached unprecedented heights in the 2019-20 election cycle, with advertisers spending $8.5 billion across TV, radio and digital — and that is not counting the runoff elections in Georgia. Interestingly, outspending your opponents didn’t always guarantee a win, proving that effective political advertising takes strategy, not just expenditure.
It also takes speed. In the political sphere, more so than any other, time is of the essence. Candidates get one shot and one shot only to persuade voters. From the power of local media to the growing importance of OTT/CTV, to the need for turnkey, nimble solutions, the lessons learned from these campaigns will shape the future of political advertising. But it is not just political marketers who can benefit from these takeaways. Let’s consider how brands across categories can use the same strategies political advertisers deployed to drive record voter turnout, to find and engage local audiences at scale.
Think “small” to drive big results
Local news sites and TV stations are the number one trusted media source. That is why candidates spent the bulk of their budgets on local broadcast (48.5% for Democrats and 50.4% for Republicans, according to Ad Age). Localized targeting allows marketers to update their messaging to reflect the needs of a particular audience, therefore creating more personalized, relevant messages. Not only does this lead to more efficient and effective marketing — it also allows advertisers to keep up with customer expectations for personalization. Today’s consumers expect brands to understand their needs and preferences, just as voters expect candidates to understand the issues they care about.
Advertisers expect “local at scale” to be simple and fast
Local targeting is effective but often challenging to do at scale. Let’s use the COVID-19 vaccine roll-out as an example. While targeting customers with content specific to them (their age, eligibility, and nearest vaccination site) would have a larger impact on audiences than a generic, national campaign promoting vaccination, few entities have time to reach out to the nation’s 210 DMAs to coordinate all the media buys and customized creative. In the last election, candidates sought solutions that enabled local buying with “a click of a button.” Election day is an unyielding deadline and, as such, agencies and other marketing partners found ways to make the process as streamlined as possible for buyers, sometimes launching campaigns or making changes within hours. Marketers in other verticals should, and will, expect the same turnkey local targeting capabilities and quick turnarounds political advertisers leveraged.
To reach younger audiences, linear alone won’t cut it
Linear television is the legacy platform for politicians, but last year, digital spending broke records, with Donald Trump investing 39% of his budget on digital and Joe Biden, 25%. (The actual figures were about equal though because Biden spent more overall.) Political advertisers also increased investment in CTV/OTT. While CTV/OTT comprised just 1% to 2% of total political budgets, by some estimations, the increase in demand was undeniable. One poll found that political advertisers considered CTV the most promising digital development for the election cycle.
Political advertisers had to diversify their media mix to keep up with consumer behavior. A growing number of people, particularly younger generations, aren’t watching linear television. To find these voters, marketers had no choice but to turn to OTT/CTV, digital, social, and podcasts. While digital consumption was on the rise before the pandemic, quarantining accelerated adoption. According to Nielsen, total hours spent with CTV devices increased 81% year-over-year during the coronavirus pandemic.
That is not to say broadcast television advertising won’t remain an advertising staple. Successful political campaigns often used national and local spots as their base, then layered on targeted, personalized messaging to drive home their message and find hard-to-reach voters — an approach brands can run with, too
Forget “one-size-fits-all” and let data do the talking
The so-called “secret” to success is the same for any marketing effort — find the right audience. For politicians, that’s people who are going to vote. Reaching these folks takes data, tools, experience, and a mixture of technology and human touch. In the last election, reaching swing voters was particularly important — another strategy made possible with a blend of data and technique.
Likewise, advertisers should make decisions about their media mix and ad type (video vs. display, for example), based on data — not assumption. A company advertising a job opening it needs to fill quickly can use demographic and behavioral targeting to find a qualified job candidate. Whether they reach that prospect on local media or social is irrelevant and depends on who they are trying to reach. Another data-led strategy brands can emulate is creating lookalike campaigns based on a CRM list. While a political candidate may want to target people with the same attributes as swing voters they have successfully converted, brands can target users who “look” like their biggest spenders.
Content creates an emotional connection and therefore, added value
When people turn on “Ozark” on Netflix, “Wanda Vision” on Disney+, or March Madness games on linear on digital platforms, they feel connected to the programming. Smartly targeted marketing messages can build off that emotional connection and more easily win viewers’ trust and attention. You have to start with data, but some political advertisers successfully coupled targeted campaigns with content-led approaches. For example, banner takeovers are a cost-effective way to reach your target demographic on their favorite publication — whether that is People.com or The Wall Street Journal—at a strategic time, be it election day for candidates, or Cyber Monday for retailers.
Never stop learning
Political advertising in the era of COVID-19 was new ground for everyone. Successful agencies optimized marketing in real time and debriefed at the end of each campaign to glean insights to improve the next one. Marketers in all verticals should adopt a “never stop learning” attitude and look for partners that do the same.
Agencies that thrive in the competitive and highly regulated political advertising arena are uniquely suited to support campaigns that combine national scale and reach with localized messaging for brands across verticals. The same best practices that helped political advertisers connect with voters will help brands engage customers across channels, and with meaningful, personalized messaging.
Klarn DePalma, executive vice president at MNI Target Media, joined the company in 2018. Under his leadership, MNI is realizing record-breaking earnings and is expanding its reach. It has offices in more than 47 cities nationwide and its sales force totals more than 80 people, serving more than 1,200 clients. MNI specializes in multimedia targeted advertising, and partners with top-tier national and local online and magazine media brands to deliver highly targeted multiplatform advertising campaigns.