Reflecting on the Ad-Tech show in New York, it was notable how many agencies, demand-side platforms and consultants were on the show floor peddling their expertise in Digital Political campaigning for the 2016 cycle. Clearly, all the “Inside the Cave” reporting and the subsequent onslaught of PR around digital politics has had an impact.
This is not only good, but great, for candidates and voters.
This is especially true in down ballot races that will begin to hit their stride in Q1 of next year. Unfortunately, these down ballot races for city counsel, mayor, selectman, state senator and Congressman are going to be suffering from media dislocation trying to build name recognition and trying to get their positions known in this cycle. Citizens United dollars have driven the cost of television advertising into the stratosphere even for late night and for quirky low ratings cable programming. This puts TV out of reach for the majority of campaigns.
While “door knocking,” street corner sign waving and calls during the dinner hour will remain staples in the campaign process, candidates are expected to look to digital advertising as a legitimate alternative to reach prospective voters at scale.
Digital dollars spent for all races are expected to exceed $1 billion in 2016, an increase of over 5,000% over 2008 when digital really became a factor. What will impact down ballot campaigns in a positive way is the shift to “people targeting” and the growing maturity of programmatic digital advertising. Major advertising platforms have recognized the opportunity and aligned with political agencies to “fill the media gap” with hands on campaign support and to (of course) cash large checks.
But the media problems of candidates are not completely solved. Each of the possible digital advertising venues for voter outreach offers a challenge or two: Social advertising and search word buys are a staple for candidates on every level but the challenge here is reach. Search depends on opt-in participation, and social can be skewed to a gender and a particular voter demographic set. Preaching to the choir is often a good thing but it doesn’t necessarily move the needle on building voter momentum.
On-boarding of voter files has gotten more serious in this election cycle but the challenge is the same for any trade area or retail consumer advertising campaign – mapping people to active cookies means limited match rates. An active cookie is required on your browser to make a match. Matching 30% or even an unlikely 50% of your target voters leaves campaigns with challenges. IP targeting addresses the match rate and reach problems at a household level and certain applications of mobile targeting also help close the gap in selective cases. Mobile targeting, however, is still a specialized application — great for targeting voters at a town hall, rally or a coffee shop, but the challenge with mobile targeting is the requirement of uniform coverage of app installs — which is getting better but is not all the way there yet.
Another key challenge that may become part of 2016 political post-mortem discussions is geo-location accuracy. For some national races and most down ballots campaigns, the need to be able to reach voters at scale has to be coupled with the need to reach the right voters in the right districts. No candidate is going to accept spending that routinely spills outside the district they are running in.
The off-the-shelf audiences on the DSP can only be segmented by the standard geographic and postal filters the ad server supports. Putting aside any commentary on gerrymandering, state congressmen, selectmen, councilmen and state senators do not necessarily represent voters determined by standard geographic coordinates - neatly mapped to postal codes. So while the DSPs and Ad Networks may have “on boarded the voter file,” understand that in order to get past 30% match rates, audience extension is required. Ad networks and DSPs will achieve this by simply selecting standard geographic postal filters and that will often lead to waste.
Agencies and consultants should build custom voter audiences for each of their campaigns whenever possible avoiding any dependence on geographic filtering. Be certain that the voter files are being correctly on-boarded at a district and sub-zip code and household level and fill in the (up to) 70% of the unmatched voters with IP and Mobile providers capable of mapping the voter file to the district boundaries for each race. Even with all the attention being paid to politics in 2016 by digital networks, DSPs and the major digital advertising platforms, accurate district level voter geo-location is not yet a common practice.