Advertising Best Practices Revealed By 2018 Midterm Campaigns

The 2018 midterms represented a leapfrog moment in political advertising. Although the goals of a political campaign represent a stark contrast to the brand-building efforts of most advertisers, the urgency with which political campaigns must understand and adjust the targeting and effectiveness of their efforts has yielded new best practices.

Moving from echo chamber to influence chamber. In 2008, Barack Obama was honored by an ad trade publictionas its Marketer of the Year. His 2008 and 2012 campaigns (both of which I had the privilege of working on) were the first to use analytics and microtargeting to reach the right people with the right message.

Then, in 2016, digital campaign strategists applied and extended the data and digital marketing best practices from the previous two go-arounds — but the nature of the platforms had evolved dramatically. Twitter had become fully established as a platform for political discourse, Facebook deepened its audience targeting and ad capabilities, and smartphones had become ubiquitous. More importantly, newsfeed algorithms had created consumer echo chambers within social platforms, which political marketers relied upon to carry their messages to influence voters.



Following the surprises of the 2016 election cycle, political marketers had to take stock of the new digital reality in which they were operating. By 2018, they were armed with a new strategic approach.

Optimizing in the absence of conversions. Political marketing is very different from brand and product marketing. In the latter, your goal is almost always to sell something and you can often directly tie a given ad impression to a sale. This measurability is one of the things that makes digital advertising so valuable.

However, in political marketing, there is no sale. You are trying to change (or reaffirm) opinions and motivate people to vote in your favor. Consider political marketing this way: everyone converts—or doesn’t convert—on a single day, and there is no opportunity to iterate and try again.

So, how can marketers optimize campaigns where there’s no regular conversion activity to track and optimize against?

By 2018, political strategists recognized the need to understand the impact their digital ads were having before people hit the polls. How did campaigns do this? Before launching full-blown campaigns, strategists tested many versions of creative to gauge which ads persuaded people toward their candidates and causes. Their findings helped identify whom to target (i.e., the persuadables), a crucial step that made all the difference in the 2018 midterms.

From politics to products. Brand and product marketers are no strangers to creative testing, nor are they unfamiliar with the branding impact their digital ads can have. But many can glean a lot from the new best practices of the 2018 political campaigns.

For one, even though brand and product marketers can optimize their campaigns as they go, they have the opportunity to dramatically improve results out of the gate by adopting upfront surveying and testing.

In addition, through upfront testing, political campaigns in 2018 were able to identify individuals who had a backlash reaction to their ads. In some cases, up to 30% of the test individuals exposed reported that the exposure had the opposite intended effect. Had those audiences not been identified upfront, the effects would have been devastating in a full rollout: a lesson for brand and product marketers.

The 2018 midterms gave political marketers an opportunity to dramatically improve the way in which they target audiences for maximum ROI. Today’s brand and product marketers would do well to take a page from their books.

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