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In consumer advertising, incremental gains count for something. But in political advertising? It's a zero-sum game. You either achieve a goal or you don't.
The 2016 election season produced winners and losers — from the presidency to down-ballot measures and congressional races. For those of us in digital media and advertising who were part of this cycle, there's much to be learned that can be applied for future elections.
The Flow of Ad Dollars Is Based on Trusted Relationships
Advertising, especially in politics, is a people-driven business. As the industry (e.g., media companies, agencies, tech companies, etc.) braced for the election season a year ago, there was a fair number of industry folks who believed that, due to the high number of competitive races, political ad dollars would virtually fall from the sky. All they would have to do was catch them — so they thought. The simple plan would be to send a salesperson to D.C. to drum up business, or even to open an office in D.C. and hire a couple of specialists in the field.
And significant money was spent in the 2016 cycle, but the political winds were blowing it in the direction of marketing consultants who had already cultivated deep relationships with political groups. Most companies with existing political accounts were able to credit them to strong networks, political expertise, and tech savvy.
Political teams knew there was a need for digital capabilities in order to engage the public, with campaigns spending 23% of their social media budgets on mobile targeting in 2016, and 49% toward social, but they worked with partners that they trust to help them execute.
Data and Digital Dominate Political Advertising
Data-driven and digital strategies gained momentum leading up to the election. We saw a large number of down-ballot candidates prioritizing digital ads over other media because of the precise targeting to local audiences.
A rising number of candidates also incorporated more data into their campaigns compared to elections two and four years ago. Local campaigns turned to programmatic advertising for its cost-effectiveness and targeting efficiencies, while agencies managing statewide Senate or ballot initiative strategies emphasized geotargeting in areas where candidates had low support.
Many agencies used predictive modeling to assess how different types of messaging affected the likelihood of turnout and to identify areas where the candidate or ballot measure lacked support. I know of an instance when a campaign team analyzed its supporters and discovered particularly low awareness and weak support with cord cutters, leading them to invest in connected TV platforms. These are real-time data points that can influence the media mix.
Political campaigns increasingly invested in digital by reallocating advertising funds from mail and print to tech-based strategies. But, because banner ads don't inspire the same emotional connections videos do, candidates have continued their love affair with video — and television, in particular. However, they're also creating shorter, punchier, more “raw" videos that play well in digital channels such as social media.
The Data Was Not Wrong
Perhaps one of the biggest stories to come out of the election was how wrong the polls were when it came to predicting the outcome of the presidential election. Many questioned whether the data itself was faulty, but numbers do not lie. How people read those numbers, however, definitely matters.
Keep in mind that data was used for plenty of races and ballot measures, and they served those campaigns well. With the national election, the overall message from many state-by-state polls was that the presidential race was going to be close — and it was. But there were some assumptions made, such as predicting turnout likelihood based on recent voting history, which may have proved incorrect. Interpreting polling and voter file data is crucial to the overall marketing strategy.
The election may be over, but its effects on the advertising and media business are far-reaching. Digital media innovation tends to begin on the consumer side; then the political arena adopts it, and tried-and-true tactics make their way into advocacy.
With the end of this election cycle, issue-focused advertising will now ramp up as advocacy groups petition the new administration and Congress on a variety of causes. I expect real-time, data-driven advertising to play a stronger role in advocacy than it has in the past, especially as marketers become more sophisticated in their digital tactics.