November 22, 2015

In the 2016 political race, a dark horse is advancing without much notice. Digital advertising is poised to challenge the long dominance of local broadcast in sucking up campaign dollars.


Consider these indicators:

  • An August Borrell Associates study estimates that digital political ad spending in the 2015-2016 cycle will pass $1 billion (of a total $16.5 billion).  Borrell also forecasts that digital will account for nearly all of the growth in political ad spending over the four following years and rise to a 26 percent share in 2020, inching close to broadcast’s 37.4 percent.
  • In another August study, “50 States of Waste’ Google and the Targeted Victory consulting firm, argue that a big share of gubernatorial and congressional ads go to an audience that cannot vote for the candidate because they live in another state or district.

    A statewide candidate in Missouri, for instance, buying the two top markets would reach many people who live in Illinois or Kansas. Here In Tampa Bay, I see plenty of Congressional ads for Sarasota or Lakeland.

    The commissioned report argues, self-servingly, that the antidote to that imprecision is more spending on targeted YouTube videos.

  • Besides the aggressive pitch for the targeting capabilities of digital, Google (along with Facebook)  is building out a political advertising division. Hoping to repeat their dominance in general digital advertising, the tech giants are well positioned to capture the new spending as it ramps up.
  • The widely admired success of both Obama campaigns in identifying supporters, engaging them with a series of emails and getting them to vote is becoming the state-of-the-art model.

    “In 2016, you’ll see every presidential campaign, almost all for governor or Senate and about half for the House with a pretty good idea of what to do on the digital side,” Kip Cassano, executive vice president of Borrell, who wrote the report, told me in a phone interview.

    “We are beginning to see the big shift from a mass communication model — throw it out there and some will react,” he continued. “That paradigm is changing radically.”

    The emerging alternative puts a premium on knowing who will vote for you, Cassano said, and it’s a continuous and sequential exercise. The first phase is identification. Those endless emails appealing for small contributions are less about the money than involvement and vesting ownership in the campaign. A final phase aims at broader persuasion and urgency about the outcome.

I see a number of media business implications, assuming Borrell and others are correct.

  • Let’s not shed too many tears for the broadcasters. Borrell sees them still booking $8.5 billion, half the total, in the 2015-2016 cycle as the spending pie continues to grow.  I wonder, however, whether the boom times in TV mergers are assuming rates of growth in the best years of the next four-year cycle that will mirror the last several. That would suggest at least some overvaluation.
  • Quality could be a limiter of digital’s growth.  Banners are unlikely to be especially effective. Ad blocking could be an issue. That points to video and a native advertising style. Maybe video — targeted YouTube shorts — are the way to go. But Cassano said that the most typical format now is a pre-roll that recycles a highly produced broadcast ad.
  • The old broadcast-heavy model works with old people. They watch more news programming and turn out disproportionately to vote.  But political marketers like others cannot ignore millennials and their smartphones.
  • As in the broader competition for digital advertising, a crucial issue for news sites is whether and how they can make their content a lure — against the bigger audience numbers and better targeting of Facebook and Google.

I asked Cassano, whether there is anything news sites — legacy or startup — can do to get their fair share and more, and he replied by email:

Yes, (they can do) several things. First of all, these sites must know who they bring, and understand the value of their audience to the political campaigns they pitch. These people are distracted and time-starved. Any site will get only one chance to make its case. Secondly, the sites must have plans to address the candidate’s needs. Can they help with recognition, fund raising, persuasion, get out the vote, or all four? They can’t blandly generalize “all four.” They must have solid plans for each campaign phase they can address.

Actually, even print newspapers are not without a foothold in the game, though they don’t get much of the action from biggest races. “They are an attractive safety valve,” Cassano said, “especially where there is no availability of broadcast buys.” Think smaller rural cities or ballot issues that need explaining.

A few wild cards that could alter the predicted trajectory, Cassano conceded. Despite the failure of past efforts to curtail political spending, further saturation of both broadcast and digital channels could revive the effort to regulate.

Donald Trump’s campaign has bragged of relying on interviews and other free coverage (or as the pr professionals call it “earned media”)  in place of ads. So that could be an exemplar. Trump and Carson also raise the marketing question of how much to spend and how to court the disaffected voter — even if neither is the general election candidate.

PoliticalAdvertisingOutlook PerPersonThe report (available for purchase from Borrell) include other nuggets of interest. It forecasts $51.39 spending per eligible voter nationally in 2016. And there is variation by state — those with competitive statewide as well as presidential races (Colorado, Minnesota, Virginia, New Hampshire) will see per voter expenditures of $70 plus.

The pair of August reports received light coverage at the time — stories in Wired and Ad Age but only mentions in the New York Times and Washington Post. Both papers do file periodic stories on new marketing approaches, with Times star Ashley Parker making a mini-beat of the subject.

So if the main event or even top races on the undercard should stagnate as stories, the marketing contest will be one more to watch until election day 2016.

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Rick Edmonds is media business analyst for the Poynter Institute where he has done research and writing for the last fifteen years. His commentary on…
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