The Rise of Digital Advertising and the Future of Campaigns

December 15, 2018 by TWN Staff

New technology is rapidly changing the ways in which campaigns and candidates interact with voters. For decades, direct mail and other forms of traditional media have been the gold standard in voter communication and persuasion. But new technologies have created an entirely new form of voter communication through social media and digital advertising.

Most of us are familiar with online shopping. Over the last decade, however, the tools that companies and advertisers use have become increasingly precise. When shopping on a site like Amazon, for example, you may have found that you have added an item to your cart but were unsure of the purchase and decided that you would like to think and finish the transaction at a later time. Immediately, you notice advertisement after advertisement for the same item following you across the internet, appearing in banner ads, in sidebars and across social media.

This highly targeted form of advertising is a product of the data revolution. Companies, including social media giants like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube, harvest data on individual users and track their preferences. These databases are vast and detailed, and continue to gather information from other databases like Amazon, Macy’s, and other retailers. Further, banks and credit companies match this information to add to these detailed profiles.

These profiles are not all inclusive, nor are they centrally located. But savvy marketers and advertisers know how to acquire this information to facilitate increasingly detailed profiles that help them in their singular goal — to encourage you to buy more stuff.

Recognizing this vast trove of information, a new industry has sprouted over the last decade focusing instead on voters, campaigns and elections. Matched with a voter file, made available by Secretaries of State and election administrators across the country, these profiles have a different goal in mind. They want you to support a certain candidate or persuade you to support a ballot measure, or even just sign up for their newsletter.

A leader in this space is DSPolitical, who in 2011, during the earliest days of online political technology, ran the same question over in their minds again and again, “if we could somehow match internet users against the voter file, wouldn’t it be a more efficient and more impactful way to reach voters online?”

Partnering with Catalist, the progressive movement’s go-to voter data provider, DSPolitical provides voter-file targeted advertisements to hundreds of millions of online identities and devices. Today, they can reach voters on more than 90% of all available online advertising inventory in the United States to microscopic level. The smallest race they have worked on was a Mosquito Abatement District race in Florida, targeting individual voters down to a matter of street blocks.

The Well News had the opportunity to speak with Mark Jablonowski, Managing Partner and Chief Technology Officer at DSPolitical, who remarked, “The digital advertising landscape combines the precision of direct mail with the richness of television advertising allowing us to serve highly targeted and immersive advertising experiences to individual people. This is something that really should be a component of any campaign’s media mix. We’re living in 2018, almost 2019. We’re not in a world where you can just go point for point on television and call it a day.”

Democrats and Republicans are both using this technology to profound effect, as evident in recent elections, but they use it in different ways. Democrats fell behind in the digital race during the Obama years, although they started with a huge data advantage. But over the years, Republicans have been catching up. And instead of focusing their energy on acquisition, like Democrats, they focused on persuasion in recent elections with larger portions of their budget focused on ads to motivate voters.

Acquisition is focused on using digital advertising to collect email addresses and pool them into a newsletter database, for example, while persuasion is directly targeting voters to change their minds or energize them around certain issues.

“It comes down to money,” Mark continued. “The biggest difference that I’ve seen is that Republicans have adopted a more modern media strategy for persuasion and mobilization advertising than Democrats. You saw in 2016 where Republicans wildly outspent Democrats online. Unfortunately, 2018 was not too far off from that. The Republican Party’s advertising strategy outspent Democrats across the board because they started earlier and they invested at a higher level. I think Democrats historically have really pushed the envelope on innovation, but we don’t always back it up with the same amount of spending that’s found on the Republican side.”  

This was hugely evident in the 2016 election, with largely unknown data operator Brad Parscale running operations for the Trump campaign, with Cambridge Analytica using massive amounts of Facebook and social media data to hyper-target voters on an unprecedented scale. This seemed to catch the Clinton operation off guard, who relied on older systems of digital voter engagement, seemingly complacent with previous technology.

Scott Tranter, founder and CEO of 0ptimus, a Republican digital and data service firm, remarked, “It comes down to two important factors when targeting voters on digital platforms. Who is persuadable and what motivates them? Just because you see an ad that has a guy with a gun doesn’t mean they are going to vote the way we want them to. We need to also use data science to understand them and their motivations.”

As data targeting and science operations have grown over the last ten to fifteen years with advent of digital voter files, a divergence between Democrats and Republicans has emerged in how they approach data for campaigns.

“Democrats are more heavily invested in infrastructure, while Republicans have focused primarily on ads,” Scott continued. As to how this difference has emerged, he said, “You have to look at how these campaigns are structured. You look at the companies that are running these races with big budgets. Traditionally, they have been centered around TV and creative content. The campaign consultants are now sourcing digital operations as profit centers.”

But Scott warned that data is a commodity. “Campaigns usually think in twelve month sprints. Eventually having a lack of foundational infrastructure will catch up and Republicans will have to spend more.”

So what does this mean for the future of campaigns?

Learning lessons from the last few cycles, targeted digital advertising will grow to become the dominant form of persuasion that campaigns use to reach and motivate voters. Our technology is rapidly becoming more decentralized, with new and innovative forms of creative content vying for eyes and attention.

Television advertising is incredibly expensive and generalized. The same with direct mail. With digital advertising, money can be spent far more efficiently with different messages targeting different demographics and communities with minimal overlap. This efficiency gap will continue to grow and we will see a smarter deployment of campaign resources.

And as our online lives continue to become more intertwined with our “real life,” data companies are accumulating increasingly more personal information about us. Paired with publicly available voter files, it’s evident that digital campaign advertising is our future.

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