In the waning days of the 2012 campaign here’s how a blogger at Daily Kos described a late TV buy for a Democratic congressional hopeful in Arizona: “EMILY's List is coming in with a tiny, last-minute TV buy for Democrat Kyrsten Sinema.”   

The blogger was absolutely right—the buy was tiny in terms of cost. What he didn’t know was that this “tiny” TV buy was about to completely dwarf all of now-Congresswoman Sinema’s competition by nearly 6-to-1 on the cable networks.

How did a “tiny” TV buy manage that? We explain it below in our list of four things every campaign manager and consultant should know about the increasing complexity and continued advancement of cable systems around the country. These are lessons that will allow you to better allocate your dollars, increase efficiency and win campaigns.  

Lesson 1: Research the details
No one has ever been fired from a campaign for doing conventional cable buys (just as no one has ever been fired for doing mediocre ads.) This is actually a good thing, because it’s how you can beat the opposition.

Scoring upset victories requires you to break the code of the battleground, and that often means breaking the rules and breaking from conventional wisdom. In this case, it required breaking from conventional wisdom about cable zones. The broad lesson here: dig deeper and research the details that can uncover secret gold mines in cable that conventional buying overlooks.

Let’s get back to that EMILY’s List buy. How did the group buy time for $29 per spot at issue-rate, when the opposition was paying $195 per spot for candidate-rate advertising? In 2012, the cable companies in the Phoenix media market developed new cable zones to allow for “better” local placements. There was even a cable zone created solely on the congressional district lines of the race we were targeting for the EMILY’s List Independent Expenditure arm, Women Vote.  

The candidate campaigns were advertising on a mixture of the cable zones that had the least amount of spillover outside the district—a reasonable approach. But when Meenah Hulsen, our media buyer at The Davis Group, dug deeper she discovered that the Phoenix Interconnect System (a collection of all the zones that covered the entire market) was actually charging considerably less per spot for the networks and programming options we wanted to purchase. Was this logical? Absolutely not. But it was true, and it created an incredible opportunity to take advantage of the anomaly.   

When we presented a plan to Denise Feriozzi and Melissa Williams of EMILY’s List they quickly recognized it as a unique opportunity to influence the primary, and gave the project a green light. After detailed, in-depth research and close collaboration with cable representatives, we were able to purchase programming on the networks that the Interconnect deemed “Tier 3” for only $29 per spot. Those “Tier 3” networks were also the exact networks we needed to purchase based on our polling. For example, MSNBC was classified as a “Tier 3” network on the Interconnect, but ranks at the top of the list for Democratic primary voters.

To put it in perspective, one of Sinema’s opponents was spending $23,118 for 118 spots on cable, at a rate of $195 per spot. In contrast, we were able to purchase 607 spots for only $17,800, at a rate of $29 per spot, and were able to blitz the programming that polling told us was where we desperately needed to persuade last-minute undecided voters.  

So for those of you doing the math, we were able to air 489 more spots than the opponent for $5,218 less than the competition paid for virtually the same programming. Our buy, which may have seemed tiny to an outsider, was in fact dwarfing Sinema’s competition on cable television. Sinema won the primary and went on to win the general election, becoming the first openly bisexual member of Congress.

Lesson 2: Target your voters on key issues
The term microtargeting gets thrown around a lot these days and it’s usually for the wrong reasons. Anyone can claim to “target” women or to “target” men over the age of 55. Real microtargeting is when you are able to find a specific message that moves voters who would otherwise be immovable, and deliver that message in a cost effective manner.

Everyone knows that direct mail is one tool to microtarget, but now cable is too, thanks to the advancements in cable systems across the country. At Joe Slade White and Company, we call it Targetcasting™.

In the Wisconsin recall elections in 2012, we were hired by the Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters to do the media to defeat then-incumbent Republican state Sen. Van Wangaard. Practically the entire electorate was hardened to one side or the other, but there remained a small sliver of undecided voters. We knew the race would come down to a few thousand votes or less. Our polling told us the persuadable voters were ages 40-49, non-college educated, single or divorced and responded very strongly to the issue of cuts to local schools. After a careful analysis, we selected programming across the networks that fit this profile and purchased them heavily.  

While other Republicans won in a landslide, Van Wangaard lost his recall election and Democrat John Lehman was elected. The change in that seat flipped control of the State Senate to Democrats. Exit polls confirmed that our strategy was right: 7 percent of voters made up their mind in the final three days.

Lesson 3: Match your cable zones to your voter file or NCEC report
In the 2012 New Hampshire gubernatorial primary, we felt that our client Maggie Hassan needed to add a fourth week to her primary campaign television buy, but we had to somehow accomplish that without increasing her budget. We couldn’t cut the broadcast buy any lower than it already was, so we needed to figure out how to stretch our cable dollars.

We pored over the cable zone maps and matched them to the NCEC file and compared those results to the voter file. What we discovered was that 62 percent of the likely primary voters lived in cable zones that represented only 44 percent of the overall cost of purchasing all the cable zones in the state. In other words, we could reach 62 percent of our targeted primary voters for 44 percent of what it would cost us to buy statewide cable. We also discovered that the cable zones we wouldn’t purchase in that formula were already covered by our broadcast buy.

In an ideal world, we would have had enough money to reach 100 percent of our expected voters for four weeks on cable, but we didn’t have that option. This newly discovered formula allowed us to stretch a three week cable buy into a four week cable buy to 62 percent of the voting electorate without cutting any spots. Hassan won the primary by a commanding 15 percentage points. You can do this for your campaigns as well by determining the cost per expected- or targeted-voter per cable zone.

In the Niki Tsongas for Congress reelection campaign in Massachusetts this past cycle, we used a similar approach. We matched the cable zones to polling and NCEC data to determine the weighting of each cable zone within the newly drawn congressional district, based on expected vote. From that point, we were able to allocate dollars based on expected vote percentages and advertise more heavily on the zones that covered the new parts of the district.  

We used to joke that in the past campaign managers would spend days poring over maps to fine tune a single volunteer lit drop, but then just hand over a check to the media consultant with absolutely no thought or expectation that the most expensive expenditure in a campaign would be targeted whatsoever. That still happens, unfortunately. But today, the disciplined system of Targetcasting™ allows us to microtarget voter turnout by matching NCEC targeting as well as sophisticated polling data. This lets us go to where voters actually are and target with TV messages that move them.

Lesson 4:  Include a viewership question in your poll
This is a fairly self-explanatory lesson, but it’s often overlooked given the time constraints on survey research. When putting together your poll, include one or two simple questions about which cable networks voters watch the most (you should do this for broadcast as well). You can use the information you receive and combine it with Nielsen, Rentrak, Scarborough or data other media research services to get a much better picture of where you need to be based on programming and networks. The best thing about having these few questions in the survey is that you can really drill down into the crosstabs for your target demographics.

Also of note, you can get an alternate measure of cable penetration among your voting universe that is much more accurate than traditional Nielson ratings. Nielsen pegs the national average of cable penetration at 59.6 percent per media market, which is increasing market-by-market with the inclusions of alternate delivery systems that allow local placements like satellite.

If you have any spill over or your electorate isn’t neatly within a single media market, it’s always a good practice to look at Nielsen’s penetration levels by county to get a more accurate picture. Beyond the county stats, including a cable question in your survey research can provide a valuable look at your electorate as a whole and provide you with crosstabs to work and analyze.

Joe Slade White is a Democratic media consultant and the president of Joe Slade White & Company. He is an award winning veteran of over 400 political and public affairs campaigns across the nation. Ben Nuckels serves as vice president of Joe Slade White & Company.