Scott Howell is president of Scott Howell & Company, a Republican media consulting firm. Ann Liston is a partner at the Democratic media firm Adelstein Liston.
A billion dollars. That’s how much was spent on television advertising in the 2012 presidential race—$197 million of it in Ohio alone. And, in case anyone didn’t notice, there were a few other races on the ballot too. To paraphrase the late Illinois Sen. Everett Dirksen, pretty soon, we’re talking about real money.
In the post-Citizens United world, none of this came as a surprise. But as the noise of political advertising reaches deafening levels, the pressure mounts on media firms to find ways to pierce through and reach the elusive—and fractured—persuadable voter. What does all this mean for the future of political advertising? Here’s how we see it.
TV still rules the media world
“Don’t put off until tomorrow what you can do today.” The old adage from America’s first media consultant, Ben Franklin, has never been more apt for today’s media landscape. In the past, campaigns have waited until the final few weeks to take their message to the airwaves. But in the food of advertising platforms, expect to see more and more candidates, especially incumbents, shift their ad buying earlier to define themselves and their opponent, beating other players to the punch.
The National Republican Congressional Committee was able to retain its majority this past cycle by employing early messaging as an integral part of its strategy, defining incumbent Democrats in vulnerable seats while at the same time propping up many of their own seemingly vulnerable incumbents. The same holds true in races like Tammy Baldwin’s historic Senate win in Wisconsin. Super PACs affiliated with Democrats were defining Republican Tommy Thompson within hours of his primary win.
And President Obama, of course, was defining Mitt Romney even before the first Republican primary ballot was cast. Some who have surveyed the political media landscape are now putting forth the argument that television is dying, but we think it’s clear that 2012 proved no one can write its eulogy just yet.
Broadcast television is still the only medium that reaches virtually every household in America, with unmatched audience sizes. Even in a DVR-driven world, industry studies show that only 13 percent of commercials in prime time are fast-forwarded, and a majority of people who watch recorded commercials in their entirety do so within three days of the original airdate.
Over the next few election cycles, TV advertising will continue to reach record levels, but as audiences fragment further, digital platforms are sure to take a larger slice of the pie.
Why rob banks?
When asked why he robbed banks, notorious criminal Willie Sutton replied, “Because that’s where the money is.” Today, digital advertising is no longer an experiment for political campaigns. It’s where the viewer is. In a world where you can pause live TV, video chat on your phone and rely on 140-character tweets for breaking news, single platform campaigns won’t cut it.
And while the same concern about fragmentation among television audiences carries over to the digital world, the latter has a significant advantage: targeting. The ability to target different audiences with different messages online is unparalleled. Campaigns not only know where their supporters live but what car they’ll drive to the polls and where they’ll stop for coffee along the way—enabling them to create and place highly targeted ad content.
Ads aren’t just targeted to a particular demographic. They are targeted to individuals with messages as unique as the people receiving them. It’s not quite as effective as a candidate stopping on your doorstep, but it’s darn close.
The Obama campaign was a great example of this practice in action in 2012. With its early investment in digital media and a savvy analytics team, the Obama campaign demonstrated that the return on investment for digital advertising can be high. Democratic candidates in targeted states, who might normally have been on the losing end, were able to utilize and benefit from Obama’s digital superiority.
As these tools become more commonplace, smaller campaigns will rely more heavily on digital, and the analytic targeting pioneered in 2012 will become the norm.
Whether it’s pre-roll, banner ad or promoted tweet, the ways to deliver your message change faster than a teenager’s Facebook status. And though the ability to target online enables us to be more precise with our messaging, the number of digital platforms demands that campaigns produce more content for a sustained period. Gone are the days where a campaign can get by with an introductory bio video and a few Flickr additions on their website, until the television spots can be posted on their site.
Campaigns need a constant stream of new video and messaging content that can be tailored for different platforms. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach. To keep up, traditional media firms will need to broaden their suite of services and find ways to provide large volumes of content to voters, donors, the press, and the DC political community. The rise of these new platforms to reach voters opens the door for a lot more creative content—and experimentation.
Sure, there will still be those remarkable 30-second television ads that become the benchmark for all others, but the digital world erases many constraints. Campaigns get more than one bite at the apple. Thirty seconds can be stretched to 45, 60 or 120. It can also just as easily be cut down to 15. And with the ability to target certain audiences, there’s less of a need to cram a 10-point plan into every piece of communication.
This cycle certainly saw its share of creative content. But the opportunity to be more creative isn’t just a luxury; it’s a necessity. 72 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute. Not one of those minutes goes by where people aren’t subjected to some sort of advertising on their computer, phone or even on public transportation. As people become desensitized to ads, the need to change the formula is paramount.
So what works?
The elusive search for the “secret sauce” reveals that there is in fact no secret sauce. The most successful online persuasion and fundraising communications experiment with different messages, images and content. And because it can be instantly measured, the nimble campaign communicators can monitor and adjust on the fly.
Just as news cycles are no longer measured in days or day parts, but in quarter-hour increments, political campaigns and their messaging firms will need to adapt accordingly. Everything from the way we conduct research to the way we fundraise to the way we message to voters is now in a state of constant evolution. We now live in a mobile society and we must learn to be mobile messengers.
The media firms of the future will only succeed if they embrace the new tools of communication. The best firms will always be the ones producing quality creative content based on sound strategies. But it will be the nimble innovators—those willing to embrace change and challenge conventional ways of communicating—who flourish over the next decade.
Sound strategy and quality creative combined with speed and surgical precision—this is the new norm for success.