As campaigns increasingly incorporate new media into their strategy and budgets, the pressure is on to make sure these new methods are living up to the hype. If you focus on the wrong pieces of your online campaign, you’ll sacrifice time, resources, and possibly, a competitive advantage.  

Here are some of the most common mistakes I’ve seen campaigns make in the age of new media, and, most importantly, here’s how to avoid them:   

1. Forgetting to master the fundamentals

Talking about big data and the latest digital tools is fun. Much like showing a concept car at a car show, it offers an exciting glimpse into the future of campaigning. But the reality is a large number of campaigns still haven’t figured out how to get email addresses at events or at the door, or how to properly code and track the data they do collect. They’re not prepared to deploy the latest tech advances or techniques.

Campaigns without giant budgets or data-crunching departments often struggle simply to get their staff trained on the basics of communicating online or using a proper database. People are becoming more tech savvy in general, but campaigns have a long, long way to go. There’s a natural tension between those who want to use the latest and greatest methods and tools, and those who are faced with the structural and organizational deficits that impede or outright prevent deployment.

Being on the cutting edge might give you a competitive advantage, but it also might cripple your campaign as you struggle to deploy and train on a new system that may or may not work better than the old one. Think Windows 8 or iOS7. Knowing what not to try is a critically important skill for online consultants. Before you get too deep in tech, make sure your team is already mastering basic data collection and communications - and that the resources are there to properly train and manage a whole new list of tech-related issues.

2. Deploying creative that’s disconnected from the strategy

The ad itself is the most important part of the program, and yet this is the online element that seems to get the least amount of attention in conferences. I’ve seen beautiful online creative that is completely disassociated with the desired outcome, such as persuasion ads for acquisition campaigns (and vice versa). I’ve seen acquisition campaigns that have no call to action, landing pages without any connection to the ad itself (or the underlying strategy), and graphics that were meant for large screens shrunk down to unintelligible or unrecognizable blobs.

Don’t let the online creative be an afterthought. Make sure your online, TV, and direct mail consultants are collaborating (more on this below). If the goal is to get signups, the ad itself must ask for that in an obvious way. Sometimes, the best ads tell people what to do in the most basic and un-clever) terms.  I ran a campaign once where the best performing search ad headline was simply “Congress info FL-19” because that’s what people ultimately wanted info on. Anyone experienced with Facebook will tell you that if you want likes, you need to actually ask for them.

As with TV ads, the pacing and motion of online animated ads can make a huge difference in their effectiveness. The best looking, slickest ads don’t necessarily perform the best. Make sure the people creating your ads aren’t simply designers, website developers, or vendors, but that they actually have experience in matching strong concepts tied to sound strategy.

3. Looking at the wrong metrics at the wrong times

Your key performance metrics should always align with the call to action and the intent of the ad. What a lot of campaigns (and sadly, some online consultants) don’t realize is that a metric that looks good for one type of campaign may actually be harmful in another. 

For example: If you’re running online persuasion ads, in pre-roll, for example, the call to action is often going to be “vote/think this way” instead of “click/contribute here.”  Ultimately the goal is to persuade or motivate, and clicks or contributions are actually secondary, or tertiary, benefits. Some campaigns, however, still get the click and acquisition data and erroneously move the goal posts. They focus on data like click-through rates (CTR) instead of the key initial metrics of a persuasion campaign: impressions, reach, frequency, and completion rates (how much of the video ad people actually get through before clicking away). The actual persuasion, of course, is measured in votes and/or polling.

In fact, the click can actually hurt persuasion ad campaigns. If I’m buying banners on a cost per click basis, I’m only charged when someone clicks the ad. The more my target audience doesn’t click, the more persuasion impressions I’ll get to show within my budget. More clicks may actually limit reach and frequency.

While Facebook ads have not been known for their persuasion value (this is changing as the social network moves to larger ads and possibly video), one thing is certain: Facebook fuels word-of-mouth. If you’re only focusing on click-through rates and not overlook things like reach—including the extent your followers’ friends see content related to your page—you’re missing some of the most important metrics.

Conversely, when driving engagement of a website, ad impressions become less important. Depending on how you’re buying the ads, even CTR may not be a good metric. 

Instead, focus on the cost, quantity, and quality of the traffic. How long are people staying on your site and what are they doing when there? Anyone can drive traffic to a website; it takes skill to deliver the right traffic. Think about it this way: An attractive ad casts a big net, but if the bulk of that traffic you’re paying for bounces off the site quickly, then you’re wasting a lot of money. Sometimes, a less attractive ad with a low CTR filters out “curiosity clicks” and drives more quality traffic to the site.

Similarly, in an acquisition campaign, click-through rates and total impressions are less meaningful than the cost per signup, cost per donation, or the volume you are getting. Low CTRs may mean the ones clicking are the ones most likely to sign up, which can be a good thing. Establish with your online consultant—in advance—the specific metrics that are going to be used to judge success, and what metrics might trigger a change in creative or tactics. Hold persuasion online ad performance to similar criteria you hold other persuasion tools, like TV, radio, and direct mail. Make sure your acquisition, and especially retargeting, campaigns start early enough to accumulate both volume and low unit cost.

4. Building Swiss-Army websites that do everything adequately, but nothing awesomely

Not all web traffic behaves the same. People will navigate through your site in different ways, for different reasons, at different points in the campaign. As a result, it’s very common to see Swiss Army-like websites that try to facilitate every task at once without actually being great at one or two.

If the overarching goal of your site is to truly facilitate signups or donations, then all roads should lead to those pages. Every social media or external link that draws people away from those pages (or your website) is a barrier to your goal. Look at your analytics. If 25 percent of your traffic goes from the home page to the about page, then there needs to be a prominent “join” call to action on your about page. All roads must, eventually, lead to Rome.

If new visitors are bouncing off your site without going anywhere, it may be because you’re not giving them a clear reason to move forward, and it’s time to change the graphics on your rotator or the call to actions on whatever destination page you’re sending them to.

Let performance dictate design, and not the other way around. One of my clients (against our advice) insisted on design changes that beautified the aesthetics and increased the prominence of the campaign’s social media components, but significantly lowered our (excellent) email acquisition rates. The new site looked fantastic, but the way traffic flowed through it drastically changed for the worse.

Different phases of the campaign lend themselves to different online goals. To accommodate for the shifting needs of the campaign, you should budget ahead for website changes.  In the beginning, you may want it the website to be more educational and direct people to issues or the about page.  In the heat of the season, it may all be focused on contributions. Towards the very end of the campaign, you may want it to direct traffic to absentee ballot requests, volunteer signups or polling locations. Budgeting for these changes will pay off in efficiency, and allow you to take advantage of the surges of traffic (and varied audiences) that come.

5. Forgetting banner ads

With all the justified excitement about pre-roll, many campaigns are forgetting to do banner advertising, despite it’s much larger reach and lower cost. But there’s a reason that spending has continued to increase for banner and search ads, year after year:  From a cost-benefit and reach standpoint, banners work. Major retailers use them for both branding and acquisition purposes, and the data justifies it. People actually see and click banners.  Many of you own Facebook stock, the value of which is very much dependent on the concept that banner ads actually do work.

Despite banners being around for many years, campaigns are often surprised to know that we can deliver multi-part messaging via banner ads before the click. For example, we often have 15 seconds to work with (sometimes more), for animated or rotating headlines. Banner ads can also provide reinforcement to TV ads as they happen. Multitasking is increasingly common. Ericsson Consumer Lab discovered that 75 percent of TV watchers use mobile or computer devices while they are watching TV. As people’s heads bobble from the TV screen to their own computers or mobile devices, banner ads serving the campaign can be right there, supplementing the headlines of the TV ads. 

Make sure banners are part of the mix and demand coordination between the TV buy and online buy to ensure cohesion.

6. Planning other media as if online doesn’t exist

Let’s assume the spend in your race is fixed among the different media consultants, and the campaign is now tasked with figuring out exactly how the money is spread out within the different channels. For example, a cable buyer needs to put together a buy that targets working-age, affluent women, and they’re trying to determine the distribution among various cable zones within a district.

In most cases, these plans are laid out before a detailed online advertising budget or plan is established. As a result, the cable or broadcast buy is made as if the online buy doesn’t exist or won’t have any effect. But it does. Using the above example, If I determine that the same working age, affluent target is well-cookied and consuming tons of pre-roll in the zips that comprise a cable zone, the buyer might achieve greater efficiency by shifting money towards a different cable zone—or another important audience target.

Similarly, if I can determine that some portion of our direct mail list consistently opens their emails, or is very likely to be online, the direct mail firm can push their budget more towards those who aren’t as active. In the end, this kind of coordination (which would be a given in a traditional advertising agency setting), provides an efficiency and power to the overall buy that simply doesn’t exist when online is silo-ed after the fact.

7. Confusing online best practices with fortune-telling

The next time someone tells you that you should send your most important emails on Tuesday mornings, that they need to have 90 or fewer words above the first ask, or that you need 6 repetitions before someone can remember your message, you’d be wise to show them the door.

Stay in marketing long enough, and you’ll hear multiple variations of these rigid “best practices”, which often don’t verify in best results. For example, contrary to the best practices repeated in some new media training seminars, an Experian marketing study showed that response rates were highest on emails sent on the weekends and between 8pm-midnight, when volume was 2 percent compared to 40 percent volume between 8am and noon. I once had a client that found the best return on Friday evenings and with long detailed emails. You may find your email results have way more to do with your subject line versus timing. There are plenty of factors, but unless you’re doing significant testing, you really won’t know why it worked that time.

Even if you do test, it may not lead to usable long-term guidance: One of the great lessons to come out of the Obama 2012 online camp involved email – and the Obama team’s inability to predict the success or failure of any particular draft. Some of their best emails were long. Some were short. What tested well one week often didn’t work the next. They arguably ran the best, most sophisticated email program in political history, and they found they had to keep mixing it up and take nothing as gospel.  

Past performance should be a guide, not a decree. There are good reasons to send when everyone else following best practices are not. There are reasons to write a longer email when everyone else is following the template. Your candidate might resonate in ways others do not. In other words, while it’s fine to start with what worked in other campaigns, let your own data tell you what your best practices are, and write your own playbook accordingly.  

Brian Franklin is president of Impact Politics, which specializes in campaign communications and new media strategy. He is the co-chair of the AAPC Technology Committee.