Local expenditures are the “invisible force” for political ad spenders, according to Corey Elliott, Borrell’s research director. The most high-profile campaigns – for president, senator or governor – represent a combined 0.5% of all electoral contests to be held in November 2016. About 29,000 races will be for school boards, county commissions and city councils, and while the amount needed for a local or city campaign is only $62,000 (compared to a US Senate candidate, who must raise almost $4 million to remain competitive), “those add up fast,” said Elliott.
Local campaigns will account for 40% of all political ad dollars, but the fractured nature of that spending undercuts its value for digital tech companies. “Historically, very little money has been spent on digital in these types of races,” said Eli Kaplan, co-founder of the liberal digital agency Rising Tide Interactive. Kaplan said this practice is “bizarre,” since the “weirdly drawn” districts and city lines that characterize local races are ideal for digital’s geofencing and targeting capabilities.
The Borrell report said digital marketing was “pocket change” in 2008, rising from $22 million that year to $70 million in last year’s midterms. That trend of upward growth will start “going very fast, very soon,” said Elliott.
Digital channels are expected to absorb 9.5% of all political spending this cycle, which may be more than a billion dollars but is still less than the amount that will be spent on radio ads. Elliott said he was surprised that digital spending will go from being roughly equivalent to telemarketing in the 2016 campaign to on par with TV in 2020.
Politicians’ “adherence to traditional media” stems from logical priorities, said Peter Pasi, a GOP media strategist and VP of political sales at Collective. For instance, a candidate’s biggest challenge may be building name recognition, where TV’s blanket audience may be more valuable than digital’s precision.
Pasi also pointed out that while marketers have pumped money into technology and studies to demonstrate digital ROI, “there is a stunning lack of public research that connects the dots between digital investment and influencing turnout or persuasion.” Digital platforms and publishers have evolved to fill the consumer funnel for brands, but the political funnel (ending in a vote, not a sale or conversion) requires a whole new set of expectations.
Allocating budgets to TV is “a very safe bet” for politicians, agreed JC Medici, Rocket Fuel’s politics and advocacy director. Medici said he anticipates one or two more cycles before political marketers get that level of comfort with digital.
Elliott said mobile and social spending are the driving force behind digital growth. “By the 2016 election, over half spent digitally will be on social,” he predicted.
There are, however, limitations to what social can do for politicians.
Kaplan said that social feeds like Twitter and Facebook have a hard ceiling in terms of scaling campaigns. Social media enables a marketer (or candidate or super PAC) to target distinct individuals – the holy grail for political campaigns, which require census-level data – but that leads to UX concerns because users will only stomach limited sponsored political content.
There’s also the fact that digital video occupies a more valuable piece of the political funnel.
“Search and social are important,” Pasi said, “but they are much lower in the funnel, just below display and video, which are beginning to be perceived as closer to traditional media.”
Digital video fills a need for campaigns, which can’t be content to build brand share through search and display ads because they need to actually persuade new voters.
Pasi said social is competing for budgets with established get-out-the-vote techniques, such as direct mail, phone calls and door-to-door campaigning. Digital video, on the other hand, has the opportunity to carve out its own niche as DC spenders drill down into the digital world.