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Text messaging isn’t new or trendy, but it’s an increasingly popular medium for political advertisers. That was true before the coronavirus swept the country, and now texting is even more important for candidates to connect with supporters without rallies, events or canvassing teams.
The problem is, people don’t want unsolicited political texts. And mobile carriers don’t want hundreds of ticked-off subscribers.
The M3AAWG, a mobile carrier trade group, released new political texting best practice guidelines last week – an early warning that messages from candidates and political parties could be filtered or blocked by mobile carriers.
“Our member companies are reporting significant volumes of complaints about unwanted political messages,” said Alex Bobotek, who chairs the M3AAWG mobile tech committee. Bobotek is AT&T’s senior architect for anti-abuse infrastructure, though he doesn’t represent AT&T in the M3AAWG committee.
Carriers face a real challenge in filtering political texts. Mobile networks register one-way messaging, messages sent in large batches and non-conversational language, such as “reply HERE” or “Text 4567 to Support,” as likely spam. But those traits are common for political texts.
“Peer-to-peer messaging, usually computer-assisted, is making it harder for our systems to separate legitimate from illegitimate messages,” Bobotek said.
Volunteers usually send outreach messages, but mobile campaign tech can make it almost impossible to distinguish texts sent by an individual, often with built-in tech suggesting copy, from automated messages. But campaigns aren’t allowed to send automated message blasts.
The Telephone and Consumer Protection Act of 1991 made it legal for campaigns to call people without consent (everyone’s phone numbers were in the Yellow Pages), but an individual must make the call. With consent, political groups could send automated messages in huge blasts.
The same law holds for text messages. But candidates and political groups rarely bother to secure consent for automated messaging, since they have a known contact list of party members or fundraising prospects, are trying to reach as many people in a district as they can and very few people consent to additional political texts, said Paul Westcott, SVP of the political data seller L2 Political.
Mobile network operators must navigate a tricky course. On one side are subscribers, who want no texts and would be inundated in some districts. But filtering messages entails blocking some legitimate outreach and inevitably wading into fraught politics.
Email providers, for example, filter messages more aggressively, which has made them political targets.
A campaign email sent last week by Sen. Kelly Loeffler, R-Ga., pitched a “digital grassroots movement” to counterbalance Democrats’ advantages online. The email said Republicans lost a Senate seat in Nevada in 2018 partially because 90% of Democrat Jacky Rosen’s emails were delivered to inboxes while incumbent Sen. Dean Heller had a 10% inbox rate.
Political texting “risks failing if it succeeds,” said one Democratic Party software executive.
Since sending texts is cheap or even free for campaigns, it’s something that candidates at every state, city and local race can adopt.
“When every campaign is texting people they don’t have a relationship with, at that volume it’s hard to believe there won’t be a backlash,” the Democratic tech exec said.
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Breakout year for CTV
Dan Sinagoga, VP of political ad sales at Comcast’s Effectv, which recently rebranded from Spotlight, has overseen the cable company’s political business since before the 2008 presidential campaign.
But that didn’t prepare him for the political advertising landscape this year.
AdExchanger spoke to Sinagoga about what political advertising on linear TV, OTT and CTV looks like this year and how broadcasters and candidates are adapting to an election year without rallies or live events.
AdExchanger: Aside from the obvious, what’s different about political advertising this year?
DAN SINAGOGA: In 2018, the buzzword was “everything addressable.” This year the agencies are all asking for OTT and CTV resources.
We’re hearing campaigns are going to be budgeting as much as 25% toward OTT and CTV. That’s more than ever heard from agencies in previous elections for digital.
How has the coronavirus impacted spending and strategy so far?
One challenge is that there’s no live sports or programming. That’s cratered any opportunity to take advantage of the NBA or NHL playoffs or MLB opening games. The Monday Night Football broadcast the day before the election is considered the best lakefront property in campaign advertising. Will that happen?
These changes definitely challenge the typical ad reservations. And the event-based advertising is in the air.
What do you mean?
The money follows where the candidate goes to maximize exposure and get a sense of whether the message is resonating. That’s something we’ve seen pretty consistently since Obama’s campaign in 2008.
It’s an unexpected dynamic that the election is entering more of a primary election mode now, instead of going to the convention later in the summer.
Does that mean we’ll start to see more reserved buys?
I think so. The big reserve spenders are the super PACs. Candidates are on the fundraising trail and spend what they take in. They don’t have the luxury of looking forward and making reservations in the fall.
On the Republican side, there are plenty of PACs. There are some active on the Democratic side, but the primary candidates mostly opted not to take on a super PAC. That levels out now that Biden is essentially the nominee and has endorsed a PAC.
One dynamic that is different is the Trump campaign. They’ve dramatically outraised the Biden campaign and have been able to let the Democratic field go at each other while making pricey reservations (like a Super Bowl spot and YouTube masthead on Election Day).
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• Michael Bloomberg’s digital media agency, Hawkfish, is still at the center of Democratic Party in-fighting, as the Biden team splits on whether to take the enticing resources at a bargain or go with younger operatives with more experience in previous campaigns.
• The liberal candidate Judge Jill Karofsky won a hard-fought state Supreme Court seat in Wisconsin earlier this month. It was the first time voters went to polling booths since before the coronavirus pandemic hit the United States. Republicans pressed to hold the election because the expected turnout would be down in liberal strongholds such as Milwaukee, while conservatives were more open to leaving their homes.
That hypothesis was sound. Karofsky won by performing 10% better with mail-in votes than in-person voters. One judicial race isn’t a trend, but candidates across the parties and other branches of government will remember that skew as they plan for much higher levels of voting by mail this year.