How Digital Video Is Developing In A Political World That Prefers TV

polTVUnlike earned digital media, which is reinventing political campaigns, presidential candidates tend to view digital video as support for their flashy TV advertising.

“The hope for digital, in my opinion,” said John Randall, VP of digital at the right-leaning agency CRAFT, “is that by 2020 we don’t even see a difference between TV and online or mobile video ads. But digital does need that wall to break down to elevate within political campaigns.”

With the heavy-spending primary season just now underway, Politico reports upward of $170 million has been spent by candidates and super PACs on television or radio (almost all of it on TV).

Politico estimates that roughly $10 million has been spent on digital ads by super PACs. The actual candidate campaigns add to that number – Hillary Clinton, the highest-spending candidate, allocated $12 million for direct marketing and online media buys, per Federal Election Commission filings last year. But that’s hardly enough to dent TV’s advantage.

One reason TV spend remains a giant is that political campaigns still produce and strategize around content for a television age, not for fractured digital channels that require customization.

“Campaigns have only recently moved away from just bringing their 30-second campaign spot to digital,” said Michael Palmer, president of the conservative data firm i360.

The Bernie Sanders campaign, for instance, is starting to experiment more. Andrew Drechsler, president of the analytics vendor HaystaqDNA, which Sanders uses, said the Sanders campaign has had success following up a big TV buy with digital videos that have slightly readjusted messaging.

This type of optimization identifies segments of potential Sanders voters, hitting them with ads that mimic the larger TV campaign but are targeted to a specific issue group or demographic.

But even as the digital advantage of personalized outreach and targeting becomes a reality for political campaigns, it’s still thought of (and budgeted) as a value add for money left over from the TV buy.

“We’re only at the beginning of being able to incorporate dynamic segmenting and serving,” said Kurt Luidhart, co-founder of the Republican digital agency Prosper Group, which does media buying and analytics for the largest super PAC supporting Gov. Chris Christie’s presidential campaign.

Speed up

Because TV is about reach and digital isn’t, it must clear a different bar: speed. Before political campaigns commit more to digital channels, they need to see faster results.

Matching custom audience segments to television via an addressable set-top box offer like D2, the recent partnership between DirecTV and Dish Network, can take a week or more, according to Drechsler.

He said this pace means it’s “hard to respond to political needs.”

Matthew Dybwad, TubeMogul’s head of politics and public affairs, said candidates and PACs are pushing ad tech vendors to up the pace to meet political timelines.

“For a typical (brand) campaign, there could easily be a seven-day window before you start to take an analytical look at campaign results,” said Dybwad. For a political campaign, news may flare up that makes targeting in a certain region or issue group particularly impactful, but then you’re left optimizing into a tomorrow where that relevancy is gone.

Spending on addressable TV ads, whether via OTT services or data marketplaces like Rentrak and D2, will rival addressable digital ads for political groups. Last October, it took up to four weeks for a campaign to execute an addressable TV buy. Now it takes a little over a week.

Borrell Associates predicted political spenders would pump a little more than $1 billion into digital advertising this election. Digital seems off pace to hit that mark, though experts from ad tech vendors and campaign teams all expect budgets, video especially, to come like a flash flood once persuasion becomes a campaign priority (as opposed to fundraising and email list-building).

It’s important to remember that political campaign budgeting goes beyond just TV and digital. HaystaqDNA also models data across phone banks, grassroots networks, direct mail, polling and other offline channels. Drechsler’s day-to-day work doesn’t involve thinking heavily about applying insights to digital video; he’s worried whether campaign volunteers and employees have been optimally deployed.

It’s easy to forget things like neighborhood signage and telemarketing get as much or more of the campaign budget as all of digital combined. Whether that fact remains a source of frustration or becomes a source of spending for the digital world, we may have to wait until 2020 to find out.

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