The Voter Messaging Challenge

AdExchanger Politics” is a recurring feature that tracks developments in politics and digital advertising. 

Today’s column is written by Ray Kingman, CEO at Semcasting.

As the candidates, PACs and parties lean into the remaining 50-odd days before the midterm elections, media budgets are coming into focus for both television and digital. But a mixed ad tech landscape and a polarized electorate will make voter messaging a significant challenge.

Historically, campaign managers and political consultants waited until the last moment to figure out the best way to align and execute messaging online – whether that is through email (2008 and 2012), social (2014 and 2016) or the next hot technology that might emerge in 2018.

In 2016, Facebook was quite appealing for reaching 45% of active US news readers. But following the Cambridge Analytica scandal, data misuse stories and its $30 million apology tour, trust in Facebook is in decline, as is growth in Facebook’s active user population – especially among younger active voters.

So far in this midterm cycle, connected TV (CTV) and mobile hold the most promise even while some of digital’s old limitations remain. Shortcomings in precise targeting and transparency can make voter messaging that much more difficult when facing an increasingly intolerant electorate.

Campaigns still struggle with achieving unique user reach within individual voting districts. Onboarding a voter list is supposed to mean that every registered voter in the district will have a people-based digital ID that matches precisely to a known voter. But that isn’t the case.

With cookie blocking and device match rates at 30-40%, voters get clustered into anonymous cookie pools of 100 or more to mimic scale. Audience clusters make it a challenge to achieve unique user reach, and it is nearly impossible to have transparency as to who is receiving what impression.

At this point, most political operators know to include an IP targeting and mobile supplier to build up unique user reach and close the transparency gap.

In congressional, city and local elections, rigid geographical boundaries define eligible voters for each race. Gone are the days where the only way to buy television time was to buy a DMA that covered three states. Throwing two-thirds of your budget out the window shouldn’t be the cost of doing business.

In this election cycle, there has been an uptick in connected TV programming and video inventory that makes direct voter buys possible. Greater access to custom audiences and CTV inventory on demand-side platforms is now possible, as is geographic buying at a ZIP-code level through some cable services.

The idea of targeting registered voters exclusively at home is also changing in 2018. This looks to be the first election where mobile is going to be a dominating category in digital ad buying. With mobile advertising comes voter mobility. Being able to systemically tie a Starbucks visit to the voter’s registration at home and where they work can now be a basic campaign deliverable. Identifying locations for event attendance, such as rallies and polling places, may turn out to be significant for get-out-the-vote efforts in this cycle.

In the not-so-distant past, when digital political advertising was about buying search and ZIP code segments, there were only “right” and “left” candidates; the path to digital engagement went from selecting a party to pulling registered voters, appending an email and onboarding them. Onboarding party line registrations in a ZIP code or a district only meant that 15-20% of those voters would ever see an ad.

Additional tactics had to be employed to grow unique user coverage. In 2018, we are seeing omnichannel filling out the portfolio with display, social, connected TV and location targeting – all with a mobile device focus and connected to the same target audience.

In the face of this disruption and complexity, one key challenge that will remain for ad tech in the 2018 midterms will be voter personalization.

From hard right to hard left – and every moderate level in between – candidates embracing their chosen ideology want ways to more efficiently align with the voters that will support them.

Campaign operatives are more aware of voter segmentation, message personalization and audience transparency when they engage in onboarding to devices, locations and IPs.

But even as personalization tools and tactics improve, politics still generates a lot of mass media noise, from Trump’s “Make America Great Again” sloganeering to the recently announced House Democrat slogan, “For the People.” The volume of noise will only increase over the remaining 80-plus days, but if you want to see a glimpse of the future of political advertising, look for digital reach and personalization to improve in 2018, especially on mobile and connected TV.

Reaching more unique people on more devices helps every candidate and campaign engage more of the right voters at the right time.

Follow Semcasting (@Semcasting) and AdExchanger (@adexchanger) on Twitter.

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