Why The Open Exchange Isn’t Always Ideal For Political Buyers

polpubDespite the advantages of programmatic buying, political advertisers hoping to go beyond the giant walled gardens owned by Facebook and Google see real challenges with the system. Those challenges include inventory scarcity, placement transparency and auction dynamics that don’t match up with brand spenders.

Publishers who are hankering for political ad spend don’t always have the formats and audiences campaigns want. The Independent Journal Review (IJR) pulls in about 35 million unique readers per month, mostly in a valuable younger demo, which is a high number for political news. But it doesn’t have endless audiences in the specific geos that campaigns want.

“[Political buyers] are layering in data targeting to drill down even further to find a very specific group of people,” said IJR CFO Ryan Coyne. “Inventory from the conventions through Election Day in key states is already getting very tough to find.”

And if you want to buy videos targeting potential voters in October in swing states like Ohio or Florida, don’t hold your breath.

Another issue with buying programmatically is that political advertisers aren’t always sure where their ad will appear. Exchanges and ad networks are familiar with brand concerns over serving ads to seedy content or unwelcome news (like auto ads over car crash coverage). Political buyers require even more robust safety mechanisms, and are particularly cautious about programmatic. 

“There’s a new cautionary tale every cycle. It only takes one screen grab and a badly networked ad to do real damage,” said Jaime Bowers, digital advertising director of the conservative ad agency National Media.

Some exchanges are putting out offers to address specific political “brand” safety concerns. Centro, which sells workflow solutions, also has an invite-only exchange called Brand Exchange, which last week debuted political targeting segments (“liberal,” “conservative” and “political influencer”) for political advertisers buying on news sites.

The inventory in the exchange costs more, but Bowers said the CPM increase is worth it because the inventory is safe for her clients.

But even Centro’s exchange, which sells audiences, has targeting limitations. For instance, The Huffington Post is in Centro’s exchange but political advertisers can’t ensure their ad shows up in the Post’s political reporting as opposed to its general content.

While those guarantees might be available on a direct deal business, the exchange environment limits the targeting granularity.

Of course, those capabilities might not be necessary. Multiple political buyers preferred buying against highly targeted audiences versus specific editorial content.

Another issue with buying political ads programmatically is that exchanges can’t always accommodate the mercurial nature of political demand.

Usually programmatic enables real-time optimization and the ability to pounce quickly on trends. But political news cycles move way faster.

Jason Tate, programmatic manager at the 140-year-old local media publisher E.W. Scripps, said someone from Scripps can call an agency and say there’s a spike the client might want to get in on, but no programmatic tools can match specific advertisers with unpredictable news bubbles.

And even if the programmatic tools existed, Bowers said campaign ads have to go through a more rigorous approval process before buys are approved, so hitting the ground running the moment a story breaks isn’t realistic.

There’s also an added layer of daily fine-tuning required for publisher programmatic teams when it comes to election season, said Tate. If someone isn’t paying close attention to fill rates and inventory floor prices, it’s easy to both miss out on big political buys and to price out brand advertisers.

Ultimately, the irregular buying habits of political advertisers can undermine auctions.

Campaigns will come with a higher floor for what they consider premium journalistic content, but you don’t want the regulars getting chased out by the summer crowd.

And since campaigns tend to spend in large, quick bursts, setting the floor rate on political buys too high can lead to the publisher missing a deluge of spending that would have been worth the lower price point.

Tate described one regular conversation between news outlets’ programmatic execs: “Did you get in on the Hillary Clinton buy?”

“No, dang, I priced myself out of it.”


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