The Digital Media Trends Political Marketers are Watching in 2018

The November midterm election may seem far away, but political operatives and marketers have been gearing up for this consequential series of events for some time. Centro tapped these folks for “ears to the ground” takes on digital media for political marketing and elections in 2018.

Respondents showed high optimism for digital budgets to increase. And many have an overwhelmingly high belief that programmatic advertising will be important for their digital campaigns. There was also much enthusiasm about audience data. However, proving ad impact to clients was the biggest concern. Contrast that with the minority of respondents being concerned about, arguably, the biggest general criticisms of 2016 elections – polling data and fake news.

Our survey, conducted in April 2018, spanned progressives, conservatives and non-partisan groups among 50+ agencies, consultants and advocacy organizations who focus on this specialty. Read on to learn about our survey results.

Digital on the Rise

There is lots of optimism that digital budgets will increase, with a modest amount of respondents who “don’t want to guess” and very few who think it will stay the same or decrease. In 2018, it remains to be seen if the majority of dollars will be spent with just a few big platforms or spread across a wider range of sites and channels. A marketing strategy with a more diversified digital mix appears to be supported by responses that follow.

Programmatic is Key

The optimism in the rise of digital budgets looks to be tied closely with the enthusiasm surrounding the role of programmatic advertising. We heard a resounding “Yes” from more than 3/4 of respondents, who say that programmatic advertising will be important to their efforts, and not a single respondent answered “no.”

Programmatic technology fuels many of the key elements in a political campaign’s digital strategy, including voter targeting, hyperlocal (aka geo-fencing), cross-device targeting, and connected TV. And it also brings pricing efficiencies and scale that help maximize campaign dollars, whether through self-serve technology or managed service partners. Ideally, these tactics should fit neatly with other aspects of a campaign such as social and search, so that all function with synchronicity.

Data is Still King

When we asked what would be the most promising developments for digital campaigns this year, more than half of respondents selected “Audience data that is higher quality and more readily available.” The second highest response: “Improved technology for connecting offline-online audiences,” also speaks to confidence in data. For political and issue marketers, data is king, despite recent headlines around data usage and privacy concerns. New policies and regulations on governance of people’s data may pose challenges in certain areas, particularly within social platforms, which might explain why social products ranked last among the choices. Perhaps social is reaching a peak, or maybe it just didn’t make an impression (see what we did there?).

Don’t Believe the Hype

Despite the multitude of headlines on this topic surrounding the 2016 elections, an issue that had the least amount of concern is “polling data accuracy.” Political professionals understand the nuances of how polling works, including its limitations. However, they still have a lot of confidence in its accuracy when applied properly. Interestingly, the choice of “Fake news or fake ads,” another headline-grabbing topic drawing tech giants to Capitol Hill for hearings, does not garner much worry, with less than 1/3 reporting concern.

The issue of most concern (identified by two-thirds of respondents) was “Proving advertising impact to clients,” which is reflective of the age-old desire to undeniably prove advertising works, combined with the underrepresentation of digital audiences in traditional polling, and challenges of measuring impact against objectives like opinion shift. Nearly half of respondents cited “Targeting specific voters effectively and accurately” and “Securing/expanding ad budgets” as the other top concerns. These top three concerns may go hand in hand, as the ability to prove effective and accurate targeting, and its impact, are essential to increased digital spending in this cycle and the next.

Uncertain Times

Nearly 80% of respondents believe that the current political environment will impact their ability to achieve outcomes, but most aren’t sure if it will have a negative or positive affect. Sometimes, despite the data science, resource and smarts, a campaign may be at the mercy of political climates that can shift gradually or quickly. As we all know, a lot can change between now and November.

Independently Persuadable

The majority of respondents are focused on independent and swing voters more than turning out the base. This is understandable given the continuing surge in registered independents, up nearly 30% over a decade ago. Independents are critical to most campaigns; and while targeting them is easy, messaging that persuades them can be trickier – understanding the key issues and varying partisan leanings among independent voters is crucial. Now apply that with the challenges of understanding local issues, and one can see why this is top of mind for political marketers.

Maybe Anybody Can Do It

When we asked respondents to pick the best presidential candidate between Oprah, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, or themselves, more than half (36% for Oprah and 17% for The Rock) chose a celebrity over themselves. Though Oprah and The Rock have the immense wealth, visibility and business operations acumen to win a campaign, a little less than half or respondents still believe they’d be better suited for the position than these celebrities. That’s a lot of self-confidence among marketing professionals.