The evolution of modern political campaigns tracks pretty closely with the development of the internet, at least since 1996. The first (major) political campaign to have a website was the Dole/Kemp presidential campaign in 1996 (it’s still reachable!) Howard Dean’s 2004 primary campaign was the first to make a serious effort at raising money online. By 2008, Barack Obama was raising nearly a third of his money online.
In 2012, both Mitt Romney and Barack Obama tapped into the reach of social media platforms to activate their voters. They were also deploying new digital tools like data management platforms to utilize their 1st party data in ways that mirrored brand advertisers.
The trend of digital integration has continued through every election, permeating nearly every aspect of campaigns large and small. Political campaigns have been quick to jump into the latest platforms and apps, and figure out how best to exploit them for reach and fundraising. In 2021, television still reigns supreme (at least in terms of where campaigns spend their money) but digital is getting closer to unseating it.
The Current Landscape
Or is it? I’ll spare you the pain of re-litigating the last four-plus years, but the platforms have started pushing back on political advertising, and even curtailing the organic political content posted by users. It’s no longer the laissez-faire environment of the internet’s early years through 2016. New restrictions are making it very difficult for campaigns to reach voters or raise money online.
To highlight the important changes, by platform:
- Google (which includes YouTube, Search, and assorted programmatic platforms): restricted targeting options for politics; public disclosures of creative and spend amount for any political ad; identity verification process for any advertiser on their platform (this was originally for political advertisers only, but now applies to all advertisers on their platform.)
- Facebook: identity verification process for any advertiser on their platform; public disclosures of creative and spend amount for any political ad; ownership verification for any page engaging in political/issue advertising; removal of some political targeting options; and since November 5, 2020, a complete pause on all political/issue advertising.
- Twitter: total ban on political advertising.
- LinkedIn: total ban on political advertising.
- Bing: total ban on political advertising.
- Adobe Ad Cloud (a major demand side platform): total ban on political advertising.
- TikTok: total ban on political advertising.
- Spotify: total ban on political advertising.
- Snap: public disclosures of creative and spend amount for any political ad; ad fact checking process before approval.
With these restrictions in place, campaigns are being forced to spend more money on display and video ads (channels which are much less effective for direct response), or churning out more organic content (hoping that something will gain traction.)
But even that organic content strategy is in peril. Facebook has announced that the appearance of political content will be reduced in the newsfeed. While this will make Facebook a more pleasant experience for users (and maybe work to mute a few members of your extended family) it’s one more obstacle for political campaigns.
How do political campaigns adjust?
First: look out for your own self-interest. Be a good citizen online and behave yourself. You don’t have a right to use these platforms, even as an elected official, and you should comply with platform rules. A few basic tips:
- Don’t traffic in conspiracy theories.
- Don’t incite violence, or sympathize with white supremacists.
- Check your facts before you post.
For political campaigns in the United States: your speech on their privately owned and controlled platforms is not subject to 1st Amendment protections. They can manage their platforms in any way they want, and disallow any content that does not comply with their rules (even if they are making up those rules on the fly.) For you to claim they are somehow violating your rights isn’t just false, it’s idiotic. Misbehaving and then blaming the platform for banning you doesn’t make you a righteous martyr; it makes you an asshole.
So what can you do as a political advertiser to compensate for your shrinking platform options?
You can still post organically on the social platforms (with the caveat we noted in the prior section) but even with a high volume of content, it can be nearly impossible to replicate the reach of paid advertising.
Alternatives include some you might already be using, like SMS. If you aren’t using it, know that SMS is a popular way to raise money or to send a quick call-to-action to core audiences. Laws and regulations surrounding the use of SMS are constantly evolving, so work closely with your vendor to make sure your strategy is in compliance.
Email has always been the bread-and-butter of political fundraising and that has not changed. Without social media advertising, it will be difficult to build your own list organically, especially if you are a new office seeker. You can still do a list rental or exchange with another campaign or a list broker, though this can be expensive and have no guarantee of success.
Other, indirect ways to reach voters exist. The Biden campaign worked to cultivate relationships with “micro-influencers” on Instagram, YouTube, TikTok, and other platforms to share campaign messages organically.
The caveat with all of these alternatives is that they are better suited for larger campaigns (Congressional/large county/major metropolitan/statewide) than smaller local races.
If your campaign (or your campaign’s digital vendor) is using one of the major DSPs (DV360, The Trade Desk, Basis, Xandr, MediaMath, etc.) have a backup plan just in case they pull the rug out from under you. Adobe Ad Cloud was a popular choice for political advertisers, but when they announced that they were abandoning the political space, they only gave their clients about 45 days (and within 90 days of the 2020 election, at that) to transition to another platform. You should start talking to other platforms and get to know their strengths and weaknesses. I’d expect one or more of the DSPs I mentioned to follow Adobe’s lead within the next year.
There are second-tier DSPs who can provide you service in a pinch for a lower financial commitment. SmartyAds, Pontiac Intelligence, and Choozle just to name a few. Those platforms have some drawbacks, like more limited inventory, but they will gladly take your money and give you quality impressions.
While Facebook maintains that their current ban on political ads is a “temporary pause”, do not be shocked if it becomes permanent. Or if it does come back, that there will be new limitations on ad targeting (similar to their existing restrictions for housing and employment ads.) Political advertising represents less than one-percent of Facebook’s revenue and they might decide that it’s not worth the headache.
UPDATE 2021-03-03: Today Facebook announced that political/issue advertising will resume on their platform this week! They also included this nugget (emphasis mine):
We’ve heard a lot of feedback about this and learned more about political and electoral ads during this election cycle. As a result, we plan to use the coming months to take a closer look at how these ads work on our service to see where further changes may be merited.
So, political ads are back for now, but might receive some further tweaks/restrictions later this year.
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