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Digital Marketing in Politics in 2020

Jun 2, 2020


It’s a touchy subject to bring up around the proverbial water cooler, right?

But as digital marketers, we can’t let it be.

Love ‘em or hate ‘em, you have to admit that President Trump has forced social media and its uses into the forefront of the political scene.

Even those “unsavvy” baby boomers hear all about the daily Tweets, social media posts and the scandals surrounding the last presidential election.

It’s crazy to think just how large an impact social media has had on our past and potentially our future elections.

There’s just no getting around it.

The Spending Boom

But why should we want to?

Overall political ad spending has topped the $1 BILLION mark ($1.34 billion) reports eMarketer on Feb 16th of this year.

This election cycle’s political ad spend is more than three times the amount spent during the last presidential cycle.

Presidential candidates have spent more than $796.8 million on Facebook, while $243.7 million went to Google.

Bloomberg has outspent all other candidates combined since joining the race in November by more than $10 million dollars.

This year, Google and Facebook have served up 2 billion Bloomberg ads, which works out to 30,000 a minute. (Washington Post, 2/19) In the past year, Trump shelled out $14 million for Google ads (with more than $1 million of that spent in a single week of September after House Democrats announced the impeachment inquiry) and over $25 million worth of Facebook ads.

Billionaire investor Tom Steyer was a big spender with $13.4 million and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg comes in third at $9.3 million.

After spending big on digital ads to kick-start his campaign, former Vice President Joe Biden has fallen behind his Democratic primary opponents in the digital ad race. (, Nov, 2019)

This is big money here, people. And although the lion’s share is spent on Facebook and Google, there’s plenty of advertising dollars to go around.

Bottom line is: There is Money. To. Be. Made.

But you have to know how to navigate through the restrictions and strategies available to make your candidate’s campaign a success – be it on a national or local level.

Spending levels by candidate (Statista – Jan 5, 2019-Feb 1, 2020)

candidate digital marketing spend

Traditional Political Advertising Still Reigns Supreme

Historically local television still will see a major windfall from political advertising as it has in the past, and according to Forbes magazine (Brad Adgate, Sept 3, 2019) Kantar Media CMAG group estimates that political ads for the 2020 election could reach $6 billion.

Others predict spending could reach $10 BILLION, which is almost 60% more than the estimate from just 4 years ago.

According to a poll created by Borrell Associates and cited by the Wall Street Journal, 2020 presidential candidates were projected to spend $2.90 billion on digital and online ads.

In 2016, presidential candidates spent $1.40 billion and in 2012 presidential candidates spent $160 million.

That’s a huuuuge growth in digital ad spend.

political spend on social media

The History Of Politics And Marketing

You may think that the shift to political advertising is the first major “technology shift” to affect the outcome of an election.

So before we go any further, there is a story that needs to be shared to illustrate that this has indeed happened in the past.

The impact of technology on political campaigns is not a new concept!

In 1950, only 11 percent of American homes had television; by 1960, the number had jumped to 88 percent.

An estimated seventy million Americans, about two-thirds of the electorate, watched the first debate on September 26th.

Young, handsome presidential candidate John F. Kennedy took the time to meet with the producers of the debate to review the camera placement and the look and feel of the set.

President Nixon was unable to take advantage of this opportunity due to a medical injury.

Kennedy chose his wardrobe carefully to stand out against the television set background.

Nixon wore a gray suit and appeared to blend in with the background.

JFK spoke directly to the camera and the television viewers. Nixon appeared to be responding directly to Kennedy.

Interestingly enough, viewers who watched reportedly felt that Kennedy won the debate, while viewers who were only able to listen to the debate on radio sided with Nixon.

Many think this first strong encounter on the television screen shaped the debates and election to come.

President Kennedy embraced and took advantage of the new technology at hand to enhance his campaign and go on to win the 1960 Presidential election.

Of course, this is an oversimplified view of the election process, but there is no doubt that technology had an impact on the campaign – just as digital marketing plays an important role and impacts our campaigns today.

Just as JFK embraced TV back in the late 50’s and early 60’s, so must every candidate at every level embrace the use of digital marketing to enhance their campaign – or risk getting left behind.

Television wasn’t the first major impact on political advertising, and our current version of digital marketing is surely not the last.

Now, let’s get back to 2020 and the restrictions and strategies you’ll need to know about in this upcoming election year.

How Social Media Platforms Are Cracking Down On Political Ads

The FEC (Federal Election Commission) clearly outlines the requirements in political advertising, including print and TV ads. The rules and disclaimer requirements are very specific.

However, the digital arena is an ever-changing environment where changes by one platform put pressure on another platform to follow suit with restrictions and changes.

As it stands now, here are new restrictions to worry about that may not affect your non-political digital marketing campaigns.

Facebook announced that its policy would be to not fact-check content posted by politicians, whether paid or organic.

A recent eMarketer study seems to indicate that a majority of potential voters think that political ads should be banned.

banning political facebook ads

Last month, Google, which of course also owns YouTube, and has always restricted granular microtargeting of election ads, announced that it would limit certain types of political ad targeting, but made no change in allowing politicians to run false ads.

It’s against their policies for any advertiser to make a false claim—whether it’s a claim about the price of a chair or a claim that you can vote by text message, that election day is postponed, or that a candidate has died.

To make this more explicit, they’re clarifying ads policies and adding examples to show how policies prohibit things like “deep fakes” (doctored and manipulated media), misleading claims about the census process, and ads or destinations making demonstrably false claims that could significantly undermine participation or trust in an electoral or democratic process (Google).

Google says it would allow political advertisers to use only three types of audience targeting when buying media: age, gender, and location down to the ZIP code level.

The normally valuable tool “Customer Match” (where campaigns can upload a list of prospective voters’ emails or phone numbers and then have that “matched” with their online profiles) will no longer be available to political candidates.

Political advertisers can, of course, continue to do contextual targeting, such as serving ads to people reading or watching a story about, say, the economy.

This will align Google’s approach to election ads with long-established practices in media such as TV, radio, and print, and result in election ads being more widely seen and available for public discussion.

Twitter, who came in third in line of where the dollars are being spent, announced that it will no longer run political ads.

It has since backtracked somewhat on it’s position, but restrictions remain.

The platform still plans to allow certain groups to advertise on what they consider to be political issues — but only so long as they do not advocate for or against political or legislative outcomes.

This is likely to create enforcement challenges and cause confusion for groups seeking to educate the public about issues. (CNN)

Facebook has come under fire for not doing more to regulate it’s political ads. Amazon, Bing, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Twitch and TikTok’s policies include significant restrictions or complete bans on political advertising.

But even those platforms haven’t completely stopped candidates and groups from exploiting loopholes to promote political messages.

And there are voices on both sides of the table battling over whether these platforms have done enough or too much which restricts our rights to freedom of speech.

What Restrictions Mean

It’s an ongoing battle that does not look to be resolved any time soon.

But we as digital marketers need to stay on top of these actions to ensure that we can run the ads that we need to run on the platforms where we want to spend our budget.

Many argue that the restrictions imposed on social media allow the candidates with higher budgets an unfair advantage since they can afford the high cost of TV spend while pushing out candidates who are taking advantage of the more affordable digital marketing routes.

It’s a constant struggle for all platforms to restrict ads while at the same time providing transparency to the user.

Google says they are expanding the coverage of our election advertising transparency to include U.S. state-level candidates and officeholders, ballot measures, and ads that mention federal or state political parties so that all of those ads will now be searchable and viewable as well.

As each platform continues to refine its policies, pressure on the rest of the platforms is high to uphold restrictions as well.

There are likely more changes to come in the upcoming months.

Either way, we as digital marketing experts follow these changes and trends and will help you determine where and how you can provide a successful political campaign for your candidate.

Digital Marketing Political Campaign Strategy In 2020

We need to be smart and strategic in selling our political ad campaigns.

For instance, if Republicans are looking to pull in the older demographic, Facebook may be the platform to turn to.

Facebook users 45-54 spend more time on the site than any other age group.

Even across the same platform, political advertising strategies vary widely – with some candidates trying to reach an older demographic and some targeting the younger voters.

Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, for instance, targets a younger and more male audience.

Reports indicate that Vice President Joe Biden does just the opposite – ⅔ of his audience are women and a large majority of those seeing his ads were born before 1975.

“Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, more or less, splits the difference between them. She has targeted a Facebook audience that more closely mirrors the projected universe of likely Democratic primary voters in 2020: more women than men (though not by as much as Mr. Biden), leaning older more than younger (but again, not by as much as Mr. Biden).” (NY Times, Oct 14, 2019).

As with any other advertising campaign know your goals, determine your strategy and go after a very targeted audience.

But there are many other platforms and mediums to take advantage of to reach your targeted audience and each of those serves a very important purchase in the consumer journey of choosing a candidate.

By all means, take advantage of the power of social media as most candidates do – target your audience, create look-a-like campaigns, use the many features FB and Instagram now have to offer to reach your desired demographic, but don’t be boxed in by the social-only strategy!

Digital strategists describe three phases of online advertising in campaigns.

  • The first is acquiring new donors and supporters.

  • The second is persuading undecided voters.

  • The third is getting people out to vote. (NY Times)

We can correlate these phases to what we at Conduit Digital so often refer back to as our digital marketing solutions funnel.

We return to this approach because it’s been proven to work time and again.

Politics And The Marketing Funnel

At the top of the digital marketing funnel your campaign will be focused on acquiring new donors and supporters (those out there still doing their research to decide who to put their money behind).

After you get them to donate to your campaign, you want to feed that large audience pool down the funnel toward your specific candidate and then get them out to vote.

This can be done through a series of different marketing tactics or a combination in order to hit your target audience from all angles.

Engagement is just as important here as it is in other types of conversion campaigns.

If the user does not identify with any candidate or party after reading your messages, chances are they won’t take the time out of their busy day to do additional research or get themselves to the polls to vote.

Politics And OTT

With the rise in TV costs, savvy advertisers will jump on the Over-The-Top (OTT) bandwagon as a new approach to reach their targeted audience.

OTT has skyrocketed in popularity as an excellent complement to or coordinated with a television campaign. It will only continue to grow more popular as 5G begins rolling out.

It’s a way to reach the cord cutters of all ages while they are watching their chosen programs on the big screen.

Don’t let your potential candidates overlook this important digital channel!

Politics And Programmatic

Pair this top of the funnel product with an Audience Targeting display and pre-roll campaign.

Those display ads are a close cousin to those pesky yard and roadway signs that the candidates always forget to take away after the election.

We’ve all seen them. 20 signs with the same candidate’s name within the space of 25 feet.

Annoying and invasive as they may seem to be, the frequency ensures that you know that candidate’s name come time to cast your vote at the polls.

And you may just go home and go online to do a little more research about those candidates.

Display advertising can give your candidate that same frequency approach with even some real estate on the ads to include a web address and slogan.

You can reach candidates who are reading relevant content on their phone or at home/work on their desktop computer.

And then….if you draw them to your site, retarget them again to reiterate your strong campaign message!

Event targeting (political rallies, debates, conventions and the like) is a perfect opportunity to gather a pool of potential voters to reach at a later date closer to election day.

You may even be able to pull constituents away from competing candidates by putting a geo-fence around their event location!

Politics and PPC

Although this is counter-intuitive to a normal digital campaign strategy, Pay Per Click may be an option at the Top of the Political digital funnel.

We normally think of PPC as a conversion driver at the end of the consumer journey.

In the political environment, we want the support and donations (conversions) to come in at the beginning of the campaign so that the campaign can continue to the next stage!

Now is when you want to run “Ads” for your candidate that solicit political donations.

You’ll want to drive potential supporters to a strong website or landing page where they can immediately donate or continue down the research stage, where, with additional strong Calls To Action, they can then donate after learning the strengths of the candidate or party in question.

Here’s an example of Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders putting that strategy into action:

bernie sanders ppc campaign

Note the multiple calls to action – Join the Campaign or Donate Today.

Within an ad, there are multiple opportunities to click to donate.

There’s a catchy Description line (“unlike Trump, we don’t have billionaires funding our campaign. But we do have you.”)

If I was an “undecided” or a non-Trump supporter, I might just click in to learn more about this alternative candidate.

The importance of a strong web or landing page plays into this strategy, so it should be noted that you’ll want to make sure the site is user friendly, quick to load, has valuable content at a 15-year-old reading level, and plenty of Call To Action buttons in the right places.

If Form Fills are included, keep them above the fold and make them short – including only information that is necessary!

Politics And Social Media

Now, as you bring potential voters down the political advertising funnel, we again know that social media is a strong platform for those who have expressed interest and are in the consideration phase.

You can use the powers of social media targeting to create a custom audience to show your message to!

But again, there are so many more options to reach those middle-of-the-funnel undecided voters!

In addition to social content and paid social media on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and the like there is a very popular and very effective tool – YouTube!

Politics And Video Advertising

Harness the power of the largest streaming website in the world!

More and more YouTube is becoming a “search engine.” (SEO for YouTube is not far off in the future!)

Especially if you have a candidate with a strong visual presence, why not take advantage of the lesson learned from the JFK campaign?

A strong video can tip an undecided voter in your favor.

Here’s an opportunity for the undecided voter to get to know your candidate on a more personal level – see them smile, shaking hands with constituents, speaking to a hometown crowd!

Even with the recent restrictions, YouTube can still target users based on age, gender and geography.

Make sure to include your important visuals and identify your party or candidate in the first 5 seconds of the video! Keep in mind that for videos that are shorter than 30 seconds – your client is only paying for completed views!

A few seconds of free advertising is never a bad thing! Don’t overlook the power of video!

Middle of the funnel – persuading undecided voters (those showing interest and consideration for a particular candidate or party).

Politics And Email Marketing

If you have email, there’s a good chance that you check it every day. And so does your target audience!

Consider this fact: according to Statista, in 2019, there are 293.6 billion emails sent every day and only 24% of people in the US never check their emails during vacations in 2018.

Personalized, targeted emails utilizing engaging, and captivating creative can reach your candidate’s very targeted audience.

Send an email to those affiliated with your candidate’s party or, better yet, target those younger demographic potential voters who have not yet declared themselves!

They could become followers for life for the cost of the price of chewing gum.

Now that so many of us ready email via smartphone – according to Campaign Monitor – up to 85% of us – email marketing remains a very powerful platform choice.

What It Means For Your Agency

We now have potential voters who know your candidate’s name from the Audience Targeting ads, perhaps reinforced via a strong video OTT or YouTube ad.

Maybe you even were interested enough to make a small donation or volunteer some time!

Now we are in the home stretch!

We need to get the voters to the polls to elect your candidate.

We need that final conversion goal to be met!

Driving traffic to the website and landing pages is still key. What we want to change up now is our messaging!

The research phase is drawing to a close, and now we want to be the candidate that can convince our constituents to get out to the polls and vote! Strong, consistent messaging is key.

Depending on the scope of the campaign, a local candidate can even hone in on dynamic ads which will assist voters in knowing where the polling places are in their area (and naturally recommend voting for your candidate!)

This is the time for frequency across all platforms and multiple screens with your Get Out and Vote! message.

This may be the time to double down on your Facebook or Instagram advertising or to increase the frequency of your YouTube and OTT videos.

These are just some of the potential ways to reach potential donors, supporters, and voters.

Although due to increased pressure from outside sources many platforms are continuing to change restrictions on political ads, there are still solid targeting options to reach your desired audience of voters.

Using the features and strengths of each type of advertising – from Audience Targeting to PPC – we can assist you to formulate a full funnel digital solution that will meet your candidate’s needs.

Do their strengths lie in their spoken content?

Physical presence? Campaigns high in video content may be your answer.

Does your content have strong written content on important social issues? Focus on your website or strong engaging, content on your Facebook page.

Looking to primarily solicit donations and support?

Lead generation type social campaigns and Pay Per Click may be your answers.

A careful mix can bring you success at all stops along the digital funnel as long as your candidates budget is carefully managed.

Soon your election year may mean that voters and potential voters are texted messages about candidates and mass texts may be sent on election day to get us out to the polls.

When you wake up for your morning coffee on election day, your Google Home or Alexa device may remind you to get out and vote and, based on your cross device search behavior, may even recommend a candidate or two for you!

When you get in your car or stop at a stoplight that’s been geofenced, maybe you’ll receive and ad right on your dashboard.

Maybe…when you turn on the biggest screen in your house, a hologram of a political wannabe comes into your living room to talk to you about the issues that are important to you!

Who knows what the next big technology shift will be?

As digital marketers, we’ll be at the forefront of delivering these new and personalized messages.

When all is said and done and another election night is in the books, it will be interesting to assess the data to see how digital marketing had an impact on the 2020 election – at a national AND local level. Our impact is important – it may affect generations to come!

At the very least, the current buzz in the media will perhaps make voters carefully consider the messages they are receiving and perhaps even drive them to do a little more research before committing to a party or candidate.

But one thing is for sure – whether it’s helping your agency to grab a piece of the pie at the national or regional level, or helping a local school board member to get elected – a digital marketing campaign has become a necessity for success and Conduit Digital is here to help!

How We Can Help

At Conduit Digital, we have our pulse on the digital marketing environment, and with our analyst’s vast experience in the media industry, we understand the political environment and how to bring results for your candidates!

We have internal data to guide us in all of our campaign decisions, and with 24/7 reporting, you’ll be able to see those optimizations made to your campaigns as they are made throughout the month.

There are more regulations and more pitfalls to watch out for based on public outcry and privacy and security concerns begin to scrutinize and monitor political advertising and we will be here to guide your agency and your clients every step of the way!

Let us be your watchdog to ensure that your ads will not be restricted or disapproved due to the ever-increasing regulations; we will ensure that your ads have the desired impact on the audience your candidate is trying to reach!

Your agency’s client success is our number one mission! Call to discover how Conduit’s White Label Digital Marketing Services can increase your revenue, increase your client retention, reduce your costs, and grow your agency!









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