The Pitfalls of Political Advertising: What The Data Tells Us

A cartoon of an elephant and donkey split down the middle, representing the pitfalls of political advertising.

The political advertising landscape is unique and often characterized by outdated “follow-the-leader” philosophies. In fact, political consultants and marketers often rely less on data and qualitative/quantitative research than their counterparts in ROI-based marketing. This approach leads to significant waste and high cost per thousand impressions (CPMs). Our political advertising experience with hundreds of campaigns utilizing the most up-to-date trends and data shows that traditional political advertising lags about 10 years behind ROI-based consumer marketing. Contact us to get your targeted political marketing ahead of the curve.

A Look at the Digital Marketing Evolution

Here is how digital marketing has progressed over the last decade:

  • 2010s: Digital marketing took over as the dominant advertising channel globally.
  • 2022: Digital ad spending reached an estimated $521.7 billion globally, while traditional ad spending lagged at $303.4 billion.
  • 2024: Ad spending in the digital advertising market is projected to reach US $740.3 billion in 2024.

According to the latest research and marketing trends, the largest and savviest agencies and advertisers have reduced spending on traditional media, spending approximately 70% on targeted digital advertising. This trend means less investment in television, radio, direct mail, and print media. 

However, political advertising is the opposite — still investing heavily in traditional channels. 

Why Political Advertising Lags Behind Consumer Marketing

According to the latest research, political advertising is almost 10 years behind the more efficient, accountable, and effective consumer and B2B-based marketing companies.

In fact, the BIA Advisory Services Report states in its Local Advertising Forecast 2024 that political advertising will be the largest driver of local ad spending in the US, with $11 billion going toward traditional media, while only $3.25 billion will be spent on digital channels. 

Here are some more reasons political advertising is lagging behind:

  • Traditional Mindset: Political campaigns often cite factors like tradition, familiarity, and established relationships with media outlets as explanations for their continued reliance on traditional media.
  • Lacking Data Focus: Unlike ROI-driven consumer marketing, political campaigns often neglect data-driven decision-making and campaign optimization through targeted digital channels.
  • Measurement Challenges: Accurately measuring the effectiveness of online political ads can be challenging compared to traditional media metrics.
  • Fear of Innovation Risk: Campaigns may hesitate to abandon familiar methods and invest in newer and unfamiliar digital advertising techniques.

What is the Impact of the Lag?

This marketing lag has many far-reaching consequences, including the following:

  • Inefficient Spending: Traditional media has higher CPMs (cost per thousand impressions) compared to targeted digital channels, leading to wasted resources and missed opportunities for efficient reach.
  • Missed Audiences: Younger demographics and voters actively using digital platforms are less likely to be reached through traditional media placements.
  • Limited Targeting: Traditional media offers less opportunity for targeting specific demographics and interests.

Recent US elections have witnessed campaigns heavily investing in TV ads despite evidence of declining viewership, particularly among younger demographics. 

Furthermore, political campaigns often rely on outdated tactics like direct mail, which is often less effective than targeted digital outreach.

Finally, many campaigns lack robust digital strategies and underutilize platforms like social media advertising, which offer significant engagement and targeting potential.

Overall, research suggests that political advertising lags behind consumer marketing in adopting and effectively utilizing digital ad placements. This results in inefficiencies, missed audiences, and limits campaign reach and impact.

What About Targeting Older Demographics?

One common objection to focusing on the digital in political advertising is the older population. This demographic is the most likely to actually vote, and many political advertisers are worried that digital marketing will miss them because they’re more likely to see ads on TV or through mail rather than on the Internet. The truth is that even when targeting older demographics, with the proper media mix, you can reach them more efficiently with a targeted digital advertising plan.

Social media and online news use among older adults has grown significantly in recent years. Pew Research Center reports that social networking use among internet users aged 50 and older nearly doubled from 22% to 42% over the past year, and use among those aged 65 and older grew 100% from 13% to 26% during the same period​​. Additionally, in 2021, 45% of Americans aged 65 and older reported using social media, a fourfold increase since 2010​​.

Older adults also heavily rely on email for daily communications, with 92% of those aged 50-64 and 89% of those aged 65 and older using email. Online news gathering is also popular among this demographic, with 76% of internet users aged 50-64 and 62% of those aged 65 and older getting news online​​.

Steps for Improving Your Political Advertising

Political consultants and marketers make a fundamental mistake in not setting key performance indicators (KPIs) to optimize and evaluate their marketing channel allocations. Instead, they focus on selling visually appealing images, videos, and graphics rather than efficiency-based marketing. 

The first step for any marketing campaign is to identify the primary and secondary demographics, gather available quantitative and qualitative data for messaging and targeting, and compare every marketing channel using a universal metric, such as cost per thousand. 

This comparison allows for multiple assessments: 

  1. Determining the lowest possible CPM for reaching the primary and secondary demographics 
  2. Estimating the potential unique reach within these demographics for each channel 
  3. Considering other qualitative and quantitative factors 
  4. Deciding the initial media channel allocation based on this data 
  5. Monitoring KPIs to gauge the success of each channel and optimize performance

For example, one of California’s largest issue-based political marketing firms focuses on impressions and constantly monitors polling to see if they’re making an impact. 

It might be surprising to hear that firms spending millions on political ads weren’t working with or tracking the most critical KPIs in real-time to improve their marketing effectiveness.

Based on ROI and efficiency-based marketing, political advertisers should be making real-time optimizations to stretch their budget further and deliver better results for their clients. They should optimize for the most crucial pre-vote KPI: quality engagement with highly likely voters. 

Quality engagements include actions like watching videos, reading through the website, sharing information, commenting, showing support, engaging deeper with advertising, and taking trackable actions with marketing collateral and websites. In short, they should be creating a marketing foundation off a universal comparison metric like unique cost per thousand.

How to Improve Efficiency in Political Advertising

Political campaigns and consultants must: 

  • Do the math 
  • Take the time to set KPIs 
  • Compare cost per engagement as defined by KPIs 
  • Optimize campaigns with data 
  • Create media channel allocations based on efficiency, not relationships or outdated marketing tactics

Researching what the best ROI-based firms are doing is also crucial. These firms are accountable for making marketing profitable — not just spending money — and are often significantly more efficient than political marketing firms.

Drawing Conclusions

If you plan on running a political marketing campaign or are a do-it-yourself candidate, do not follow the leader or get swayed by fancy graphics. Instead, add more tools to your tool belt by establishing metrics for comparing and contrasting all available marketing mediums and channels. 

Be agnostic and avoid your internal biases when picking a marketing medium. Just because you think local news is the best or direct mail is perfect for politics doesn’t mean it is the most efficient channel for reaching your primary demographic. 

The truth is you may need to do some math and more reach and frequency analysis to achieve an efficient and effective marketing buy developed within your estimated budget. 

Then, as the campaigns are running, develop some measurable KPIs to track and optimize your strategy. KPIs like click-through rate, time on the website, shares, signups, email registers, and video completions are much better metrics than impressions. 

Lastly, call the experts. Our Onymous Media, Inc. team will ensure your political advertising is approximately 300% more efficient than your competitors. We’ve created winning political advertising campaigns for candidates all over the country. Contact us today. 

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