On digital strategy, too many campaigns still don’t get it

This post was written by Authentic’s president, Loren Merchan, and originally appeared as an editorial with Campaigns & Elections.

Some people might be sick of hearing about how Republicans outspent Democrats on digital platforms in 2016. That’s too bad, because I’m going to repeat it: Republicans outspent Democrats on digital platforms by a margin of about 2-to-1. (Republicans outspent Democrats by 3-to-1 on the Google ad platform) when it came to paid digital persuasion. That needs to sink in.

Even worse for Democrats, the GOP wasn’t just ahead in spending. Republicans were executing more advanced strategies. According to Guy Cecil, there is a “knowledge gap” when it comes to digital versus traditional media: “Democrats were making bad decisions,” he said in a recent interview with Politico. And it showed on election night.

The old playbook isn’t working anymore. It’s time to throw it out. For candidates in 2018 and beyond, the landscape looks much different than it did just a few years ago and simply recycling previously used strategies and tactics, particularly for progressives, could be lethal for campaigns.

I’m a digital consultant so you might be questioning my motives here. That’s good. Keep questioning. Question all of your consultants because, as I said, things need to change.

The truth, though, is that many of us just want you to win. I’m not saying you have to work with my firm, though I obviously think we’re the best in the business. I’m saying that we live in a multi-screen world that is constantly rolling out new ways to target and communicate with people.

Recent history demonstrates that not only does it no longer make sense to spend all your money on just one screen, but that each screen needs to be utilized in the right way. Campaigns that primarily run ads through traditional media channels have no chance of reaching some of their voters on a regular basis, if they’re reached at all, while campaigns that don’t invest in doing digital the right way risk alienating voters or just wasting their resources on ineffective strategies and placements.

So stop listening to the same consultants whose experience winning elections is from before the largest eligible block of voters had even taken a U.S. Government class and stop copying and pasting strategies from previous cycles. If you want to win an election at any point in the next few years, you need a new plan.

That starts with integrating digital from day one. And I mean really integrating it. Don’t just call the youngest person on staff your digital director. Don’t just hire a bunch of interns to manage your social media accounts. Don’t let your TV consultant run your digital program and just blast their TV spots across the internet. And above all, don’t keep making us repeat this.

Digital requires strategy and not just anyone can do it. It changes so quickly that keeping up with it is a full-time job. So you need a team that’s committed to it full time. If you’re ready to throw away the old playbook, here are some basic “to dos” to get you started on your new one:

1. Hire a Digital Director and digital consulting firm before you launch and give them a seat at the table

It’s not enough to just have people with digital titles. You need a diverse group of individuals who know what they’re doing and who are offering guidance rather than asking for permission.

Not only do you need to make sure these advisors are included in conversations from day one, you also need to include them in conversations with other media consultants. This doesn’t have to be a war between digital and traditional media (and it shouldn’t be!). The commercial space has already figured out that TV and digital not only work well together but can actually enhance one other. It’s time for the political space to figure that out too.

It’s incredibly important to get your message out first, and then often. Having a team ready before launch means they can take advantage of, amplify, and guide earned media for awareness, persuasion, and acquisition when the candidate announces. Digital provides campaigns with a unique opportunity to do exactly that because it’s flexible, affordable, and relevant. While starting early and continuously running ads on TV usually requires large and constant influxes of money, digital can help maintain a presence with target audiences in key environments (like when they’re sharing opinions on social media, searching for something on Google, or reading a related news article) at a much lower cost.

Digital can also help fill in some traditional media gaps by offering more strategic targeting. This doesn’t necessarily mean digital should always be used to target incredibly small and specific audiences. It could be as simple as making sure the ads only run in Southern Maine or Northern Virginia rather than paying for the entire Boston or DC DMA. By allowing all media channels to have a seat at the table, they can produce and execute a more cohesive media strategy that utilizes the strengths and compensates for the weaknesses of each.

Don’t let digital be an afterthought. Like with anything, there are more options the earlier you start. There are also more opportunities to perfect what’s being done. The best strategies utilize a smart media mix that allows for optimal reach, saturation, and timing.

2. Collect and use digital data to learn about your audience and inform future messaging and targeting across channels.

The data that can be pulled and used from digital channels can help craft and deliver the most persuasive message possible. The way users behave on a site, what interests them, etc. These can help campaigns learn what messaging resonates and even what messaging evokes a negative reaction.

Digital is also a cost-effective tool for testing. Producing and broadcasting multiple versions of TV spots can be cost prohibitive. With digital, we regularly test multiple versions of an ad by creating control groups and dividing audiences. We’re even able to test and run unique messages to different audiences. The data from those tests helps us become more effective over the course of a campaign by honing messaging and targeting to make sure the right message reaches the right voters, rather than wasting money or even having a negative impact if the wrong message reaches the wrong audience. This can then help inform the messaging used on other platforms.

3. Section off budget for digital from the start (at least 30%) and don’t just focus on fundraising.

One thing candidates across the country have figured out since 2016 is that digital is an excellent fundraising tool and should be a major part of any fundraising program. However, the focus on digital frequently stops there.

When it comes to awareness/persuasion and GOTV, campaigns often place all of their eggs in the TV, direct mail, and field baskets. What’s interesting is, while most campaigns and consultants quickly accepted 2016’s lessons about fundraising, most seem to shrug off the lessons about persuasion.

In 2016, Hillary Clinton and her supporters ran about 75% of the presidential TV spots while Donald Trump invested early in digital, spending $8 million in July compared with Clinton’s $130k.

In an interview on Pod Save America, John Podesta said this about the Clinton campaign’s ad strategy: “Our campaign didn’t do enough persuasion through social media channels. I think we relied overwhelmingly on television to do persuasion and used social media largely to talk to our own supporters and our activists. And, in retrospect, when those channels are flooded with information that’s coming from dubious sources, you’ve got to be able to talk to people and get your message across in those areas that people are looking at…that’s something I feel strongly about.”

Priorities USA, the main super PAC that backed Clinton, seems to have learned the same lesson as Podesta and has started working to train progressives on how to use digital: “While many young operatives are trained in press or field work, digital training is typically limited to writing fundraising emails, and it rarely includes get-out-the-vote or persuasion work.”

4. Make testing and trying new things part of your culture.

People always say that it’s important to try new things and be open to new ideas but now is the time to actually do it.

Digital offers a lot of flexibility when it comes to things like ad content which also means it offers a lot of opportunity to build and enhance a candidate’s relationship with his or her constituents by communicating with them in unique and genuine ways. For example, digital is the only platform that frequently encourages candidates to use lower quality visuals, like direct-to-camera videos recorded on a phone, in order to promote authenticity and increase trust. This, combined with digital’s unique targeting capabilities can also more effectively move people up the ladder of engagement.

By segmenting audiences and then reaching them with content based on their key issues, platforms, or earlier engagement, we can create more personal and interesting experiences for them that increase engagement. We’re able to look at the real time data for each of these different ads and can make optimizations as needed, which makes testing much easier and more affordable. But you have to be willing to stop running those glossy TV spots on digital channels and make some uniquely digital content.

There are always a lot of variables to consider when it comes to political campaigns but, no matter what, yours will always be stronger if digital is included early and used to help test, collect data, inform messaging, and communicate with key audiences.

Republicans have already figured this out and they’re getting better at it. Now it’s time for everyone else to catch up.