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December 8th, 2020

How to do Better Marketing Thanks to the 2020 Elections

Phew! Another U.S. presidential election is in the history books.

Unless you live in Georgia, you can finally take a breather from the barrage of political ads you had to endure over the last few months, on TV, on Facebook, in your mailbox, on your voicemail, and everywhere in-between.

The 2020 races cost a record $14 billion, twice as much as in 2016, and on par with the London and Rio Olympics. The ad budgets of the Biden and Trump campaigns this year would rank them in the top-10 of national advertisers—a list that includes Amazon, Comcast, P&G and General Motors.

The parallels between how to do better marketing and the 2020 elections (or really, all political campaigns) are impossible to ignore.

They both endeavor to promote a brand (a candidate) over its competitors, call upon long-term strategic skills (it's no coincidence they're both called 'campaigns') and short-term tactical agility, and attempt to learn enough about people’s needs and tastes to influence future behavior. It doesn't matter whether the ultimate outcome is a sale or a vote.

But despite the parallels, marketers have historically been reluctant to cross the line and draw lessons from the fortunes of political campaigns. Political ads can be downright negative, manipulative, even dishonest, whereas commercial ads thrive on positivity. Marketers have long feared that consumers’ reactions to political ads could spill over to their own advertising. "We must stop politicians from ruining our reputation," Alex Kroll (former chairman of the 4As) once said.

And yet, if we get past the messaging itself, there are invaluable lessons that can be drawn from the 2020 elections about how to do better marketing.

Lesson #1: Get your media mix right

In politics, local TV is king: In the 2020 elections, 60% of the spending went to local broadcast TV. That’s consistent with what happened at the midterms two years ago. In a sea of misinformation, the Television Bureau of Advertising (TVB) reports that 80% of the population trusts local broadcast TV news.

But an over-reliance on traditional channels (like TV and direct mail) and a lack of focus on digital channels down the stretch might have been the downfall of a number of Democratic candidates in tight House and Senate races. Brand marketers, too, need to be sure that when they put together a media plan, they’re also able to optimize their media allocation along the way, in response to consumer/voter response. Optimizing digital is quick and easy, but TV and direct mail, not so easy. That’s what unified analytics was built for.

Lesson #2: Spend where it matters the most

Nearly $9 out of every $10 spent on TV in the presidential race this year went to Florida, Pennsylvania, Michigan, North Carolina, Wisconsin, and Arizona. Swing states are obviously critically important in a winner-takes-all electoral college system like we have in the U.S., so it came as no surprise to anyone that the Biden and Trump campaigns didn’t spend much time or resources in states where the outcome was a foregone conclusion. Wyoming, for instance. Or Vermont.

Likewise, brand marketers need to measure the return of every advertising dollar and allocate their media budget where it can truly make a difference. But it’s also important to note that Trump lost to Biden in Georgia despite vastly outspending his opponent there ($25 million to $4 million as of mid-October) and that Biden lost to Trump in Florida despite outspending him by $50 million in the state.

Which leads us to the next lesson:

Lesson #3: Be ready to change everything

All the major candidates had been campaigning for months when the pandemic hit. At a moment’s notice, they had to cancel rallies and travel plans, change their messaging, switch their media mix (more TV, more social, fewer billboards), and adapt to the new realities on the ground. For an ‘industry’ that relies so much on canvassing, pressing flesh and looking voters in the eye, this meant some serious adjustment, but one that the Biden campaign navigated much more successfully than its counterpart.

Macroeconomic changes aren’t all as traumatic, thank goodness, but they’re part of life as a marketer. For brands that haven’t yet made the transition, COVID-19 has been a stark reminder that the tools they use to measure performance and manage their campaigns need built-in capabilities to handle factors that are outside of their direct purview. Agility is the name of the game.

Lesson #4: Understand propensity

It’s a buzzword in marketing circles, but it doesn’t make it any less important: propensity refers to a consumer’s likelihood to convert even in the absence of advertising. It’s often mentioned in the context of loyalty discussions: If a consumer is so loyal to your brand that they’re sure to purchase it the next time they’re at the store, you might as well save your advertising for someone else. And if you’re a competitor, you should save your advertising for someone who’s more likely to respond.

But how much credence should marketers give to anyone’s word or past behavior? Political campaigns wrestle with it too. As the election polls showed this time again, people are complex and don't always share their true beliefs or desires, and as a result, voter turnout can be difficult to predict.

The gap between intent and conversion is well known to brand marketers. The lesson here is that propensity at the user-level isn’t a one-time measurement that’s set in stone for all eternity. To tease out the incremental impact of their media investments, marketers need to adopt unified analytics solutions that can account for consumers’ evolving propensity and intent—based on variables like affinity for the category and brand itself, of course, but also distribution, the economy, the weather, competitors’ promotional actions, etc.

Lesson #5: Focus on the right outcomes

Your objective, as a marketer, is to optimize your marketing campaign against a certain outcome. It’s not always sales—it can be app downloads if you’re trying to expand your mobile footprint, or email signups if you’re trying to recruit members, or referrals if you’re trying to engage with your community on social media. But in every case, what you’re looking for is a boost, an incremental lift in that outcome.

The same goes for political campaigns: They ultimately want to draw people to vote for their candidate, of course, but they also aim to raise funds, build lists, register voters, and develop activism along the way. The vote itself can take a number of shapes too, as we saw with the record number of early and mail-in voting in this election cycle. Stacey Abrams’ success in Georgia is a good reminder that local direct response campaigns and advocacy (Onclusive’s Dan Beltramo calls it ‘marketing ventriloquism’) should be high on every candidate’s—and brand’s—list.

Lesson #6: Reevaluate your segmentation

Finally, the 2020 election provides a cautionary tale for brand marketers who have fallen in love with consumer segmentation. While the national Latino vote has leaned liberal in past elections, Hispanic Americans have proven to be far from a monolithic voting block this time around. The strength of the Trump vote among Cuban-Americans and Venezuelan exiles in South Florida caught the Biden campaign and local democrats by surprise. The Latino vote was also very nuanced in church-going communities in North Carolina.

Marketers who collect their own first-party data and take advantage of second-party data marketplaces to enhance that data (with demographic, mobile, geographic, contextual, or even TV viewing attributes) certainly have the raw material they need to create consumer segments that are relevant to them. But it’s easy to adopt a segmentation scheme, get a few successful campaigns on the board, and get complacent. The world is changing constantly, and you need to reevaluate your segmentation regularly.

The election results are still hot-off-the-press, and we’re bound to learn much more in the weeks and months to come about what worked and what didn’t. But the six lessons above about what the 2020 elections taught us about how to do better marketing are a great start. Reach out and we’ll help you put these lessons into practice.





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