Political Advertising Report

More Targeted and Trusted, Online Political Ads Challenge TV Ads


When it comes to reaching voters during the election season, television still reigns supreme. But TV has its limitations. Best suited for broad awareness ads, televised commercials offer little flexibility and limited targeting capabilities. As analytics solutions mature, political advertisers are increasingly turning to digital channels to carry out more targeted marketing campaigns and deliver data-driven ads to reach particular groups.

Key Insights:

  • 78% of US adults learn about the presidential election through TV.
  • 65% of US adults turn to digital channels to gather information about the election.
  • 41% of US internet users think they see too many political ads on TV.
  • 43% of US registered votes searched for more information about a candidate after seeing a digital ad.

January 2016 research from Pew Research Center found that 78% of US adults learn about the presidential election through TV, local news, cable news or late-night comedy shows. Though TV dominates as the leading channel for information on the presidential election, digital content is not far behind.

According to the same study, 65% of US adults turned to digital channels to learn about candidates running for office, which make social media, mobile apps and other digital environments ripe for political advertising. Forty-eight percent of those surveyed said they relied on news websites and apps for information.

For millennials—the demographic instrumental in electing Barack Obama in 2008 and again in 2012, partly because of Obama’s strong online presence—the interest in digital content is even greater. For adults between the ages of 18 and 29, social media and news websites or apps were the top two routes for seeking information on the election. This is in stark contrast to other age groups, where cable TV news is still the top channel for information.

A September 2015 survey of US internet users conducted by YuMe showed that TV is still considered one of the most effective political advertising platforms, especially when news broadcasts and political shows are factored in. News broadcasts and political shows were considered most effective for 69% and 61% of respondents, respectively. But digital—thought most effective by 49% of internet users—is catching up.

Calling TV a necessary evil, Matt Ross, advertising director at AOL’s Washington D.C. arm, said, “TV is the cannon, and that’s why advertisers are spending 80% to 90% of their budget on it. It’s how it’s [always] been done. But as time shifting and the fragmentation of media continues, data is one aspect that can help position digital.”

One segment that digital can target is undecided voters. A main goal of advertising is to persuade those who are on the fence about an issue or candidate, but zeroing in on this group through TV ads is virtually impossible. TV-viewer data with that level of specificity is just not available, according to Ross.

Voters also believe they see too many ads on television, but digital ads don’t bother them as much. According to the YuMe survey, 41% of respondents said they saw too many ads on TV, compared with 26% who said they saw too many on digital channels. The survey also found that digital ads were slightly better: 37% of respondents said digital ads were effective, compared with 32% that expressed the same sentiment about TV ads.

Better data is pulling digital channels ahead of television in terms of consumer preference, and will continue to do so as analytics tools continue to improve, Ross predicted. For candidates that want to reach those coveted undecided voters, especially young digital natives as they reach voting age, a digital strategy is a must-have.

Digital Channels Make for Better Targeting

Unlike television, the digital side of political advertising is rich with targeting, analytics and other data-driven tools. While TV is untrackable, digital is relatively easy to track.

Politics-specific audience-segmentation technology, for example, is becoming increasingly sophisticated, enabling candidates to slice and dice voters based on their campaign’s strategic needs. Companies like real-time analytics vendor Neustar offer targeting to suit a candidate’s needs. Neustar recently rolled out Political Audiences, a segmentation tool that groups households into 172 segments, which can then be combined based on demographic, geographic and issues voters care about.

A voter may be focused on the economy or may be concerned about education. “We have attributes that speak to those things, so we can roll those segments up into groups that all care about similar things,” said Lisa Joy Rosner, CMO at Neustar. “Those groups then become actionable because we find them through online media channels. That means a marketer could say, ‘I want to target Democrats who care about education,’ and buy segments that have been rolled up into that audience group to target them online.”

A November 2015 poll of US registered voters by the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) found that 32% of respondents clicked on a political ad when they came across it on a digital channel, and 43% searched for more information about a candidate after seeing an ad. Substantial percentages even took the engagement a step further by sharing it with others, either through an in-person conversation (34%), on social media (28%) or in another online forum (20%).

For ads to really resonate, however, the medium through which they’re served has to resonate as well. Mobile devices represent only a small percentage of where voters see political ads, but the channel can be powerful, especially on Election Day. According to the same IAB survey, only 12% of voters had come across political ads on mobile websites, and even fewer had seen them on mobile apps.

This is a missed opportunity, according to Mike Balabanov, advertising account director at AOL’s Washington D.C. arm.

“The most personal device that voters have is a mobile phone,” Balabanov said. “They’re with it constantly. If advertisers can send the right message using the right data through a captivating video ad or interstitial ad that really speaks to voters, that can really change an opinion and be persuadable. It’s about the emotional connection that a user has to an ad on a phone.”

Mobile devices are critical for reaching key demographics, such as millennials and certain cultural groups. “If you look at Hispanics, our data suggests that those are the largest consumers of media through the smartphone,” said Jerry Hug, CEO of SITO Mobile, a targeted mobile messaging provider.

Geotargeting also opens the door to a deeper level of segmentation, and mobile devices play a central role in providing the location-based data required to run geotargeted campaigns. SITO Mobile’s technology, for example, uses first-party as well as proprietary third-party sources to target voters at specific locations.

And on Election Day, smartphones are critical. “What do people do when they’re waiting in line to vote? They’re on their phones,” Hug said.

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