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Here's What Digital Political Advertising Will Look Like in 2016

Programmatic everywhere
  • February 21, 2016, 11:51 PM EST
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Illustrations: Graham Erwin

For the past 50 years, television has been the most effective medium for politicians looking to reach voters. This is about to change.

According to a report released by the media tracking firm Borrell Associates in August, there will be more than $1 billion spent on digital political ads during the 2016 election season. Though this number remains well shy of what will be spent on television ads during the same time period, it is nonetheless a massive increase from the $160 million devoted to digital in the presidential election cycle four years ago.

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What Brands and Candidates Need to Know About Programmatic in 2016

It's expected that presidential candidates will spend more than $1 billion on digital advertising in 2016—six times what was spent in 2012. The big game changer is the widespread adoption of programmatic buying. Yet mastering this new form of automation is far from easy.

"What You Need to Know: Programmatic and Politics" explains the ins and outs of programmatic media plans for both brands and candidates.

In this way, 2016 is slated to be a transition election for programmatic advertising. As political campaign managers discover digital advertising's powerful ability to reach specific voters with unique messages, ad industry folks are anticipating a breakout year for programmatic in politics.

Digital is where the voters are
There's an old truism in the marketing world that the money follows the eyeballs, and that's precisely what's going to happen this year. Today, the average American adult consumes more than five and a half hours of digital media daily, according to Mary Meeker's latest Internet Trends report. That's a 30 percent increase from 2012.

This figure has steadily risen every year since the last election and will likely continue to climb throughout the first term of President Obama's successor. So it's no surprise that Borrell Associates predicts that the 2020 elections will see a whopping $3.3 billion in digital political spend.

Online media is a lot stronger than it was in 2012
Though significant, the 30 percent increase in time spent on laptops and mobile devices over the past three years isn't the sole reason for the nearly 700 percent increase in online political spending we're about to see.

Online video has also exploded in recent years, giving advertisers more opportunities to reach people with the same combination of sight, sound and motion they use on television. Meanwhile, Web publishers have not only grown in size—BuzzFeed has about three times as many monthly visitors as it did in 2012—but have also taken great strides to make sure people will see their ads by optimizing their design for maximum viewability.

Perhaps most important, mobile advertising—once a wasteland of uninspiring creative formats—has found its footing in recent years. eMarketer predicts that mobile will top desktop in 2016 ad spend. Fact is, there's never been a better time to rock the digital vote.

Data-driven digital travels down the ballot
One of the biggest changes of this election cycle will be that local government candidates are going to start employing the same programmatic advertising techniques as brands.
While this technical expertise has previously been limited to big-time presidential and congressional campaigns, a number of smaller technology firms have cropped up over the past several years with the intention of making it easier for political organizations with small budgets to execute highly targeted online campaigns.

By tailoring advertising messages to precise audience segments, candidates will be able to have one-to-one conversations with their most important constituents—without blowing their entire campaign budgets.

Digital advertising offers the 2016 candidates a great opportunity to speak directly to the group of people who will decide their fate on election night. That's why campaign strategists hoping for a victory party need to start thinking about how they will harness these tools to achieve that goal.

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