How Digital Media Could Help Decide the 2020 Election Winner

Going off what worked in the past isn’t a reliable tactic anymore

Four phones with Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Andrew Yang's photos coming out of each respective phone
Just because a tactic was effective two years ago doesn’t guarantee that it is equally viable today.
Illustraition: Trent Joaquin; Source: Getty Images

Digital media is poised for a major role in the 2020 election season. While we all know that elections are decided based on numerous factors, no one can deny that messages conveyed to would-be voters via media (whether it’s paid, earned or owned) plays a major role in swaying the minds of the masses. Part of what is so significant about digital mediums is the ability of candidates and causes to sway a precisely targeted person by reaching them via tailored ad messages served at the right times in the right digital environments.

The thing about the political advertising playbook is that political consultants and agencies typically draw on history to guide them. What worked in the past should work well for the future. But it’s not as easy as it sounds. Because the media landscape is changing and numerous U.S. elections have been won with tight margins, that historical data analysis of winning strategies requires nuanced interpretation. Just because a tactic was effective two years ago doesn’t guarantee that it is equally viable today. Digital media evolution happens fast.

If I were to interpret how digital media factored into outcomes of the 2016 and 2018 elections, here are elements that will likely be part of a winning digital formula for 2020.

Utilize digital audio advertising

Candidates and causes [can] sway a precisely targeted person by reaching them via tailored ad messages.

While traditional radio still has mass reach, time spent has decreased significantly as more than 30% of listeners now eschew AM/FM in favor of streaming services. For the first time, streaming audio beat out AM and FM radio as the top source of listening among younger demographics, according to Edison Research. Podcasts garner continuous listeners, with 32% of the total U.S. population tuning in monthly. Yes, the audience is there, and yes, the ad opportunities were slow to catch up to the scale, but the technology continues to proliferate and availability of audio ad inventory via programmatic channels has sharply increased. As what happened with video, programmatic technology is likely to give audio a sizable boost.

Increase connected TV spending

Campaigns targeting young voters should have this channel as part of its strategy, but CTV viewing has grown across all demographic groups. Nielsen found that in cross-platform campaigns with ads served across both traditional TV and digital devices, digital ads brought an incremental 16% to the total reach of campaigns aimed at people between the ages of 18–49. To be clear, CTV is not generally cheaper than linear TV buying, but for the money spent, it can be a more effective tactic and is a vital complement to linear TV strategy that should not be overlooked.

Comply with state regulations on political advertising

Various data privacy legislation could hamper how political campaigns advertise on digital media. In 2020, the speed and agility advantage of digital media campaigns may be stunted more than in previous campaigns. During 2018, campaigns were put in precarious positions by digital platforms abruptly shutting down political ads in states with stringent new regulations. Campaigns need partners that closely monitor and ensure compliance with regulations, rather than just pulling the plug mid-campaign. New privacy regulations will impact companies providing audience data or those that heavily utilize them.

Fight disinformation

Disinformation tactics, fake news and hacking will undoubtedly be a factor in this election. In a poll conducted by Campaigns and Elections earlier this year, 82% of political consultants surveyed predicted that digital strategists working on domestic campaigns will become more comfortable using disinformation tactics against opponents, and 87% predict one or both major party presidential candidates will be hacked in 2020. While reputable political professionals don’t endorse these tactics, they have to deal with the repercussions. Campaigns need to be ready to fight back with counter-messaging delivered fast with visibility. This is where media tech with speed, agility and precise audience targeting will come in handy.

Hyper-local audience targeting in swing states

Given the nature of the electoral college and the current climate, swing state battlegrounds will see intensive ad spending. Traditional local news media brands still carry a lot of credibility and should play an important role in state strategy. Additionally, campaigns will require expertise in hyper-local targeting and inventive mobilization strategies.

Re-evaluate targeting focused exclusively on high-propensity voters

After two election cycles where the turnout of infrequent (or previously absent) voters more than doubled expectations, it appears we’re long overdue to re-examine the “Get out the vote” efforts focused on only high-propensity super voters. Turnout trends have pointed to how over-reliance on voter data modeling may have exacerbated the turnout problem. If we only attempt to turn out the most likely voters, is the political marketing process also ensuring those who have voted less regularly continue to be left out of the process?

Whether they’re distributing candidate messages on digital channels, trying to drown out the noise or counter-message the latest disinformation campaigns, political operatives will have an abundance of tools (and ad budgets) to utilize to engage individual voters and drive turnout. Because media attention is fickle and not every campaign is going to have a monster PR machine at their disposal, campaigns will need paid media to accomplish their goals.

But nothing stays stagnant in politics or in digital media. An X-factor could still emerge between now and November 2020. All that campaigns can do is to stick with tactics that fall under their strategic plan, stretch a bit, be bold with new innovations that make sense and keep an eye out for novel ways digital channels can be used to engage.

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