For Political Campaigns, TV Gets The Glory, But Digital Does The Heavy Lifting

digitalrolePolitical campaigns and causes trust their media dollars to strategists who share their ideological vision.

Despite that seemingly immutable fact, commercial tech is opening up more opportunity by assuming the role of vertical partner to political vendors as a side-long way to access new budgets.

For the past year, Rentrak – recently merged with comScore – has been partnering with i360 (not to be confused with 360i), a data and analytics shop that’s part of the conservative nonprofit Freedom Partners, partially funded by the Koch brothers. While i360 has long reached voters offline, Rentrak helps it extend that reach to digital and TV, said i360 President Michael Palmer.

On the left, the data firm HaystaqDNA, the data and analytics vendor for Democratic Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign, recently partnered with WPP’s Xaxis on a political programmatic solution. “It gives us a strong known entity on the digital platform, and they get a known entity in the political space,” said Andrew Drechsler, president of HaystaqDNA.

These kinds of partnerships are becoming a popular bridge to political budgets in large part because of the Sisyphean challenge of winning political accounts. Despite big budgets, the companies that specialize in political campaigns are consolidated, with limited opportunities for agnostic outsiders.

Once a vendor with a particular specialty is entrenched with a nonprofit like Freedom Partners – which has many digital relationships – it can effectively shrink the market for competing solutions. It’s not like there’s another Koch brothers’ operation they can try to land next.

Democratic tech is less consolidated around a handful of major businesses or nonprofit groups, but there are more category specialists – particularly from the Obama campaign’s early media and targeting teams.

When Hillary Clinton and Sanders pick their chief technologists, you can bet they will be Obama digital vets. Besides individual hires, there is a whole species of technical firms, like Bully Pulpit Interactive, Blue State Digital, 270 Strategies and the Smoot Tewes Group, that sprang out of the Obama campaign ranks with market-leading connections and case studies.

The TV Tradition

Campaigns and super PACs look on digital tools mostly as a kind of TV accelerator, like a booster NASA uses to get a rocket out of orbit and then jettisons.

Rentrak’s role for i360 isn’t about ferrying TV budgets to digital, it’s about making the TV budgets in place more effective.

“(i360) creates segments they use to target, and then we can identify those people in our TV service to optimize what shows or networks they buy on,” said Chris Wilson, Rentrak’s president of national television.

That optimization works differently on a campaign-to-campaign basis.

For instance, a presidential campaign in a battleground state, concerned about oversaturation, might use TV matching to keep target households in the “optimal frequency zone” (roughly eight to 20 ads per week). For more hot-button content, a campaign might balance whether a show overindexes with a competitor’s audience, which Wilson said is an effective way to animate oppositional donors.

Even for a true programmatic specialist like Xaxis, there’s always one eye on the TV spending.

“The unique thing programmatic can provide,” claimed Xaxis Americas CEO Brian Gleason, “is that by looking at the entire digital ecosystem, we can take a broad TV campaign and hone it to the kind of intimacy that campaigns need.”

Digital can be a whetstone for other offline channels as well. Gleason, Wilson and other commercial experts said political spenders want digital to provide intimacy, which can mean more efficient, near-addressable TV buys or building things like phone banks and door-to-door canvassers into a data-optimized model. TV’s scale can’t be replicated, but neither can a 20-minute face-to-face conversation with a well-versed community activist.

Besides the well-worn example of Obama’s 2008 and 2012 ground game, Wilson said current candidates like Sen. Ted Cruz and Sanders have put resources into educating volunteers and optimizing toward human engagement. This is the best possible outcome, he said, though it requires a heavy commitment of time and resources.

HaystaqDNA’s Drechsler said offline assets like door-to-door canvassers or volunteers making phone calls all impact data modeling. TV might be about mass reach, but digital is the funnel through which large audiences are eventually sorted into contributors, volunteers and supporters.

The next step will be applying OTT data. It’s a political necessity because campaigns need to persuade on-the-fence voters, and that persuasion requires video. Right now, however, applying OTT data isn’t happening – but “it’s not for lack of willingness on (political buyers’) part,” said Palmer.

Considering all presidential campaigns combined, Democrat and Republican, would likely not be a top ad spender compared to the biggest US brands, enthusiasm from political groups doesn’t outweigh other concerns.

“It’s only at its infancy right now,” said Palmer, “but what we’re hearing from cable companies and digital providers is that the need for individual targeting in the political space outpaces the demand they get from retail, CPG (and most commercial advertisers).”

Although streaming media reaches a smaller and less politically engaged audience, Drechsler said it’s a valuable cohort that rarely watches linear TV, so there’s only one place to find them.

“Digital will keep winning share,” said Drechsler, “but what digital can do now that it couldn’t in previous cycles, in terms of honing toward an individual, is really allowing us to spend resources elsewhere much more effectively.”

 

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