Local Races Are Key To Retaking The House, But Attribution For Political Ads Is Still MIA

"AdExchanger Politics" is a recurring feature that tracks developments in politics and digital advertising. 

Today’s column is written by Ray Kingman, CEO at Semcasting.

Borrell Associates predicts the 2018 election cycle will be an $8.5 billion "advertising bonanza."

Given the temperature of the electorate this figure is likely to grow. Unfortunately, fallout from the Cambridge Analytica scandal, including Facebook’s knee-jerk response to throw ad tech under the bus and Google threatening to pull its DoubleClick ID, threatens to cripple political advertisers from proving through attribution that their digital political outreach is performing as promised.

Why attribution will take a nosedive

Digital targeting enables campaigns to segment messaging and voters into buckets, including fundraising, issue-specific calls to action and voter turnout. But without attribution, political advertisers don’t know if they are reaching the audience they intend to serve an ad to.

Successful attribution helps political campaigns in a number of ways. They’ll know how many registered voters they are reaching. They can see who showed up to a rally or campaign event, and they can even gauge whether their advertising is causing voters to donate directly to a campaign. This information will be paramount in a political season that promises to be red hot. Attribution serves as a valuable "heat check" to ensure that dollars are well directed and well spent to reach those pre-election results goals.

In prior election cycles, political agencies spent primarily on television. Television attribution, such as Nielsen Network Ratings, is a real metric that consultants can use – and their pay may even be based on it. But in 2018 and especially in 2020, there will be a huge increase in the level of omnichannel spend. To the extent that connected TV and digital display spend overlap, which is a lot, attribution should grow in importance. Just as some political consultants point to television ratings as a basis to place more TV ad buys that may generate more fees to them, candidates should expect political consultants to also share proof of performance for digital, too.

But attribution in political campaigns is stymied by the current onboarding process that assigns ad IDs and cookies to voter registration data with no idea whether the match rate is 100% or 20%. As a consequence, it’s nearly impossible for political campaigns to tell if their unique voter match is mostly accurate or only directionally correct. In effect, the onboarding process is in a black box composed of macro-level reporting that largely hides whether voter outreach is actually reaching its goal.

In local races, such as state legislature and House contests, the main issue for campaigns is reaching the right constituents at scale. Attribution means that the campaign should be able to monitor audience veracity and respond according to the delivery of online advertising. While it’s possible for campaigns and political agencies to do attribution at that level, it’s not likely they’ll be able to do so for 2018.

First, onboarding takes time to setup, and the window to do so will close around early August.

But second, and perhaps more significantly for 2018, most campaigns rely heavily on Facebook and Google – and their black-box behavior has grown opaquer in recent months.

Is hope on the horizon?

To be blunt: No.

One constant in recent American politics has been that mastering the latest technology is essential for victory. The disruption of Facebook’s new “no third-party data” model could have an impact that is likely to demonstrate regression, not an innovation in political technology.

Unless something changes, political campaigning in 2018 won’t be about leveraging new technology so much as it will be about navigating a less transparent set of black-box options that lead to more waste and dead ends for campaigns.

Campaigns will still spread their media dollars among platforms, but rather than adopting the usual spend-it-all mindset that’s typical of political campaigns, political clients should take this opportunity to drive a harder bargain with platforms. If platforms are going to deliver less while offering less transparency, political clients should identify their benchmark goals for digital early, and then tightly manage their campaign dollars until they are comfortable that the platforms will deliver proof of performance.

It is time for political operations to find attribution where they can

In the 2018 election cycle, most performance measurement that occurs will happen on the open internet, outside the walled gardens. While no campaign can avoid the walled gardens completely, the open internet is where political operatives will also deploy their most sophisticated targeting because it’s the only place they’ll be able to prove that their digital spend is working.

Campaigns need to define their benchmarks and the transparency they expect from their open-internet ad tech partners in 2018, if they haven’t done so already. Because while attribution won’t be the silver bullet of this election cycle, it’s not something any campaign can afford to give up on, especially in a cycle where every vote counts.

Follow Semcasting (@Semcasting) and AdExchanger (@adexchanger) on Twitter.

 

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