Google, Facebook and Twitter have become powerful platforms for political candidates, and each has earned a line item on every campaign's media plan. But it may require another election cycle before smaller players can break into the big time.
In 2015, Borrell Research predicted $1.1 billion would be spent by political buyers on digital media this year, but analysts and political operatives at the time said the vast majority of DC budgets would go to the media companies considered to be safe bets by campaigns and super PACs.
Within the broad “digital” category, just a few social and mobile channel partners have emerged to dominate presidential campaigns’ attention, according to Jed Dederick, a regional VP with The Trade Desk.
“We’re starting to show that there are omnichannel solutions,” Dederick said, “but there are certainly entrenched relationships to break into.”
A flood of nonpartisan players entered DC in the past year, further stretching the spend going to independent DSPs. Zac Moffatt, CEO of the Republican programmatic firm Targeted Victory, previously told AdExchanger, “There are a lot of leases being taken out (by commercial ad tech companies), but I’d be concerned. Some of those offices are going to end up with tumbleweed blowing around."
And even when a campaign is buying through a political ad network or an independent DSP, most roads still lead to Google or Facebook.
A Different Game
Ad buying in the political arena is different from what independent media and technology sellers are accustomed to, said JC Medici, Rocket Fuel’s director of politics and advocacy. A brand marketer can go through ad cycles in weeks or days and places more emphasis on constant iteration, whereas political campaigns prefer reserved buys and typically plan media strategies months ahead of time.
Regional executions may last for only days or weeks before campaigns move on to the next battleground. That leaves little time for optimization.
“What we’re learning right now about digital impacts for candidates isn’t going to have an immediate impact,” Medici said, referring to the speed with which a brand or agency can readjust its media mix.
Unfortunately for digital media sellers, some of the most effective marketing right now has no media cost whatsoever.
Medici noted a recent tweet from Donald Trump – whose campaign is a historic case study for "earned media" – in which he promised to use Facebook and Twitter to counter millions of dollars in negative ads.
Meanwhile the effectiveness of paid media in the political milieu is increasingly in doubt.
Marco Rubio and his supporting super PACs have spent about $70 million on advertising, while Jeb Bush’s campaign and affiliated PACs spent more than $150 million before he dropped out of the race. Most was spent on television and, many believe, may as well have been thrown in the ocean.
These wacky paid vs. earned dynamics of the 2016 primary season have led to a crisis of confidence for some operatives. This has arguably benefitted media incumbents, since campaign managers tend to fall back on what they know.
Additionally, Google, Facebook and Twitter have been bolstered by their ability to hire aggressively in DC.
To fill their respective VP of policy roles, Google added a GOP congresswoman, Facebook hired a senior George W. Bush White House aide and Twitter named a senior Democratic aide from the House of Representatives. While no single hire makes the difference, Facebook and Google in particular have built out whole account teams that pipeline to either Democrats or Republicans.
And even when media mix autopsies do prompt more digital spending, as many expect, there is no guarantee those budgets will broaden to more media sellers. AdExchanger's political marketing sources have consistently said candidates are more reliant on Google or Facebook than are brand marketers. And that gap may be widening.
Unlike Twitter, which is a killer free channel for campaigns but has few monetization levers to pull, Facebook has assembled use cases that have attracted considerable political budgets.
Facebook introduced “political influencers” who actively consume and share political news on the platform as a targeting option in 2015, and this will be the first presidential campaign where the social media giant offers voter file matching.
Google has also developed tools specifically for campaigns. A product called “Posts” recently debuted in beta exclusively for presidential candidates, giving them some control over which content is displayed in a search of their name.
“This is the final election where this status quo, this disconnect between independent providers and political groups, will be acceptable,” said Medici. Ad tech providers “will either evolve or die. There’s just too much competition in the market.”