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How programmatic shaped the election

How programmatic shaped the election George Levin

As the digital landscape is shifting and advertising technologies are evolving, political playing unfolds in a completely new media environment. The 2016 presidential election was outrageous in almost every aspect, with advertising being no exception. Political marketers moved beyond TV-first mentality with its old-school ad tools to new digital media, with programmatic media buying being one of them.

Digital gaining pace

After political strategists have come to embrace the key role of social media in Barack Obama's presidential campaign in 2012, they can no longer ignore the cutting-edge ad technologies with hyper-targeting capabilities fueled by smart use of quality data.

The chart below reveals how the media toolkit for political campaigns has been changing over the last three elections.

The chart convincingly illustrates that advertising spending for the latest election has reached an all-time record of $11.7 billion with the digital ad spend summing up to $1 billion. And even though broadcast TV still dominates the media mix, 2016 became a breakthrough year for programmatic in the political arena.

Programmatic coming into play

For those who have little to do with digital advertising, programmatic buying can be loosely defined as automated process of buying and selling ad placements through special platforms and exchanges based on audience interests and online behavior.
While the technology has proven itself as an effective tool for commercial brands to engage with consumers, political strategists miss no opportunity to leverage programmatic for efficient targeting, feasible scaling, and relevant messaging across devices.

Another statistic worth paying attention to shows how ad spend varied across the parties.

As we can see, Donald Trump's team put more efforts into programmatic, while Hillary Clinton's strategy heavily relied on TV.

An interesting thing is that, according to Header Tag, Republican spend on programmatic ads peaked in September, which was the time when the first debate -- defeating for Trump -- took place. By the same pattern, or just by coincidence, programmatic came to Democrats' rescue as FBI renewed investigation into Clinton's emails, which was reflected in the dramatic surge of ad spend in early November.

As far as inventory is concerned, the discrepancy in spending breakdown between the parties is not that outstanding. Both Democrats and Republicans put more of their budget behind desktop (rather than mobile) and display (as opposed to video) advertising.

Clinton focused her firepower -- as well as $30 million -- on traditional media, which proved to be unjustified. Meanwhile, Trump, relying mainly on an unorthodox variety of digital tools, successfully run his campaign across display, mobile, video, and social media.

Does this mean the programmatic strategy could have been one of the key factors in Trump's victory? That would be a loud statement, but to disregard the impact of programmatic on voters' judgement would be erroneous.

If properly leveraged, programmatic can help political campaigners approach modern technology-savvy voters and even swing their opinion. How is that possible? Below are some considerations that account for the programmatic trend in politics.

Smart data for insightful campaigns

Programmatic technology empowers campaign managers to take advantage of user data to estimate audience's propensity to vote for this or that party, as well as where and when to engage them.

It all starts with partisan data firms compiling registered voters' file data into detailed databases including geographical and demographic information. All these findings are then stitched by digital companies together with relevant third-party information -- Google searches, previous donations, real estate, and tax records -- obtained from marketing and business intelligence data providers.

This results in a more accurate electorate profile, which allows campaign managers to predict the features associated with the audience segments they want to target. All these granular data coupled with predictive analytics provide marketers with valuable insights that contribute to precise targeting and effective engagement.
You might think little of that, but your internet browsing history speaks volumes about both your passions and political views. Thus, for example, Green Party is most likely to serve its online ad to environmentalists who have previously searched for eco-friendly and organic brands.

One-to-one, personalized, and just in time

It's become common knowledge that delivering the right message to the right person at the right moment can make a real difference in what people think and do. The same is true for political campaigns.

Decades ago, before programmatic technology emerged, parties would place ads in printed media, on TV, radio, and online. But being too general, these messages would often go amiss entailing huge money waste.

Today, rather than conveying one-size-fits-all message to the electorate, campaign managers can hyper-target specific audience that shares the candidate's interests and viewpoints, and deliver a message that resonates with each voter and calls him or her to action.

Furthermore, programmatic makes it possible for campaign managers to synchronize messages across devices to capture bigger mindshare. Studies show that most of us are in the habit of browsing our mobile devices while watching TV. What does it have to do with a programmatic strategy? By serving a pop-up ad on a viewer's tablet during the debate broadcast, not only can candidates reinforce their exposure, but they can also distract voters' attention while the opponent is speaking.

Boosted with geo aware technologies, programmatic literally informs candidates on when is the best moment to activate voters. So next time you receive a "Vote now" message on your cell phone as you approach a local polling station, don't be that embarrassed by the fact that Big Brother is watching you.

Efficient campaign management

With programmatic tools, political managers no longer have to wait for the results of the traditional surveys and polls -- they can draw insights from voters' behaviors, habits, and interests. Once campaign managers gain real-world knowledge of the electorate, it's easier for them to optimize campaigns and pick up the appropriate ad inventory.

Programmatic offers detailed analytics and immediate feedback including viewability, impressions, and engagement. Now political marketers can monitor campaign performance in real time and adjust digital efforts on the fly, allocating media budgets in a more efficient way.

For example, seeing that Millennials in Florida are unresponsive to TV ads, marketers can either change the creative to make it more compelling for Generation Y, or switch to display or social media, or retarget to a different state at the click of a button.

Intelligent algorithms, data driven targeting, and customized messaging drive campaign efficiency and help squeeze more value out of marketing budgets.


In the digitally interconnected world, programmatic enables political candidates and advocacy groups to reach persuadable voters and likely supporters across full spectrum of devices in real time and approach them with a most compelling message that aligns to their values and drives action.

In this realm programmatic is a win-win technology. On the one hand, by gathering detailed insights, creating interest based voter segments and tailoring proper approaches to them, political parties can earn new supporters and grassroots donors. On the other hand, programmatic encourages candidates to learn more about their voters' interests, which brings hope that people's voice is going to be heard and their needs are going to be addressed.

This being said, we can't deny the growing role of programmatic ad buying in determining who will be the next leaders. Looking into the future, even more amazing technologies will emerge to refine political campaigns and connect candidates to voters in a more sophisticated yet efficient way. It's evident that programmatic will only spread and evolve along with ever-changing human behavior. Inventory will go beyond generic desktop ads and take shape of extraordinary, high-impact ad formats. Who knows? Maybe the day you see an agitating message right on your refrigerator is not far off.

George Levin is CEO & founder of GetIntent. He holds a dual Master’s Degree in both Mathematics and Marketing. After five years of studying differential geometry and topology, George decided to change his field dramatically and in 2007...

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