Down-ballot, up beat

Last week I was in Washington DC, where I moderated a panel at the Mediapost Marketing Politics event to discuss the down-ballot conundrum. We looked at how smaller, less well-funded political campaigns can exploit developments in digital media and learn from the successes and failures of big ones. Joining me on the panel were James Barnes (Facebook), Jonathan Lichter (Kelly Scott Madison), Mike Liddell of NGP VAN and Michael O'Brien of The E.W. Scripps Company.

We had an interesting debate with some highly contrasting views. Here are a half a dozen points that I came away with, many of which I think could apply to any organization looking to reach their audiences on a tight budget.

1 TV ain’t dead (just yet).

Smaller campaigns shouldn’t dismiss TV buys as out of reach, especially when it comes to politics. They just need to understand the rules around equal access. For example, if a rival spends big on TV, in the US you are entitled, as a smaller campaign, to an equivalent share of airtime. While the relevance of TV was hotly debated by the panel, all-in-all it can (and should) be a part of the mix if you’re after certain demographics.

Factors that count against TV are the high production values it demands, plus a much-quoted statistic about 75% of content missing its mark entirely. Which brings me onto the next point…

2 The future’s not just mobile. The future’s mobile video.

We all know that mobile is now the first screen – two-thirds of our screen time is spent interacting with it. But what’s also growing exponentially is video on mobile. It was predicted that pretty much 75% of all content on mobile will be video by 2020. The lower production values, intimacy, and authenticity of this sight and sound medium excited the panel.

The barriers to reaching the right people with compelling content are tumbling. Facebook in particular is creating tools for smaller political campaigns to combine audience data and targeting with the ability to precision target content on a micro-scale.

3 No creative game changer. Yet.

Thing is, when everything’s video, what’s going to stand out? We’re still waiting for a massive hit in digital content to impact a political campaign, large or small. There are signs of it happening, but there’s a real sense that with all this targeting capability at our disposal, there’s a lack of truly inspiring, breakthrough content. This is where creativity comes in. There is absolutely no substitute for brilliant creative work, strikingly executed. Nothing new. It’s just the means of ensuring the right people see, hear and feel it that’s changed.

That said, starting from right now, there’s no doubt in my mind that we all ought to be putting mobile first when it comes to developing creative ideas for campaigns. WPP got a shout-out from the panel for being a pioneer in this area. Jameson, anyone?

4 Bad to average content = waste

Conversely, there is and will be a staggeringly vast amount of terrible content out there. Even average to good content will be drowned in the torrent. This is especially true of political marketing. All this will represent a massive waste of money and time. Jeb! was cited as one of the most inefficient campaigns of all time, $49m pumped in so far, with little to no effect. This kind of inefficiency is not something any down-ballot campaign can remotely afford.

5 Yard signs: they’re highly effective

What small campaigns can afford are yard signs. And yes, the humble yard sign was assured its place in the future of media by our highly seasoned group of media experts. They noted that on a hyper-local level, walk routes and individual approaches will continue to be highly effective. Better understanding of sentiment is gained by knocking on doors and speaking to voters than by any data crunching. That said, digital media and marketing techniques can help by identifying the right doors to knock on, at the right times. People spoke of campaign walk routes being increasingly defined by the knowledge provided by data. And speaking of efficiency, that brings me to…

6 Trump

How does he do it? Both he and Sanders’ campaigns are rewriting the playbook. They are leveraging deep digital techniques (A Trump video is 14 seconds long because it’s the optimal length for mobile) and simple, single-minded messaging. These campaigns will show what works and doesn't work (once we know who wins). Down-ballot campaigns can take heart from their relative success in the Presidential race so far, since they’re doing it with less funding than the bigger, more traditional campaigns of the “establishment” candidates (Bush, J., Clinton, H).

Never mind what you think of Trump and Sanders, their campaigns’ use of modern media is deliberate, brilliant, authentic, simple and compelling.

And in my opinion, this will be the way of the future for all political marketing. Yuge.