November 29, 2021

Digital is not a "One-Size-Fits-All" Strategy

A recent report suggested that campaigns should shift a majority of their media budgets to digital. To justify this edict, the practitioners at Priorities USA point to an eMarketer study that shows people are spending more time with digital than linear media sources.

Now, there’s no doubt that consumers are shifting more towards digital, and the pandemic has only accelerated that trend. Over the past year, CTV adoption grew almost 10%. And most experts predict that CTV viewing won’t revert to pre-pandemic levels.

Despite the growing number of CTV subscribers, media buyers would be wise to look at the context of individual districts and understand the current limitations of the digital advertising space, rather than universally shifting budgets away from linear and into digital.

According to eMarketer, the largest increase in time spent on digital was a 33.8% increase in CTV usage. Leichtman Research Group found 78% of households reported using some form of subscription streaming service.

Undoubtedly, political campaigns want to reach their voters on streaming television because it’s both targetable and efficient. Unfortunately for advertisers, only 34% of streaming households watch one that is ad-supported. According to Comscore data, 82.5% of streaming activity came from just five providers — Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, YouTube, and Disney+. Of these, only YouTube and Hulu accept ads. This means only 26.5% of households can be reached on streaming television alone. And while that’s a good-sized group to communicate with, we cannot win elections messaging to only 26.5% of the population.

The bottom line is there’s not enough inventory available on the streaming services that currently accept local political ads. We hope Discovery+, Peacock, and Paramount+, among others, open their inventory to local political advertisers in time for the 2022 campaign, but we don’t yet know if they’ll have enough scale to target down-ballot districts.

Political advertisers face unique challenges in accessing digital platforms. We’re currently at the mercy of each individual platform’s policies because there are few laws regulating digital political ads or mandating that vendors accept them. Spotify and TikTok didn’t allow political ads in 2020.  

Google/YouTube limited targeting capabilities for political advertisers — changes they’ll finally enforce in all advertisers beginning in 2022. Facebook/Instagram instituted changes in creative policies and targeting capabilities two weeks before Election Day. Who is to say that Google and Facebook won’t pull the rug out from under campaigns ahead of the next election with more last-minute policy changes?

Each platform has its own definition of what constitutes political advertising, meaning some campaigns can get around the bans if they just figure out how to trick the algorithm. There are ways to somewhat work around the barriers set up by digital vendors — using influencers, supplementing with other social and streaming platforms, lookalike audiences — but many down-ballot campaigns struggle to find platforms that offer necessary scale or will accept their limited budgets.

And this brings us to fraud. As with anything, where the money goes, so do the bad actors.  At the end of 2020, Oracle Corp’s data cloud and measurement businesses detected a scheme that likely stole $14.5 million over the last four months of 2020, largely from programmatic operators.  

Streaming television ad vendors largely rely on subscriber-verified data to authenticate users. But because one subscriber often represents multiple viewers, including those who may not live in the household, we often serve ads to viewers who aren’t who they say they are.

To wit, Leichtman Research Group found that 23% of Hulu subscribers share their subscription outside their household. Hulu offers contextual targeting similar to what media buyers do when placing linear buys, but this still doesn’t account for users who share passwords with people who live in another congressional district or the large number of streaming vendors that rely on their customers not sharing their logins.

Priorities USA also reported that “75% of the television ads for House races aired outside of the target district,” which is a bit misleading. It would be great if district lines matched up with media market boundaries. But sadly, the folks doing redistricting don’t seem to care about county boundaries -- much less DMA or cable system maps.  

Ads don’t air either in a district or out of a district. They do both. At the same time. While viewers outside of the district see the ad, viewers inside the district are too. To put it another way, 100% of the ads aired in the district, people outside the district saw them as well.

In some districts we can mitigate out-of-district viewership by tailoring television buys to the viewing patterns of a district. By using tools that allow us to look at Nielsen ratings by zip code or county.  This can radically reshape the station composition of the buy versus a buy done using DMA ratings alone. And when we buy linear television we can reach more than 26.5% of the population.

According to Nielsen’s February 2021 Universe Estimates, 73% of the TV households in the country have a cable plus satellite penetration rate is still over 60%. For example, in Montgomery County, Pa., outside of Philadelphia 81.2% of households have cable. There are media markets where the 6 p.m. local news still gets a rating of 14 GRPs (or more) for Adults 35+. In fact, 52% of Subscription Video on Demand (sVOD) households also had a Pay TV subscription.  

It may be cliché to say the answer to every question is “it depends,” but as media buyers we always allocate budgets based on our individual districts instead of national trends. We use a different media mix in suburban Philadelphia than in suburban Los Angeles because people in those areas consume media differently. We must consider a variety of factors, including cable penetration, strength of local radio, and yes, how many voters have an ad-supported streaming television service.

Campaigns need to stop siloing media buys into linear and digital. The media space is forever fragmented but at the same time, it’s on a path to coming back together. Voters are watching television whether it comes from an antenna, the internet, or a cable box. Voters don’t make the differentiation and campaigns shouldn’t either. Being screen and provider agnostic is essential to meeting voters where they are.

An effective campaign media plan layers multiple types of communication. It won’t include just linear television or just streaming television. It almost always needs both, and good planners to determine the proportions based on the district makeup, budget, and targeting.  

Michele Certo is a Partner and Senior Media Strategist at Sage Media Planning and Placement. Lauren Richards is a Partner and the Director of Digital Media at Sage Media Planning and Placement.

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