The Last Dance?

If you’re reading this, chances are good that the majority of your digital ad spending this election cycle has gone through what are known as programmatic ad buying platforms. After all, most political ad dollars are being spent that way.

But this may be the last cycle where the freewheeling no-holds-barred programmatic market serves political as though it’s just another brand silo.

The omens have been building for a while. First, there’s a lot of conflicting messaging in the marketplace. Hulu’s ban on ads with guns or any abortion-related messaging is one indicator. So is Spotify’s decision to not take political, as they once said they would. Some platforms review creative. Some don’t. Some allow micro-targeting using voter data linked to other information. Some do not. Facebook won’t take ads immediately before the election. Everyone else will.

No one likes this system. And until the money spent on digital political ads got real – it’s about $1 billion this year – no one much cared. But that’s changing.

This study from the University of North Carolina’s Center on Technology Policy follows a look by the New America Foundation in 2018. In both cases, former employees at digital platforms – in this case Facebook – authored white papers showing how programmatic ad buying is rife with confusion, chicanery and chaos. Put another way: It’s not just Facebook anymore.

So what’s next? More than ever, it depends on the outcome of this year’s election. If Democrats manage to hold on to the U.S. House, it’s likely that the election reform package known as the “Honest Ads Act” will be passed once again and headed to the U.S. Senate. If Democrats increase their majority in the Senate, the bill is likely to receive a much warmer reception than it did in earlier years.

The sorts of reforms envisioned by the bill, as it was written, are also easy to slip into any sort of Big Tech break-up legislation. They’ll also fit nicely into laws designed to protect consumer privacy. That’s three bites at the regulatory apple.

This is all bad news if you’re counting on the voter match targeting you’ve been relying on to actually reach voters. But it could be good news if Congress realizes it can create the ability to target voters responsibly.

As currently written, privacy laws will make that all but impossible. Big Tech break-ups will continue to hamper the ability of those companies to watch users move from one suite of products to another (say, Apple TV to iPhone or YouTube to search). The result: Campaigns’ ability to follow and target voters – already weakened – falls apart entirely. As of right now, there are no carve-outs for political targeting, mostly likely because elected officials have no idea how their campaigns find voters online.

Spot-On has long advocated for the segregation of brand advertising from political ad sales. That’s how political ads are handled by TV stations. It’s how political mail is treated by the U.S. Post Office. And it’s probably what most members of Congress think happens with their digital ads. Actually digital segregation of political ads buying and selling could allow campaigns to use the data they have about voters – they data they use to send mail and decide on TV placements and field outreach – to better effect. A system that uses voter data that’s independent and sealed off from use by brand advertisers would mean political target of digital could become more effective, reliable, safe and secure.

Here at Spot-On, we’re not just talking. We’re walking. Our Pinpoint Persuasion platform is coming soon. We’ll have targeting by election district and zip code. And lots of census and other data. We’re ready for the future.

Are you?

Many Voters, Multiple Solutions

Here at Spot-On, we focus on strategic implementations while our clients dictate strategy.. But also we read a lot and this piece in the New York Times about how campaign should talking to different voters – maybe the ones that aren’t easy to find – hit a nerve.As the authors point out, it’s hard to reach rural voters. One, bandwidth is not evenly distributed across the U.S. That makes it hard to use this year’s media buyer silver bullet of choice – streaming video – to reach their TVs or laptops. And since incomes in that part of the country are usually lower than on the coasts or in urban areas, mobile phones often have plans with data caps.

Besides, most of the tracking done on the web is for people with incomes to spend on goods and services. If the Internet is a shopping mall and you’re a shopkeeper, you want to catch the attention of the lady with the Platinum Amex, not the guy who pays cash and haggles. That tilts any sort of targeting away from lower income households, young people, those with spotty financial records or recent arrivals who may not be native English speakers or have long U.S. credit histories.

In other words, the exact people that savvy political campaigns want to reach.

The good news is that there are changes in the ad marketplace that will help political and advocacy campaigns. For many strategists, this may sound like old news, but the idea behind a multi-platform approach with an emphasis on context for your ads is gaining traction with the brand ad crowd.

Digital can be used very effectively to introduce an idea, but one of its strongest benefits is frequency and delivering a message multiple times to create familiarity. When you build that familiarity in association with a specific partner, some of the trust that their users have in that brand can rub off on yours. This is valuable if you are trying to build or rebuild your brand.” – MediaPost

Sure sounds like a political ad buyer, doesn’t it? Substitute “partner” for TV station, and you’d think it’s 1988 all over again.

Part and parcel of this so-called new way of thinking is the idea that buyers need to look at multiple platforms for discrete chores.So savvy buyers aren’t spending their digital dollars in one place, figuring one platform works on the Internet the way their local cable operator does on TV. Instead, brand buyers are starting to parse out tasks based on a platform’s strengths.

For reaching folks who aren’t easily targeted, almost nothing beats a direct ad buy on a trusted local news site.

This particularly works for segments that campaigns are anxious to reach this year – rural Americans, African-Americans and those who have a preference for news and communication in other languages. Recent U.S. arrivals and lower-income households read local news more, according to a Pew Research survey. Most of the people regularly reading a local news site are voters – that’s been repeatedly verified with surveys on all sorts of sites across the country.

Direct buying doesn’t rely on income or financial behavior to find engaged viewers; its strength is that it covers a county, city or town – the very place where voters are centered. It’s the ultimate context play: ads about current events (elections) surrounded by similar editorial (news stories about campaigns, current and local events.

Plus, there’s the security feature: Know where your ads run, how much you paid and how they performed. Oh, and for the most part, those performance rates will put your targeted programmatic buy to shame.

Spot-On has seen a lot more emphasis on direct buying this year. And since we’ve been preaching the value of direct for some time, we’re gratified by the shift.

Wanna learn more? Send us an email and we’ll tell you about how we put video on small rural news sites, the fabulous click-through rates we see on new stand-along journalism sites and how we think the shift to direct buying helps campaigns prepare for a year of massive upheaval in the ad tech marketplace.

Direct Dial Deals

Well, well, well, it looks like the rush to access publishers’ advertising inventory directly – without going through the black boxes called programmatic ad buying – appears to be getting traction.

Or at least lip service. More and more players in that world, from Google on down, seem to acknowledge that programmatic ads hurt news sites, particularly local news sites which don’t have and never will have the scale and reach of national platforms.

This is important for political ad buyers. It means that some firms will be able to access the ad placements they want on key publishers with more certainty. But it also means change in the market could wreak havoc for smaller or episodic buyers.

Spot-On doesn’t put a lot of faith in Google saying it no longer wants to control every aspect of digital ad buying. They didn’t get to be a trillion-dollar company by playing nice. Nor do we think that buying scenarios like the ones spelled out by Trade Desk for its Open Path offering are going to help political ad buyers very much. Open Path feels more like a challenge to a new weakness in Google’s ecosytem and market dominance.

Still, we think there are several trends here to notice – just not the ones being touted from the rooftops. And yeah, we do think they’ll have an impact in November.

So, let’s start with Google’s ideas about allowing advertisers to target their ads based on their perceived interest in topics users explore on the web. This strategy is more general than the cookie-based targeting political advertisers rely on to match voters to ads. And it raises a question. Is a reader interested in political subjects nothing more than a political insider or influencer? That’s not a swing voter; that’s the base. And what about lag time? Google’s idea uses hindsight and elections – and the events leading up to them – can change fast.

Then there’s the big ad agency race to claim control over quality advertising. Putting aside Trade Desk (which is hard, it’s as big a player in the market as Facebook or Google), other agencies are trying to secure high quality inventory on known outlets for their own by cutting access deals with publishers to replace cookie-based tracking. The result is that the market is in danger of being split between the “have access” and “want access.”

Here’s the take from DigiDay’s reporter:

“Put simply, fewer third-party cookies means less granular data and the less there is of that the fewer people advertisers can track and reach in the open web.

“The more this happens, the more divided the market will get: on one side there will be a larger portion of high-quality ad inventory powered by first-party data and consent; on the other side, there’s a long tail of poorly targeted impressions far more susceptible to fraud and manipulation.”

So, if you regularly run high profile national campaigns – if your clients are victorious presidential campaigns or Super PACs, you’ll be fine. The rest of political ad buyers may well be out in the cold. No targeting, no access and precious little inventory to snap up at the last minute.

There are some things that Spot-On likes about this trend. We have long maintained that political and advocacy advertising has no place on blind programmatic exchanges. No one’s happy with the current situation. Buyers don’t know where their ads are running; sellers don’t know who’s buying or what the ads are saying. And compliance with the law isn’t equitable.

And we’re stepping in to do our part. Starting this week, we’re opening up our Pinpoint Persuasion Automated Direct Buying platform to customers. Our introductory offer will be in your email shortly. But if you hate lines, feel free to give us a shout. We’ll give you access and information about more than 4000 local news sites across the county, as well as let you search by zip code and election districts. And that’s just for starters. We’re loading up census and other data as fast as we can think of ways to use it.

So, beat the crowd. Get an account and start buying political ads on Pinpoint Persuasion, a platform built by political people for political people.

The Year – No, Week – Ahead

About this time every year – Spot-On sits down and thinks about the year ahead, gives you our take on what’s happened and what’s likely to be popping up on our political ad buying radar.

We started this year’s naval gazing back in early December. And, well, we got distracted. Being caught in a bad version of a good movie – Groundhog Day – is frustrating. Our usually clear crystal ball is pretty cloudy.

So this newsletter has a few predictions along with some pointers to folks we read – and you should, too – to stay on top of things as they change. Because they will – and fast.

First up, it looks like the Census Monkey Wrench is going to be less distracting that initially envisioned. Maps are getting drawn pretty quickly and candidates’ assessments are coming in just as fast. We’ll have some lawsuits but not the coast-to-coast conflicts many anticipated.

As a result of Frances Haugen’s revelations about Facebook’s user tracking, it feels as though Congress will pass some sort of privacy legislation particularly in regard to children. Legislation that protects kids can be put to all sort of other uses, of course, so further limitations on targeting technology – the stuff that can be used to target voters – may become law.

Facebook’s post-Haugen decision to join the ban on voter ‘micro-targeting’ looks to be the last shoe to drop in the “will they or won’t they take political ads?” debate that many platforms are having. There are some who disagree, of course but with a month to go until buying starts in earnest, it’s feeling pretty quiet out there.

Now, ‘pretty quiet’ isn’t the same as ‘nothing’s going on.’ There is a lot going on in a volatile environment which is why we’re going to point you to some on-the-ground sources who track activity that’s going to affect political ad sales.

First up, our friend Katie Harbath, formerly of Facebook, who’s started a regular newsletter, Anchor Change, dealing with policy and politics around online political speech. You should subscribe. Harbath’s got a specific point of view as a former Fb employee and its Republican Party liaison. She’s well informed and candid.

On Twitter, Jason Kint, head of the trade group Digital Content Next is obsessed with all the lawsuits against Facebook and Google and privacy issues. The man has a thing for court documents. He reads them whole so you don’t have to. Much of what he talks about is good background for how the platforms see political engagement of all sorts across their companies.

For news and straight-up analysis, Spot-On’s go-to is the ad trade news site DigiDay. They’re tracking developments and changes in how first party data is used and collected, changes in privacy laws, the death of cookie targeting (which makes voter targeting all but impossible), and the rise of alternative user ID solutions. All of these will have bearing on how political advertisers can operate.

So, three points of view and some trends. Now it’s time for the Spot-On year ahead – a big change for us and one we think you should know about.

Spot-On’s Pinpoint Persuasion ad buying platform is going live to a handful of our customers this month. We’ll be opening up to new clients in the Spring with an eye on the June primaries. Our offer is simple: We’re giving political ad buyers a much-needed alternative to programmatic advertising’s black box infrastructure.

We have the latest census maps for all districts – state and federal – matched to the local outlets that serve those districts. You’ll be able to pick where your ads are running, get creative uploaded and approved and – with the push of a button – know those ads have been delivered to those outlets, safely and securely. You can get feedback on your creative AND real time reporting for your campaign.

Pinpoint Persuasion is build by political people for political people. You’re not a season event with us, you’re the only event.

Interested? Email us and we’ll get you on a free, no-strings attached demo.