Notes On The Field From Home

It took a pandemic to completely destroy the false perception that digital events or online behavior was somehow distinct from other day-to-day activity. No longer can a campaign say that ‘digital’ is different from mail, telephone calling or television.

Increasing use of online tools – for doctors’ visits, business meetings and calls with friends and relatives – means what were once novelties are now somewhat reliable consumer services. These devices have been in our lives for some time but staying at home to work is just driving that, um, home.

The first evidence of this is the popularity of telephone town halls and Zoom meetings. Online is being used for lawmakers’ formal meetings as well as for campaign outreach.

The increased integration of digital tools for campaigns and voters should come with at least one warning: the “free” use of these tools means they’re less secure. That’s already provided some dramatic lessons about online privacy – for campaigns and for voters.

Looking to the summer when these tools will still be needed, it’s important to remember that intense crisis-driven interest won’t last. And door-to-door field work will be more restrained so the need to reach residents – not just voters, everyone in a community – will be a more necessary compliment to online gatherings.

Happily, interest in local media is surging. The chart below shows the dramatic increase in audiences across all news sites. This trend is likely to continue, pounding home to news outlets the value – maybe even the superior value – of their websites over their printed product.

While audiences are growing, ad revenue for many of these outlets has fallen dramatically. So publishers will start looking – and looking hard – for revenue. Political campaigns should expect to see less effective reach with ad buys that are made ‘programmatically’ as publishers begin to monitor the sales of their remnant ad placements.

Many voters and residents are seeing changes in how they vote, when they vote and where they vote as we move to the reschedule primary season and away from mandatory in-person voting. In particular, new vote-by-mail elections will need sustained support as well any online outreach via phone or video conference.

There are plenty of ways to do this but, for our money, the best one will be direct buys on reliable, known outlets that voters have trusted for years. Spot-On has a range of approaches to suit any and all budgets – for telephone town halls, video events or vote-by-mail and election changes.

Give us a shout or drop us a line to learn more.

A Virus Changes Many Things

Here’s a prediction: by the end of 2020 no political campaign of any size, anywhere in the US will say they can’t afford or don’t need digital outreach. None. Never. Ever.

The COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak is changing elections and campaigns. While it looks dramatic, it’s not sudden. Over the past year, almost everyone who participated in the Democratic primary brought new tactics to the table. And the cumulative effect is pretty interesting.

These are not huge changes but when you add them up – and look at our current environment – you see new ways of running political campaigns that are truly digital-centric.

This list was compiled with help from Echelon Insights founder Patrick Ruffini whose shrewd sense of how campaigns operate and his keen eye for the ‘new’ set Spot-On thinking. So we called him up. Here’s the innovation list we came up with.

The Grab-and-Grin Goes Down Market. Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s campaign broke new ground with her selfie lines. It was an inspired piece of social network outreach but it also broke another mold. No longer are photos with candidates for high-dollar donors only. Everyone’s gonna want – and get – one now.

Crowd Sourcing Creative: Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s campaign had an idea: Don’t centralize your social media outreach, distribute it! Wanna show you support Mayor Pete? Download his logos and do your own thing on the platform of your choice.

More transparency: Sen. Corey Booker’s campaign struggled to raise money in a crowded field. So the campaign turned to supporters – and outsiders – explained the need and asked for contributions. No more shame in having trouble raising money – call it Kickstarter Politics.

Mo’ Money, Mo Innovation. Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg had the one thing all campaigns crave: unlimited cash. “Every possible thing was tried” Patrick notes. One highlight: the ‘influencer’ campaign on Insta and Tik-Tok. Another: truly funny self-deprecating humor that suited those platforms

Programming Note: There’s a lot more to say about Bloomberg as Patrick notes.

Buh-Bye Iowa. It took a big fat tech glitch but the confusion that was the Iowa Caucus “app” has caused a rethink on a few levels. It may be bright and shiny and it may be sold by your best friend from ’16 who now hangs out in Palo Alto or Sunnyvale – but that doesn’t mean it works.

Hacking is for Everyone. The press made a big deal about how the Nevada Caucus strung together a series of ad hoc tech solutions – Google Docs, texting, file sharing – for its reports. This is the opposite of a bright, shiny, untested (and expensive) product: A real world, working solution crafted for specific tasks. For cheap.

Sadly, so is Vicious Trolling. Team Spot-On is led by a woman who has her share of nasty, trolling comments from critics, strangers and, well, men. The Sanders’ campaign supporters who engaged in this creepy nonsense aren’t alone and they aren’t going away anytime soon. 

And We’re Not Done Yet. Already, telephone and virtual conference vendors, online organizing firms and a host of others are fielding calls and being asked for advice on what to do in a low-touch campaign environment.

So the biggest changes for 2020 are in front of us. Our bet is that some of the biggest innovations are as well.

Need help with your online efforts? Spot-On is here to help with a database of local news sites that can help you reach voters, boost a virtual town hall gathering or grow a list. Drop us a a line to see if we can help.

And follow Patrick Ruffini on Twitter. We do. He’s fantastic. 

Spot-On 2020: A Rough Ride

Are you getting that sneaky feeling that maybe – just maybe – the online political ad market is getting more unsettled? That this year – oh, why THIS year – is the one where the changes come fast and furious without warning? 

Reluctantly, Spot-On agrees. From our point-of-view there are three hot spots: privacy law changes, election oversight changes and wildly inconsistent market responses. But, as they say, forewarned is forearmed. So here’s a quick look ahead.


California has enacted new privacy legislation which took effect on January 1. There is a six month grace period but most companies doing business in the state – the ones that aren’t making noises about suing – are making preparations. Among them, large visible signs on websites that say “Don’t sell my data” and more visible privacy policies, cookie tracking and other notices.

That “don’t sell” option means that a site – and its data partners – can’t collect as much information about users as they have in the past. So the data pools (also called ‘3rd party data’) used to fuel the impact of voter targeted ads will become less reliable. An example: while writing this, I responded to an email from Alaska Airlines and told them not to implement “social cookies” that would help them show me ads on Facebook and Twitter (and allow Twitter and Facebook to know more about my travel choices).

It is a myth that voter targeted digital ads rely only on voter data. Voter targeting cannot work alone because using some voter information is prohibited. To function, voter data is combined with other data sets – that 3rd party data. A deterioration in the quality that data affects the accuracy of voter registration targeting.

It’s not just California; at least 10 other states are considering various privacy measures.

Election Law/Proposals

A great deal of fuss has been made about Federal Election Commission Chair Ellen Weintraub’s seemingly successful request to ban the use of ‘micro-targeting’ for political ad placements. “Micro-targeting” is the phrase used to describe the use of voter registration combined with specific web behavior data to send ads to particular demographic groups. 

Google grabbed a lot of attention when it said it would follow Weintraub’s recommendations. Starting this week, the Mississippi River of Ad Tech will not permit political ads on YouTube or search or display to be targeted below the geographic level (by zip) with some limited demographic information. 

Other firms are opting out entirely. Spotify, which was never equipped to handle the nuances of political ad sales has withdrawn completely. Good thing, too. They laughed in 2016 when Spot-On told them they needed a decision making structure. So has Twitter and the Chinese-owned TikTok.

But it’s worth asking if these public pronouncement are reliable. Some of this is lip-service and nothing more as Google has demonstrated in regard to state election laws.

Market Responses – Or Not

Facebook has declined to follow Google’s lead on microtargeting – and is challenging the California privacy laws – so smaller players have felt free to follow the flow of political ad dollars.

Third party entities that sell online ads are not complying with the suggested prohibition on micro-targeting. If Spot-On wants to microtarget political ads, we can. So can anyone else. Whether those ads are ‘quality’ placements is an open question. Our bet: They’re not. Which means campaigns will pay more for less effective ads.

Now Add Billionaires….

There’s gasoline to pour on this fire. Three billionaires are running for president. 

And brand advertisers aren’t going to treat political advertisers any differently. They’re going to ‘tier’ advertisers based on spend, for starters. And even without preferred treatment, wealthier campaigns will bid up the prices for ads, putting the less well-heeled at a disadvantage – even for junky inventory.

So here’s the hottest spot of all: Fair and consistent decisions make for fair and consistent elections. Inconsistent decisions made as a way to compensate for regulatory oversight make for, let’s call them….misunderstandings. 

Deliberately or not, consistency has gone out the window. Used to trafficking brand ads, the platforms don’t understand that setting requirements on tone or style, letting ‘the market’ dictate price or optimization is endorsing one form of political speech or point-of-view over another. In short, digital ad platforms are unprepared for the clear, consistent decision process that needs to be part of political ad sales

There’s More…But We’re Out of Time

Facebook is facing 48 state attorney general investigations. Google has 50. More Congressional oversight is in the works. The Federal Trade Commission is looking around; so is the U.S. Department of Justice.

So buckle up. All campaigns are going to be affected by these changes. And almost no one’s going to like it.

Spot-On’s got some ideas on how you can work through this mess. Start with a look at our 2020 Best Practices White Paper which takes a look at some of the problems ahead. Then drop us a note and we’ll set you up with a media plan that works. 

Private Browsing, Less Targeting

Changes in election and privacy laws aren’t the only adjustments that digital ad buyers should worry about going in to 2020. The folks who make web browsers have stepped in with changes in how ad trackers can follow consumers .

These adjustments are going to affect political ad targeting – not at some future point when laws take effect and regulations have been approved – but now, as we head into the 2020 election cycle.

The big driver here is Apple, whose Safari browser no long permits the wholesale use of cookies – small pieces of html code that track users’ behavior. The Firefox browser has similar blocking. This is important because the wholesale buying and selling of this tracking information, so-called “cookie pools,” is a vital part of online voter targeting.

Some may console themselves with the fact that Google’s with its Chrome browsers hasn’t been as aggressive but that’s bound to change. Google and Apple compete head to head in the mobile market – Android v. iPhone – and Apple’s is doing a pretty good job of showing up Google in the “don’t be evil” argument to consumers. Respect – defense, even – for user privacy is part of that effort.

We’ll leave the tedious conversations about replacement technologies to the ad tech geeks. Suffice it to say that there are three big changes in the works.

  • The use of cookie-based targeting is official over. Online ads aren’t targeting individual voters. Using cookies, ads are targeting pools of people who are like those voters.
  • The effectiveness of what’s known as ‘real time bidding’ is coming to an end. RTB with cookie targeting is is the technique that most political ad resellers rely on for inexpensive remnant video and banner ad placements.
  • And the much-ballyhooed cross-device tracking is not going to get off the ground as anticipated. If a vendor suggests they’re using phone device IDs to find specific users, they may be using questionable practices to get that information.

In other words, many of the technologies that political advertisers depend on – cheap video and banner ads, targeting to voters using cookie pools – won’t work as effectively six months from now.

Within the ad tech community, there seems to be one common theme: given these changes, buying ads directly from outlets is is safer and more effective than relying on ad exchanges or networks.

This change – a spill over effect of changes in European privacy law – is something Spot-On’s prepared for. As dollars and attention flow to digital ad placements, it make more sense to buy political ad directly from known outlets – where a constant and significant number of regular readers are voters – than it does to trust a soon-to-be-obsolete technology that’s always been hit-or-miss.

Spot-On is getting ready to roll out its Pinpoint Placement buying platform which automates direct buying and provides transparency and security for buyers and sellers. We’re looking for a few good beta testers. Care to join us?

Send an email if you’d like to learn more.

Does Privacy Kill the Voter File?

Seems that the tried and true method of reaching voters online – the use of purported targeting using voter registration information – is under fire.

And it’s not just one or two little attacks; the hangover from the 2016 election is turning out to be longer than expected. So concerns about individual online privacy, national security and the need to place legal restraints on Big Tech are coming together.

California’s privacy law appears – as of today’s writing – to change the use of voter file information for targeting ads. If it’s not amended the law takes effect as is on January 1, 2020.

Interpretations of the law aren’t exactly clear on a number of fronts. But the basic ideas is that any company which uses data to target ads will be required to notify recipients that they have the right to have their personal info deleted from that company’s records.

This could cover firms (like Spot-On) that run political ad campaigns and companies that sell data derived from voter information. The law is meant to protect users in the state so anyone doing business in California is affected.

In other words, it doesn’t matter where the company using the data is based. Although, of course, the two biggest beneficiaries of political ads spends are located in Menlo Park and Mountain View, California.

Just as important: other states have similar privacy laws. And now there’s a federal effort to specially restrict the use of voter data.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein has introduced legislation that would work much like California’s privacy law. The “Voter Privacy Act” would pretty much shut down voter targeting as its currently used online. “Political candidates and campaigns shouldn’t be able to use private data to manipulate and mislead voters,” Feinstein said in her statement on the bill. “This bill would help put an end to such actions.”

The press around this announcement credited the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica scandal but Spot-On looks to the release of the heavily redacted Senate Intelligence Committee report on the 2016 elections as the motivation here.

You haven’t read that full report. We haven’t either. We can’t – it’s secret. But Sen. Feinstein is a member of the Senate’s Select Committee on Intelligence. We bet she has.

There’s no sure path for passage of her bill but there’s a lot of talk about election security. That might mean some form of Congressional action this fall.

And that’s going to mean big changes in how online campaign are run. Bigger than the ones in the works already.What’s the alternative? As long-time readers are aware Spot-On thinks that most voter targeting is a panacea that does little actual targeting. The personally identify information that makes up the bulk of a voter registration file is stripped out for most uses. Targeting often creates a universe so small that it’s ineffective or, worse, an ad buy that’s so expensive that the use of targeting is counter-productive.

We have long preferred the tried-and-true way to reach voters: Buying ads on local news sites which have an overwhelming number of voters as readers. Most TV buyers invest heavily in local news avails. The same strategy should apply for online political placements for one really good reason: It works.

Until recently, it’s been too difficult to buy directly online but Spot-On’s Pinpoint Placement platform will debut this fall, solving that problem for our customers. And providing some much-needed transparency along the way. What a demo? Send an email and we’ll hook you up.

Well Behaved Targeting

Targeting Alert: Just in time for the 2020 Election, a key buying tool in online advertising – tracking the behavior of Internet users – is coming under increasing fire.

Political folks don’t spend a lot of time thinking about targeting other than by voter registration information. But voter targeting is a sub-set of “behavioral” targeting for several reasons.

The first is the one most often overlooked: Voter registration information contains a lot of what’s known as PII – personally identifying information. It’s not acceptable to use PII to target ads online across the ‘open web’. So large buying platforms use the behaviors associated with a group of voters on a target list to send them ads.

This has a bunch of what you might call dumb results. First, consumer behavior and voting behavior are often very different. We all know Democrats who shop like a Republicans. One even ran for president. Also, most online ad targeting relies on financial data – credit cards, mortgages, buying habits – and that means some populations can’t be easily found online.

Over reliance on targeting also means that competing campaigns go after the same sets of people. Result? Increased pricing. Second result? Lower bidders – even if they’re political ad buyers – loose out to corporate brand campaigns or deeper pocketed opponents. So, if you’re looking for women in November you’re up against Target, Safeway and Wal-mart (Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas).

Also, there’s some evidence that behavior targeting does’t work as promised. And its coming under increasing scrutiny in Europe as more stringent privacy regulation takes effect.

The sorest of the sore points in Europe: Real-time bidding and use of behavior information in tandem. Translation: the process by which most political advertising – which emphasizes low cost and voter targeting – is purchased.

It’s gotten to the point where Silicon Valley companies are calling for more oversight of the data sales business. And, control of consumer data is at the front and center of a series of legislative proposals Congress is contemplating, all of which is going to change how voter lists are handled.

The conventional wisdom says no substantial legislation on privacy or any other ‘big’ topic will pass Congress this year. But this isn’t a political climate where conventional wisdom endures. Regular readers know Spot-On has always had a jaundiced view of voter and behavioral targeting for political outreach so we’re prepared for what we think are inevitable changes in the law.

Question is: Are you? As we look ahead, Spot-On sees a more complex market for online ad buying.

That’s why Spot-On’s working on a solution. Our Pinpoint Placement platform is built on a database of more than 2700 local news sites across the country. They’re divided up by Congressional and state districts, searchable by zip code. We’ll offer automated direct buying, real time campaign reporting and a host of other features.

Want a seak peek demo? Send an email.

Trump’s Tricks: Make ‘em Work For You

By reputable accounts President Donald Trump is spending more than $1 million a month on Facebook advertising in preparation for his re-election bid.

He may well be spending more on other platforms. We just don’t know since there are no legally mandated reporting structure for online ad buys for federal elections.

The spend and the mystery about spending has his potential opponents flipping out. But hand wringing isn’t really productive. Trump opponents as well as those hoping to emulate him might take a bit of a lesson here – before it gets too painful.

To start, there’s a bit of legacy thinking going on here. In the past, spending a lot on TV – or saying you’re spending a lot on TV – early means your campaign doesn’t have a money problem. And money for TV means you’re well positioned to win.

That’s not necessarily the case with online advertising, especially the kind of “lead generation” advertising that Trump Campaign Manager Brad Parscale says he’s conducting. It’s also possible that $1 million/month on Facebook means that the data collection and message validation operations aren’t working as well as they have in the past.

It’s also worth remembering that the ads running now are not persuasion or calls to specific action. They’re for fundraising and collecting information about potential supporters – regardless of party or status. Ads are being used to do message validation against specific demographics and locations, not against pre-bought list of known voters.

He’s not shy about it either. In this “Face the Nation” interview Brad Parscale spelled out – again – what he’s doing Here’s the – literal – money quote:

“We’re spending millions of dollars a month, light years ahead of any campaign in history, to build the foundation of who we need to market to, what we need to understand, what we need to say to them and how to exactly deliver to them.”

He’s exaggerating; former President Obama’s campaign did something similar when Facebook and online advertising was a political novelty (and a whole lot cheaper). But the motives were the same: Message validation is part and parcel of every digital brand advertising campaign. And it’s why message validation should be a bigger and early part of every political campaign for every candidate across several platforms – not just Facebook or Twitter.

Spot-On calls this service “incumbent protection”. It’s a good way for those in office to keep in touch with the voters who elected them AND learn more about how those voters see their elected officials.

An incumbent protection plan can provide a political campaign with information about platform preferences – not just tried and true Facebook video and YouTube but banner ads targeted to specific local outlets, on streaming video and audio targeted to demographics, all looking at performance and messaging. So when it’s crunch-time – voters are out and interested – the campaign is ready to go with strategies it knows will work. 

Do older women in Michigan respond to messages on immigration or are they more interested in health care? Do young men in Ohio engage with ads about guns owners’ rights or do they react to immigration messages? Do you really find young people in your district on Hulu? Or does YouTube work better? Facebook does well with older women but is Spotify a good investment for younger potential voters? What about voters’ general concerns. Do you know what they are and how they may change between now and November 2020? If you could find out – quickly and cheaply – would you do it?

You can. You should. And it won’t cost millions of dollars. An effective campaign can be run at any level of political engagement for costs suited to a campaign budget that breaks away from ‘silver bullet’ thinking to truly reach across the panoply of local news offerings in city, town or state.

Facebook (Finally) Exits Politics

It took more than two years, several Congressional hearings, the levying of a multi-billion dollar fine, countless PR missteps and Lord only knows how much Menlo Park navel gazing but Facebook has finally gotten out of the political ads business.

In true Facebook style of course, they aren’t saying they’re leaving. No, they’re just saying they won’t pay commission on political ads sales.

That has some naive reporters saying reaching into the archives to suggest that statements Facebook made last year still apply and that the company will continue to take political ads.

This is nonsense. Put another way: Would you ask your media buyer to do without their commission? Didn’t think so.

What’s really going on here? Well, Facebook is going back to the political business it should have stayed in, serving local campaigns on a self-service level. School board race? No problem. City council in a small or medium size city? Upload that creative!

But if you have a multi-state, multi-creative campaign with voter or demograhic targeting and need help or advice using and properly deploying the Instagram platform? You’re outta luck.

Why this move? Why now? Well, the numbers tell the story. Political ad sales were worth about $300 million for Facebook in 2018. But the fine they’re facing form the Federal Trade Commission for violating users’ privacy over the Cambridge Analytica scandal is put at $3 billion.

it’s not just Facebook that’s scaling back.

Google which is still active in the political ad arena but is operating with significant restrictions. The firm won’t take political ads for local races or ballot measures in Washington, Maryland, New Jersey and Nevada and has restricted the types of ads it will accept in New York.

Election officials in one of the states affected say that programmatic ad platforms are still running political ads so it’s not clear if Google is refusing ads directly – for YouTube and search – while allowing third-party ad platforms access to its display inventory.

If that’s the case – danger ahead – as platform buys can become subject to retroactive or late enforcement of the law. A platform buy might not be executed as ordered with only minimal or no notice at all.

Confusing? Not for Spot-On customers. We’re even rolling out a solution this fall. Our Pinpoint Placement platform is built on a database of more than 2700 local news sites across the country. They’re divided up by Congressional and state districts, searchable by zip code. We’ll offer automated direct buying, real time campaign reporting and a host of other features.

Want a seak peek demo? Send an email.

Lessons From 2018: Campaign Tactics Edition

Yes, we know, it’s 2020 for everyone in politics. But before we rise from our armchairs and really get down in the trenches, let’s take a few minutes to consider how political campaigns have changed.

The 2018 cycle was a watershed year for new online and digitally-based tactics that worked surprisingly well. We think last year will be seen one where campaigns became less hierarchical, more concentrated on field and direct outreach not on TV and, as a result, more diverse and ultimately less expensive.

Election Day Can Last A Month – or Longer

For those of us in California, this has been true for a while: You vote when you can, where you can, via the method that best suits you. Plenty of 2018 races weren’t decided until all the early ballots were counted – some weeks after the election.

Early voting in person, voting by mail and a new policy of mailing ballots to all registered voters, is making election day a process, not an event. Even New York state, long a hold-out on these matters, has changed its laws.

So last minute media spends, especially on TV, are becoming less effective. They’re talking to people who have already voted. Longer-range campaigns, over weeks and days are the new normal. That’s why we’re seeing more ‘flat’ campaigns that are less centered on paid TV and more on outreach and field. It takes time to build a digital message, especially with elections lasting for weeks, not a days.

Campaigns Became Less Hierarchical

The ultimate in flattened campaigns was certainly the Beto O’Rouke’s run against Sen. Ted Cruz. Ultimately unsuccessful – but by far less than anticipated – O’Rourke ran a campaign with several unique features.

He didn’t use seasoned campaign professionals. He didn’t rely on lists of known voters to man and support and donate to the campaign and he made person-to-person outreach – live and virtual – a cornerstone of his campaign. Oh, and he built a list of supporters in and outside of Texas that’s the envy of pretty much anyone running for president. Politico Magazine has a run-down of what O’Rourke’s folks did that’s well worth reading.

O’Rourke wasn’t the only one. The early forerunner here is New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez who in shocking upset unseated Democrat Joe Crowley from a historically safe seat in The Bronx.

Like many early 2018 primacy candidates, Ocasio-Cortez used a combination of field and social media-enabled outreach to talk to voters in her district. She didn’t spend a lot of money on TV – she didn’t have it.

Instead, she had a compelling message and she used the communication technology that she believed was popular in her district to talk to voters. That theme and those techniques were repeated in “upset” after “upset” across the country as younger candidates used what they knew, not what they were told had “always worked”.

Can this work for a national race? Not all of it, certainly. But some – oh, yes.

Women Ran as People, Not Barbie Dolls. And They Won.

One of the most striking changes in 2018 were the candidates’ approaches to media and messaging – especially women.Women campaigned with babies on hips, mussed hair and no make-up, in jeans and flats, not power suits and sensible heels.

THIS is how how social media is changing politics. The re-imaging of candidates as people you see every day – in person and online – not unreachable icons beamed into your living room in a :30 with a deep baritone voice over to give them “credibility”. Instead of one TV ad that reaches millions, many candidates relied on quick Instagram or Facebook videos and photos with brief spur-of-the-moment insights and reactions that reach a few but then are multiple by sharing. Some are still at it.

The result: Less of an emphasis on blow-dry perfection, more on the personal and flawed approach. More fun. And yeah, a lot more dancing.

What’s it All Mean? Change, That’s What. And Lots More of It

What’s this mean? First off, campaigns are going to get a lot less expensive. In a lot of markets – New York, California, pretty much any swing state – television is just too expensive for many. Using digital media is cheaper and unlike TV, you can measure its effectiveness – in real time.

Digital media IS effective. Yeah, you’re right, no one’s going to run a presidential campaign with a freeform structure of volunteers coming and going as they wish. And Instagram ain’t gonna get anyone into the White House.

But, as the Trump campaign demonstrated in 2016, no one’s going to win with a TV-only air campaign constructed by a veteran consultant basing messaging on static polling and what “always works.”

Women can run with bad hair, big hips and funky dance steps. Outreach is an iPad and a volunteer with a great attitude and a willingness to work hard and learn. Polling comes from the insights recorded from door-to-door conversations with supporters and opponents.

Which means big-dollar media consultants and their targeted approach are in for a reckoning. In a very short period of time, the diversity of elected officials that the media finds so amazing may be more commonplace – on both sides of the aisle.

Want to learn more about Spot-On sees the evolving campaign environment? Follow us on Twitter where we offer regular updates, commentary and help navigating a dynamic and changing online marketplace.

We used to offer to connect with people on Facebook but no more. For starters, they’re looking at the wrong end of a variety of charges. And, well, we got disgusted with their business practices a while ago. It will take criminal indictments to make political movers and shakers turn totally away from Facebook. But, Spot-On figures that day will be here well before the 2020 elections.

Why Facebook

Usually in this space at this time of  year, Spot-On spends a few minutes to make predictions. But this year, we’re putting that aside. This mess with Facebook and political ads is too overwhelming.

And dangerous.

Let’s begin with a clarification: Facebook is a fantastic tool for elected officials to reach their constituents, particularly in small numbers and targeted groups. But Spot-On – and our clients (that’s you) is all about elections. We’re politics – that’s policy.

There’s a difference. An important one that you, dear reader, understand but Facebook clearly does not.

How’d this happen? Facebook had an aggressive outreach program for members of Congress showing them how to use its pages, how to post, how to put up pictures of their grandkids, how to ‘like’ and ‘share’. For Congress this was a gift: Finally, someone – Facebook! – had organized the Internet into something regular people – Congress! – could understand!

So when it came time to run for office it was only natural that Congress would treat Facebook like a TV channel. Buy a lot of ads and get re-elected! It worked, too. And that’s where the trouble started.

Like every other tech company, Facebook doesn’t see a difference between political ads and soda ads. Political is just another brand silo and it’s one that doesn’t really generated that much revenue. For Facebook, the more speech, the better, the more connections the better, the more ‘popular’ the post, the better. Because Facebook was envisioned by happy, content, well-off people as a happy place were we can all just get along by sharing and liking and coming  gracefully and joyously to seeing each others’ point of view.

So Facebook doesn’t know what to do when faced with critical or harsh political speech or opinions. Or with deliberate and organized fraud. Or with targeted ads designed to influence opinion in nefarious not-so-nice – but eminently shareable – ways. And more than two years after the 2016 election – which featured all of these things – the COMPANY STILL DOESN’T KNOW WHAT TO DO.

Just look at the past six months.

When Facebook instituted its political ‘registration’ process in May, it closed down a number of small campaigns. Babbling about transparency and willingness to prevent a repeat of 2016, the company approached known political buyers – like Spot-On – but didn’t know or care to approach smaller campaigns. Result: Campaigns with lots of dough could stay on the platform, the local races (school boards, small town city councils) got booted until they could meet the company’s ‘standards’ for buying ads.

At the same time, Facebook initiated an ad disclaimer requirement that’s different from most state and federal law. It also launched a ‘transparency effort’ that, if carefully reviewed, gives insights into campaign strategy and spending. Both corporate policies are in addition – and usually beyond – what’s required state or federal laws.

But even that process was a joke. Some of these requirements could be avoided if ads were purchased through a buying platform. In Alabama in 2017, a bunch of Democrats decided to imitate the nefarious tactics of 2016 during the special election that got Doug Jones elected to the U.S. Senate. They put up fake pages with fake messages to create dissension and influence turn out.

Finally, last month, the New York Times – in what should be a coup de grace for the company’s lax and myopic leadership – demonstrated what savvy media buyers have know for a while: Political ad review is not done in the U.S. It’s done in another country by people who know very little about laws governing speech and elections.

Spot-On got out of the Facebook ad buying business in 2016. We didn’t know what they were going to do but we were pretty sure it would be inept. But even after a lifetime in politics and 20-plus years in Silicon Valley we were not prepared for this combination of sheer ineptitude and cynical, PR-oriented half-measures and deliberate “mis-truths”.

So we have a question for anyone still using Facebook ads as the centerpiece of their campaign.


Why do Facebook’s contractors in the Philippines or India get to rule on what your political speech should look or sound like? Why does Facebook get to set financial disclosure laws that are different from what you state requires? Why does Facebook’s Instagram get to go beyond what government agencies require to create a sham disclaimer system? And above all: Why is political speech being controlled by a company that cares more about its shareholders than voters or citizens?

And why are you letting your candidates play along?