Spotlight Blog

Changing Times (Again)

Every once in a while Spot-On likes to get a little high minded. And no, we are not inhaling.

We are instead contemplating trends worth noting for our customers. Here’s the first one, you might say the only one that matters: There are as many smart phones in the country as there are TV sets. And those phones – and we’re talking about iPads and tablets as well – can show good-quality video. Even without video, some mobile apps see audiences that rival in size those for TV shows.

That’s sparked two changes. One, cookies – those pieces of code used to identify characteristics associated with a group of individuals – aren’t as effective. Two, the rise of ad blocking software.

It is Spot-On’s high-minded opinion that ad-blocking software is less of an issue with folks looking at news and information sites – the best places to find voters. Blockers are most popular among folks who use phones for games, particularly younger men.

But there are other follow-on effects to the increase in mobile usage and audience size. Here are a few.

First, traditional news publisher see increased use of mobile as a way to reset their pricing and ad packaging.  They’re changing ad formats, creating new, richer ad units and generally being a bit more aggressive about how they sell – especially since on mobile they’re seeing no weekend drop-offs, common with desktop displays.

So prices for online ads are heading up. Not dramatically but the days of the effective $5,000 ad buy are gone.

This all comes as junk sites are getting the boot from pretty much everyone. The ad tech business – the backbone of what we and others do – is experiencing what people in our expanded hometown of Silicon Valley like to call a “flight to quality”. Translation: “People who sell junk are going out of business.”

This “flight” comes from the pressure brand advertisers like Coke and Toyota are putting on online ads to start performing. To keep their customers happy, reputable ad exchanges are pushing poor performing sites – sites they suspect are buying traffic, sites that deploy bots instead of showing ads to people – to the bottom of the barrel.

Bowing to pressure from brands, ad networks and exchanges are looking instead at measurements like ‘vieawability’. They’re monitoring sites to see if real people come by. There’s some talk about better monitoring ads, too. And there’s a lot of cranky behavior between advertisers and outlets about metrics

Meanwhile, over at the big websites and media outlets, there’s talk about new forms of advertising, new ways to show ads to readers and viewers that are not standard banners or little cubes with video pre-roll in them. These are more expensive formats that mimic the planning and consideration that goes into a TV ad. 

In short – and just in time for a presidential election – much of what political advertisers have been taking for granted is changing. And it will change again as ad tech companies merge, new ad formats are rolled out and publishers keep pushing to take control of their advertising.

Luckily, the brunt of that will be in the off-year. So look for even MORE change in 2018. Don’t worry, fearless readers, we’ll keep you up-to-date.

Want our read on breaking news? Follow us on Twitter. Or you can hang with us on Facebook. For those of you who like the more personal touch, Spot-On’s founder Chris Nolan will be part of a panel “How is Paid Media Adjusting to the New Normal?”  at the American Association of Political Consultants Los Angeles Regional Conference on June 14. Come join us!

Clip Service: News for Busy People

The optimists here at Team Spot-On like to point out that this is the first year since 2004 – that’s 12 long years – where political spending hasn’t been hampered by a real or feared economic recession. Which probably explains why everyone is busy, earlier and faster than some anticipated.

Not a lot of time for newsletters! But there are still events and trends that affects the political ad markets. So this election year, Spot-On will revive our short and sweet “Clip Service: News for Busy People” pointer to things we think are important as you and your clients move through the year. You hipsters can think of it as ICYMI.

First up this month, our two favorites: data and ad targeting.

– The FCC is talking about letting cable TV customers buy their set-top box either from independent vendors or the cable companies. Why is that important? It will cut down on the type of data that cable companies can collect – and use to direct ads – about customers. If you place a lot of faith in the growth of “addressable” set-tops for ad targeting this is bad news.

– The discussions and disagreements about the use of voter data are a little quieter as we move into Spring but they’re not going away. The LATimes took a look at what campaigns know (but not, unfortunately HOW they know it). This is important if you place a lot of “targeted” online ads. Our bet? It’s not the data that’s under attack it’s the sale of that data that’s the problem.

– As a companion to that idea – data is the backbone of ad targeting – here’s a look at why advertisers – NOT online news publishers – should take MORE control of where ads appear. If you’re online ad budget relies heavily on any sort of automated buying, this is an early warning that things are changing. The author makes a good point – one that will appeal to political folks – but our bet is that the growth of walled gardens with more supervision over advertisers is growing.

These are the most recent highlights for issues and trends we think are worth noting. If you’d like to see what we think on a more timely basis, follow us on Twitter. Or hang with us on Facebook.

And, of course, we’re always happy to talk online trends and strategies. Just give us a shout.

Spot-On Ad Predicts….2016 Edition

First, of course, accept our best wishes for a happy  – and winning – New Year.

Last year, Spot-On got some nice notices on our predictions for 2015 – a win! So here’s our take on what political consultants, media buyers and campaigns ought to be looking for in 2016.

– Data breaches. We’ve seen three minor squabbles over data. For our money, this piece is the best look at the back-and-forth between Democrats over models, predicting and software patches. But there’s also the more interesting leak of a national database of name and voting histories possibly by NationBuilder. And the very interesting Cruz campaign voter profiling.

These sorts of leaks and misuses are going to happen again. And again. And eventually the breach isn’t going to be voter info but donor info – and credit cards . Because if it can happen to the IRS, it can happen to your campaign.

– TV stays big, becomes even less effective. Spot-On’s been saying this for years; the rest of the political world is catching up. Our bet is that 2016 is the year that everyone finally starts to believe that television isn’t what it used to be when it comes to finding and reaching voters. Don’t worry, that’ll be after the money’s spent.

– Pollsters really get kicked around. Reliance on TV goes hand in hand with  reliance on pollsters. Just ask David Cameron, Benjamin Netanyahu, Karl Rove and Rahm Emanuel. The old “Buy 2,000 GRPs, move the numbers X%” is broken. This probably isn’t the year that pollsters get completely disintermediated. But it’s the year that going to show some geeky data types how to do just that. And no, online surveys aren’t going to be the answer.

– Going against this trend: The use of early online “message validation” campaigns to create the sort of testing that big campaigns do routinely. Message validation can be scaled to pretty much any budget, saving money on all ad placements, including mail and TV. In the right hands, it’s a powerful tool.

Ad networks will become less effective. A number of publishers have pulled automatic or “programmatic” access to their inventory for political and advocacy use. Spot-On has always believed that direct buying is a better deal for campaigns because it’s safer, more secure and more reliable. If you ad network buy can’t get the local outlets you want – and in three big media markets it’s a lot harder this year than it was last – give us a call.

Want more timely takes on the day’s advertising and political tech world news and events? Follow us on Twitter or come hang out with us on Facebook.

Doing The Time Warp. Again.

Political folks take a certain amount of justifiable pride in dismissing shiny toys in favor of techniques that attract, motivate and engage voters.

That has always made good sense. Voters follow, they don’t lead. But it’s beginning to feel like campaigns could miss out on the power of digital, especially if they rely entirely on programmatic ad networks.  By sticking to what they think “works” for 2016, political folks will rely on techniques that don’t reach voters.

Over the past few weeks, there’s been a lot of conversation about ad blocking software that keeps ads from displaying. It’s a feature in new versions of some web browsers and there are specific blocking apps for mobile devices.

Ad blocking, as many have pointed out, is a symptom of an automated system run amuck, a diagnosis that has the Internet Advertising Bureau calling for all kinds of reforms. If you’ve ever struggled with a slow-loading site on a mobile phone only to see the stuff you want to look at jerked around by ad windows, you know the problem.

Next up – and related – are conversations about online ad fraud. The most recent estimate is that 11% of banners and 23% of video – that’s pre-roll – much loved by political folks – bought on networks is not seen by actual readers. Ads are appearing on sites deliberately designed to run without being seen by humans or set up simply to record automated and self-generated “bot” views to name just two of the more obvious ploys (the list of devious ideas goes on and on….)

Voter matching to run targeted ads does NOT resolve this problem. Matching does NOT find specific voters; it finds people like those voters on ad networks. All ad networks have problems with fraud.

So, what are the solutions?

We outlined some in this newsletter and post a few months back on “viewability”. That advice – get server access, ask for site lists, monitor click-through rates – still holds. Spot-On also suggests a mixed ad buy: Direct placement, which has less fraud and higher viewability, in concert with closely monitored programmatic.

This advice is given with an eye toward changes in the online market, especially the rise of online newsstands. Apple has “Newstand”, Facebook has “Instant Articles”. Google’s got AMP. These are cleaner versions of editorial designed to load fast with minimal but attractive ad placements.

Increasingly, publishers are beginning to take certain kinds of inventory off their network/programmatic platforms to ensure their value. Even Google has pulled open access to YouTube, an attempt to increase its ad rates and protect its increasily valuable – and popular – home-grown talent.

Spot-On has always bought direct and we’re more than happy to talk about how online can be used it more effectively and efficiently. Just give us a shout. And you can also follow us on Twitter or hang out with us on Facebook

Dividing Digital

It’s time to divide up “digital”, the catch-all phrase many campaigns use to describe things that aren’t mail or TV.

Why split up all that computer stuff? Well, because the idea of a “digital” budget is misleading. It groups very different tasks – tasks that are normally separated – in one big sloppy bucket.

Ad buys, field, fundraising, messaging and scheduling are separate tasks IRL*, they should be online as well.

Digital campaign and advocacy budgets usually start with money for the construction and maintenance of the campaign website. These days, that’s expanded to include Facebook, the Twitter feed, fundraising email and online ad buying.

Often these activities are managed by people who have “digital” credentials – they can code, perhaps, or they’ve got a strong Twitter following and good vendor relationships from prior campaigns. But the same folks who are good at outreach or website builds may not have a lot of experience with fundraising, earned media management or ad placements.

Since every “digital” activity has a offline corollary we can take a look at where digital activity might fit.

Twitter and Facebook are more “earned” media than paid for political and advocacy. Yes, yes, they take ads – and you should buy them. But the power of those ads is in the combined, dual feed approach. Which means you may be better off with those activities run by the press folks not media buyers.

One of the best way to raise money is a combination of email, search and Facebook ads. Fundraisers know how to bring money in the door; online tools only expand their reach – and they should be writing the emails and approving the Facebook ads.

Ad buys need to be in the hands of people who know online media – not just video pre-roll, but the whole range of options. The online ad world is changing before our eyes – more mobile, less desktop, new tech specs, new sizing. It’s great if a campaign has someone who understands the ad network world. But those network have limits – limits that weren’t in place during the last election cycle.

Our advice? Don’t think about digital as a separate department that sits in a corner. Instead, incorporate online communications tools – the best ones for the task at hand – as they’re needed.

Spot-On is always happy to talk more about online and how our clients can use it more effectively and efficiently. Want to know more? Just give us a shout

You can also follow us on Twitter or hang out with us on Facebook.

*IRL: In Real Life, geek speak for what we do without computers.

To See or Not To See…..

Viewability. Silly made-up word. Important concept.

Viewability” is the shorthand that ad agencies and ad tech outfits are using to discuss a big problem: Many of the ads that run online aren’t seen.

There are a number of reasons for this. Since a lot of online advertising is bought by computers talking to computers on automated bidding platforms, there’s no one point of sale. So there’s no nice person to make sure your reel or your flat gets to production with tender loving care. Instead, there are racks of machines plugging your ads into blank spaces appearing on website across the Internet at a speed so fast you can’t see it happen.

Some of those spaces are seen by real people sitting in front of laptops or looking at a phone or tablet. Some are not. Why not? Here are just a few reasons:

– The ad placements are “below the fold” – they appear far down on the web page where readers often don’t go. When this happens, an ad is registered as “seen” but not actually viewed.

– Some ads are seen by computers crawling websites looking for data (sometimes called “spiders“). Again, an ad is registered as “seen” because a computer calls it up.

Outright fraud: Ad impressions are dumped outside your target market by unscrupulous networks looking to fill an order. Technology, sadly, does not change human nature.

– Increasingly, readers are deploying blocking technology to screen out ads.

Viewability is a big problem for political for the most obvious of reasons: Campaigns have little time and fewer resources than large advertisers with year-long campaigns and billion dollar marketing budgets. And since most political advertising is still bought via network buys it’s particularly vulnerable.

What to do? Political campaigns can follow the lead of large advertisers in a few ways.

– Put a portion of your online budget into direct buys so you know where you ads are going. Here at Spot-On we buy direct and we insist that all our placements are “above the fold”.

– Set aside a portion of your budget for “rich” media placements. These high-impact ads can’t be resold the way banners ads are and they can be animated to run your TV spots.

– Monitor your network buy. Instead of sending your creative directly to your ad network, have it trafficked and managed by a media buyer who can give you “viewabilty” statistic. Spot-On’s buys regularly see 90% plus viewabilty for direct buys and rich media; in the low 70% for our ad networks.

– Ask for server access. Ad servers register performance every day – or every hour – ask your media buyer to give you a log-in so you can look for yourself. Spot-On provides access for all clients on demand and any reputable ad network should be happy to let you learn more about your buy.

Spot-On News Clips: Ad Trends For Busy People

Old habits die hard. Spend 20-some years in a newsroom and, well, you have to read the wires first thing every morning. Because you like it. We like to share, too. So here’s a short list of interesting items that have come across our screen the past few weeks.

First up: The New York Times piece on the failings, past, present and anticipated in political polling.

What’s interesting about this piece is what’s NOT being suggested, namely that the work that pollsters to may be taken over by, um, algorithms, those little mathematical formulas used to predict human behavior. Something like this is already happening at the national level – ask Jim Messina – but smaller campaigns who are going to have trouble.

Related, much longer, and well, probably not as easy read (but almost certainly worth it): Bloomberg Business Week’s one-theme issue on computer code. That’s right. The only story in the magazine is about the importance, use and place that “code” has in our culture and our business lives. We’re not pointing you to this lightly but if you don’t want to read the whole thing, Charlie Rose interviewed the writer and his editor.

Now, for the breaking news.

There’s a steady drumbeat about how dollars spent for television ad buys are falling and dollars for online ad buys are rising. There’s this from Broadcasting and Cable. And this from ad agency called – irony! – Zenith and this from another ad consulting shop. And a little naval-gazing from inside-the-Beltway about Facebook’s ability to target with some predictions about TV.

But enough about  TV, let’s talk online. Google is worried enough about ad fraud, they’re dispatching a special team. And the National Journal talks about 2016 ads being sold out. That last one is no joke just a bit of overstatement. Lastly, here’s a look at a trend for mobile ad placement: 60-40/mobile-desktop. If you’ve done business with Spot-On in the past couple of months, you know this is our standing recommendation.

If you follow us on Twitter, most of these links aren’t news.  And you hang with Spot-On on Facebook you’ve probably seen them as well. Feel free to join us there for more regular kibitzing.

The Pre-Roll Fad

We know, old habits die hard. Especially when you can cut the line.

Because they’re used to a world of red-tagged mail and election window pricing for TV, some political folks don’t worry about placing online ads until after Labor Day.

But the Internet changes everything. Online ads can and do sell out as The National Journal’s Shane Goldmacher explains.

Now, he’s talking mostly about one specific kind of ad: Video pre-roll for 2016. And video pre-roll has benefits – it looks like TV so it’s a comfortable transition to online. But it also has limits.

The biggest limit: Many online videos are never seen.

The good folks at Google recently said that 46% of video pre-roll is NOT viewed by a live human. Now, The Google is out to boost ad buys on its YouTube channel so they’ve got a dog in the fight. But they are also the premier ad delivery servicee. Everyone – yup, even us – uses Google’s DoubleClick to serve ads and monitor performance.

This isn’t the first time we’ve heard this.

Last year, the New York Times ran a story saying that some video pre-roll was never seen.

And we can’t say this often enough: Using voter roll or demographic targeting for your pre-roll distribution doesn’t guarantee it will be seen. Regardless of vendor, of matching partners or technology, those pre-roll ad buys run on the same delivery and buying networks that The Times and Google are monitoring.

Team Spot-On takes a different view of this pre-roll fad. It’s a fad, for starters. Too many people are buying the same stuff for the same reason which triples prices immediate before an election – after Labor Day. So a gang of people are bidding against each other, paying top dollar for ads placements that, well, disappear. Like Beanie Babies, it can’t last.

There are alternatives: Rich media placements that have in-banner video or animation; roadblocks that carry a message for 24 hours, fixed on local news pages, above-the-fold ads bought directly from outlets and monitored daily. All are good, sound alternatives to pre-roll. And many are far less expensive.

More importantly, they’re seen.

What’s all this mean? Well, plan ahead – further ahead than you may have thought necessary in previous elections. Even if you want a lot of pre-roll buy early and save money.

We’re always happy to chat more about buying strategies and way to make your campaign dollar go further. Give us a shout.

Television’s Cracked Screen

We admit it. Spot-On is a little hung up on the TV business.

Last year we probably – oh, let’s not mince words, we definitely – spent a little too much time saying that Aero, the now defunct service that put a TV signal on your laptop, was more of a threat than it turned out to be. But our sense about changes in the TV business wasn’t misplaced. Even with Aero out of business, it’s crystal clear that television viewership just isn’t what it used to be.

If you’re in the political ad business, it’s probably worth paying attention to these fights:

– Late last year, TV executives and ad agencies started arguing about getting paid for recorded TV shows. Why? TV people don’t think they’re getting paid enough.

– This year at the big confab held every year in LA by researchers – the folks who set ad rates and look at audience measurement – broadcasters conceded that they’re loosing ground – fast.

– Netflix gets much of the blame for the decline in TV watching. But that’s not the only contributor. 60% of all US households have a recording device. And 60% of the folks with those devices fast-forward through ads. Translation: Less than half the ads on television are seen live.

Speaking of Netfflix, it just reported earnings. There are about 40 million Netflix subscribers in the U.S. There are just about 115 million television households. No, we won’t tell anyone if you go buy the stock. Promise.

For those of you who like what Silicon Valley calls a “deep dive”, here’s a very long piece from the New Yorker about Reed Hasting, CEO of Netflix which has some statistics on television ad buying from late last year. It offers up roughly the same stats: 60% of all television ads aren’t seen. Ever.

Which all adds up to this piece from The Washington Post’s Dan Balz about how political ad placements needs to change.

And by way of background, we are compelled to cite this prescient 2013 column from the late NYTImes media columnist Dave Carr. “More Cracks Undermine the Citadel of TV Profits.” Have a read and see how right he was.

We’ll keep tracking these trends and a few others we’ve, um, spotted. As always, please feel free to hit the “unsubscribe” button below. But if you’re hanging around, feel free to join us in obsessively tracking the TV business (and other things) on Twitter. Or you can hang with us on Facebook, too.


Braggin’ Rights & A New Site

Team Spot-On has been a little busy these past few weeks.

First, we went off to New Orleans for the annual meeting of the American Association of Political Consultants and watched our clients over at RBI Strategies & Research pick up a 1st place gold AND a 2nd place silver Pollie Award for their campaign to help the Larimer County (CO) Humane Society get a new building.

The LHS campaign – a ballot measure to raise taxes in the county – won by 52% of the vote. This in the white-hot state of Colorado where television time was at a premium. With television far too expensive, RBI decided to put the bulk of the campaign resources in the online outreach. Spot-On supervised the placement of “rich” media take-overs, Facebook placements, video pre-roll and premium placement banner ads to create a winning campaign.

How winning? 96% of the voters came down the ballot to support the LHS measure.

It’s so good, it’s included in the case-study slide show on Spot-On’s brand new spankin’ website. The site’s new but the address is the same. It’s

Usually we end this newsletter with a note saying you can unsubscribe at any time (because you can) but today we’d like to thank AAPC President Art Hackney for his kind and generous comments about our 2015-16 predictions for the political business. If the Pollies are the Oscars, for a few moments there, Spot-On Founder Chris Nolan felt a little bit like Sally Field.

If you heard Art at the Pollies and are a little curious about what he was talking about, go here and have a read. And, of course, feel free to share this with friends and colleagues. You can also hang out with us on Facebook or follow us on Twitter.