Big Political Ad Spend Set for Local in 2018, but Will News Sites Be Ready?

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A record wave of political advertising is heading toward the local digital space as the parties and well-funded special-interest groups gear up to elect their candidates and enact propositions in the 2018 mid-year elections.

Political ad spending totaling $1.9 billion will pour into the digital space, most of it on the local level, Borrell Associates estimates in its 2018 forecast. But daily newspapers and local news “pure-plays” will have to fight hard for their share against Facebook, Google and other digital platforms — all of which can target users not only by their behavior and other attributes but exactly where they are.

In this Q & A, Borrell’s research EVP Kip Cassino details why political ad spending in the digital space is rising so rapidly and how local news providers can ensure they’ll capture decent shares of the hefty proceeds:

Facebook and other social media sites are destined to capture well over 50% of the $1.9 billion in political spending going to digital space in your report. You say “mass is giving way to individual targeting.” Could Facebook, with its superior targeting, actually do much better than you project compared to local sites, especially in expected close races?
The overwhelmingly local election slate in 2017 is run largely by amateurs. With the exception of some mayoral contests in large cities, the campaign staffs don’t know a lot about digital (or other media either, for that matter). So, their spending on digital is light, compared to better funded, professionally managed federal campaigns.

Could Facebook do better that we’re currently projecting? Absolutely. If, for instance, most campaigns take a lesson from Trump’s 2016 effort and turn to social for message testing, spending on the social sites could soar. A big question is how much the political campaigns will impact mobile devices. That will also have a big effect on social.

Could national news providers capture a fraction of the digital political spending through targeting that drills down to the community level?
Yes, and that fraction would grow if local media outlets sit on their hands and wait for phones to ring.

While you see “nearly half” of political spending in digital going to programmatic exchanges, you say “bonafide” local sites can compete effectively for respectable

shares of spending. Can “bonafide” sites includes newer “pure-plays” as well as those operated by long-established daily newspapers?

To make their case effectively during the 2018 political campaigns, do you recommend that local digital news sites take any specific steps in marketing, production, editorial or user profiling to close existing gaps?
Yes. The key to gaining share in political ad spending requires media use of groups important to candidates, thorough knowledge of the demographics of these groups, and the ability to articulate their importance to candidates. The age when local media could simply sit back and wait for the campaigns to come to them has passed. Nowadays, political advertising has to be sold.

When in 2018 will this heightened political ad spending begin to have an impact?
The first impact will occur relatively early, as activity leading up to the spring primaries takes place.  Preparations have already begun. Candidates for state and local offices have been vetted and chosen by concerned parties, and money is already being raised. When the first overt activities begin in February-March, a lot of work will already be done. There will be many more candidates looking for attention than will ever appear on ballots, so at least some of the spending will be diffused.

This is the introductory period, when candidates for all contested offices try to get as much public exposure as they can, and attempt to identify the demographics of the voters attracted to their specific messages. Once the primaries have narrowed the field, a short hiatus will occur, while remaining candidates plan the remainder of their campaigns that will continue until the fall and election time.

Could commercial local sites, like Yelp and Autotrader, as well as news sites, be beneficiaries of this record digital spending on political ads?
Some commercial sites claim they can identify voter preferences according to goods or services purchased. Others, especially local businesses, may have specific projects or needs that will be either advanced or retarded by a given candidate’s promised actions. Otherwise, very little B2C or B2B benefit.

Does your report on political ad spending in past years and what you project in 2018 and 2020 give you any new or firmer insights about the what local news providers need to do to compete effectively against the big social and search platforms with their advantage on user profiling?
Some suggestions:

  1. Don’t aim too high. Pay attention to the local contests as well as the ballot issues. There’s less competition, and a surprising amount of funding.
  2. Find the local PACs. Although most observers think PACs are limited to federal contests, more than half concentrate their efforts at the state level or below.
  3. Do your homework.  Don’t be satisfied with averaged national data, old research or anecdotes to prove your marketing worth to a campaign. Go the extra mile to find out who your audience really is. Some of the answers may surprise you.

You say, “Go the extra mile to find out who your audience really is. Some of the answers may surprise you.” But can local news providers, even daily newspapers, produce the segmented audience profiles that the big platforms have? Facebook, by compiling subscriber “likes,” can categorize the behavior of its users more accurately than the spouses of the subscribers can.
There is still much that can be done, and many sources to achieve it. Try the business or economics department of a local college. They have resources at hand, and are usually happy to help. Vendors like Claritas and Scarborough charge a lot for subscriptions, but may be more open-handed for the one-time needs of a smaller media outlet.

Last but far from least, the federal government has (literally) tons of data on even the smallest community, and most of it is free. They also have people to talk to over the phone to help with confusing websites. All of this can be done, with enough time and effort.

Tom GrubisichTom Grubisich (@TomGrubisich) has written “The New News” column for Street Fight since 2011. He is also working on a book about the history, present, and future of Charleston, S.C.