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Three Challenges Election Campaigns Will Face on Digital, and How to Solve Them

It’s projected that more than $1 billion will be spent on digital ads this campaign cycle.

Olivier Le Moal

For the next nine months, online ads will have a decidedly different flavor. Election season is in full swing and candidates ranging from presidential to mayoral are ramping up their advertising efforts. Television still gets more campaign dollars in total, but digital ad spend will hit record highs.

Campaign consultants from the traditional media world are entering the digital fray as newcomers. Again and again, I’ve seen them run up against three major challenges while making the jump to digital: Ads running against the wrong content, lack of awareness of viewability problems, and straight-up mistargeting. To help curb these common issues, let’s talk about why they happen and what can be done to avoid them.

Brand safety

One of the greatest fears of companies running digital ads is seeing their ads running against completely inappropriate content, with the worst-case scenario often being an appearance on a seedy, not-suitable-for-work website. A politician’s image can be even more fragile, and even something more mundane, like a gambling website, could be considered a major hit on their image.

One of the greatest fears of companies running digital ads is seeing their ads running against completely inappropriate content.

Traditionally, to protect a brand’s image, campaigns have turned to whitelisting — compiling comprehensive lists of acceptable sites where ads can run. These lists are often too small to provide the needed scale to reach the target audience of likely voters, especially after being further refined by demographic or behavioral filters. Then there’s the opposite approach: Blacklisting sites where they wouldn’t want their candidate to be appear. But the pace of change online and the proliferation of new sites means that blacklists are, at best, a temporary salve and an incomplete solution.

To prevent a screenshot of your candidate on an NSFW website from going viral, you must be sure that your partner has sophisticated content controls that go beyond whitelist/blacklist. Trusted programmatic platform partners allow customizable blocking of entire content groups, and allow you to pick content that results in the highest engagement with your candidate’s message. Ideally, a partner’s customization capabilities should be as rich as the target data, and allow for serious depth in choosing exactly the content that fits your targets.

Viewability

The second pitfall for newly digital campaigns is viewability, something traditional campaigners might not even consider. While TV suffers from its own viewability issues due to time-shifted viewing, it is digital that can provide measurement back to an advertiser on ads that are on a part of the Web page where the user never sees it.

Above-the-fold is no longer a comprehensive answer.

The old model was to buy a fixed position on the page, referred to as “above the fold,” and was considered a no-brainer for visibility. Today, many websites are designed with infinite scroll on desktop and especially mobile, and people have become increasingly comfortable with this new form. Many ads are served only when a user reaches a certain point of the page — we call this lazy load. It means that above-the-fold is no longer a comprehensive answer.

The best ad tech platforms today are partnered with third-party viewability companies that can scan a page to judge the viewability of an ad placement before making the decision to buy that slot. The cost for these services is relatively small in comparison to the increase in effectiveness — and peace of mind. It will also give you a much higher rate of return on your purchased impressions. These services are a prerequisite and not a luxury.

Mistargeting

Finally, there are the issues of mistargeting. If you’ve successfully leapt the hurdles of content-appropriate websites and viewability, don’t stumble at the finish line. Running your ad for the completely wrong audience is about as effective as running your ads for houseplants.

Getting it right on digital could be the difference between your candidate being sworn in at the Oval Office or City Hall versus watching the inauguration at home.

Many issues with mistargeting stem from the common mistake of trying to move offline data (like a direct-mail list) directly online, with little to no finesse. I call this the copy-paste approach. We’ve found that migrating raw mailing list data online can result in losing up to 50 percent of your list. If you rely on that offline list alone, you risk missing half of your potential voters. It is entirely more productive and effective to think of the list as your “seed population,” akin to a representative sample in statistics, and intelligently expand your list to other voters with matching attributes and actions. We call this modeling. Finding a media or data partner that can help you do this right means possibly increasing your reach three- or fourfold instead of cutting it in half.

Even if you’re not bringing your own data, a good media partner should already have a detailed picture of the audience that their inventory hits: Primarily through voter files which will allow you to target single voter attributes, such as party affiliation or stance on immigration. You can also build multi-attribute voter profiles that include all of these. What you get is powerful, deep customization that can be done in a matter of hours, not days. Given the pace at which election strategies shift, this could be a pivotal capability for your campaign.

It’s projected that more than $1 billion will be spent on digital ads this campaign cycle, and with so much money being invested, you need to know that your candidate’s brand is safe and the message is being seen and heard by the people it was meant for. Because, at the end of the day, getting the right ad to the right voters is only half the battle. You still need to convince them to go to the poll and vote. Getting it right on digital could be the difference between your candidate being sworn in at the Oval Office or City Hall versus watching the inauguration at home.


Matt Ross is director of sales for AOL Advertising, serving as AOL’s digital marketing ambassador and activator across a diverse set of political clients, including issue-advocacy groups and candidate elections. He brings more than 15 years of advertising sales experience and industry knowledge to the company’s advertising arm. Previously, Ross was responsible for launching Cox Digital Solutions’ Washington, D.C., office, heading election efforts nationally and acting as the sole sales channel for election advertising for Yahoo. Prior to that he was with Washington Post Digital, managing a book of associations and trade groups to advance their political and legislative goals. Reach him @mattrosscamelot.

This article originally appeared on Recode.net.