My prediction for 2020: volume, volume, volume, at least when it comes to digital advertising. For a start, Donald Trump never really quit running for president after 2016, and he’s already spent tens of millions on Facebook and Google in 2019 alone. With the president now impeached, he and other Republicans are pouring even more money into digital ads designed to shape the narrative in their favor. Meanwhile, Democratic presidential candidates opened their wallets to build their small-dollar donor lists this year, at times spending far more to acquire a donor than that person would likely give before the primaries start. With Michael Bloomberg and Tom Steyer in the race, Trump still raking in the cash, and primary elections looming, digital ad volume will be much higher than anything we’ve seen before. And just wait until the fall!
With more money chasing the same number of voters, costs are naturally blowing through the roof. I encountered this reality recently in a petition campaign for a client, Save The Children Action Network. Over a couple of months, the cost of recruiting people via Facebook lead-generation ads rose significantly, particularly in states that vote early in the Democratic primary process. Based on that experience, on recent conversations with staff from the platforms, and on years of work to optimize digital ad campaigns in general, I suggest that campaigns and advocacy organizations trying to reach Americans via digital channels in 2020 should:
Be Prepared to Spend More Time than You Expect
Facebook ads tend to perform best within a band of spending unique to each campaign. Set your budget too high, and Facebook will serve too many ads to people not likely to respond (spend too little, and Facebook won’t have enough data to optimize delivery). To reach that sweet spot in a highly competitive environment, campaigners and advocates will likely have to spread their spending out more over time than in the past, allowing Facebook to find people most apt to engage with your content or respond to your appeals. Similar logic will likely apply to channels like Google, YouTube and banner ads.
Spending more time also includes more spending staff time, btw. As we’ll see, ads will likely require more management than many of us are used to.
Localize Your Ads
Creating geographically specific campaigns helps in two ways. First, people typically see ads that mention their state/town/region as more relevant, meaning that they’re more likely to click, share or like. But more importantly, geotargeting your campaigns helps you can adjust spending as costs change area-by-area. For instance, since most presidential campaigns are putting the bulk of their money into Iowa and New Hampshire right now, the cost to reach someone in those states is usually much higher than to connect with a person in, say, Virginia. If you’ve set up state-by-state campaigns, you can shift your budget to the most cost-effective regions as the competitive environment changes.
Monitor Your Campaigns Closely
To make sure you’re spending wisely, monitor campaign performance constantly. This practice goes against some Facebook ad conventional wisdom, which holds that too much tinkering can hurt performance. But with competition so intense right now, I’ve found that costs can rise and fall significantly over the course of a single day. If you’re not paying attention, you may not realize until too late that you’re suddenly paying two or three times as much to reach someone as you were yesterday.
Adjust Your Ad Buys on the Fly
Careful monitoring positions you to take advantage of fluctuations as they happen. If costs rise suddenly, drop your volume until the cost-per-action returns to a more reasonable rate. If costs drop, you can increase spending to take advantage of it. If you’ve segmented your campaigns geographically or by other criteria (demographics, interests, behavior), you can also adjust spending by individually by audience.
Likewise, you may find that certain channels become saturated, while others are less-used. If Facebook lead-generation ads are cost-prohibitive, what about other ad units on the platform? If Facebook’s costs rise too much overall, what about targeted banner ads (or even video ads) to reach the same audiences?
Facebook and other advertising channels offer us the ability to target highly specific groups of people online. But that doesn’t mean that we always should: small audiences naturally tend to cost more to reach than the great unwashed. Just as you should adjust your spending to reach people most efficiently over time, you should also try setting different targeting parameters to find the best balance of cost and specificity. Relaxing your targeting criteria to bring in a few people who don’t fit your model may actually help you reach your actual targets more efficiently.
Set Flexible Goals
Campaigns (and advocacy organizations even moreso) tend to set hard-and-fast goals for advertising and outreach. In 2020’s political environment, advertisers will likely need to seek more flexible outcomes. If you’re advertising in January, you simply may NOT be able to reach people in Iowa or New Hampshire via Facebook without blowing your budget, for example. Instead, you may have to adjust your goals to match conditions on the ground — the perfect may truly be the enemy of the good enough. Just as you monitor ad performance, monitor your goals and how realistically you can meet them.
With political campaigns set to spend so much next year, some advocacy organizations may decide to cut back on their paid digital media across the board. Others, though, will try to take advantage of this political year to highlight their issues, now that the news media may pay attention to what the candidates think about them. News hooks may come suddenly, and groups need to be prepared in advance to take advantage of a fleeting opportunity to catch the public’s attention.
Likewise, down-ballot political campaigns may feel that they’ll have a hard time getting into the conversation at all, with the presidentials hoovering up media coverage and ad inventory alike. But despite the competition, digital ads will provide one of the few channels that campaigns and nonprofits can actually control. If they manage their ads right, they should be able to connect with the right supporters and voters cost-effectively. And if you need help finding that balance, you know who to call.