Online Ads in the U.K. General Election: Testing the Digital Waters Across the Pond

Digital advertising in the UK 2016 general election

Jim Walsh is the co-founder and CEO of DSPolitical, a voter targeted digital advertising network for Democrats and progressives. C.f. our earlier article on social media in the British 2015 general election.

Politics in the United States and United Kingdom may share many similarities, but when it comes to voter engagement some pretty stark differences exist. In the U.S., our radios and televisions run back-to-back ads from candidates and special interests in the months leading up to Election Day. In the U.K. You’ll see very few campaign ads on television or radio.

While that may seem like paradise to some voters in the U.S., who reflexively cringe whenever “I approve this message” is uttered, for a digital advertising innovator this situation presents some serious questions.

If voters in the United Kingdom weren’t accustomed to encountering campaign ads on television and the radio, how would they respond to such communications when targeted with banner ads and videos online and on their mobile devices?

These are just a few of the thoughts that ran through my head as I got off the plane at Heathrow with several colleagues just a few months before the U.K.’s parliamentary election. We were there with a simple mission: sell the idea of working with DSPolitical to launch the first voter file targeted digital ad campaign in British political history.

Having served billions of targeted voter-matched digital ads online, social media, and mobile devices over the past five years and helping to elect scores of Democrats up and down the ballot for offices ranging from senator and governor to state legislator and school board member, DSPolitical has earned a reputation as a progressive ally and committed innovator.

Selling that track record to a British political audience wouldn’t be easy. Privacy laws are more stringent in the U.K., so many political professionals and observers wrongly assume that traditional cookie targeting is illegal. Nothing could be further from the truth.

It didn’t take long to convince some [Labour] party leaders that our targeted, voter-matched digital advertising network could be a tremendous benefit to them as they sought new ways to reach voters and compete with Prime Minister David Cameron’s ruling Tories.

DSPolitical worked closely with clients to match its voter file against our enormous pool of cookies and device profiles. Soon we were able to begin serving banner and pre-roll video ads to voters in targeted constituencies (we call them ‘districts’ here in the U.S.) throughout the United Kingdom.

With a rotating cast of DSPolitical staffers on the ground in London to monitor various ad campaign metrics, it seemed the entire company was waiting with bated breath to see if our technology would translate across the pond.

We were soon blown away.

Perhaps it was because voters in the United Kingdom had rarely seen a political ad on television, but our targeted voter-matched pre-roll video ads were being watched through to competition in numbers we had not expected. More still, ads were being clicked on 2.8-3.7 times as often as in the United States.

The numbers were so astonishing that we began small tests of techniques that generally fair poorly in American politics to see how they might play in the United Kingdom.

Typically in the States, DSPolitical will only run client pre-roll video ads on non-skippable inventory so that the targeted voter must watch the entire ad before continuing on to their desired content. It is our learned experience that running such client ads on inventory that is skippable in the U.S. leads to voters skipping ads. Go figure.

We saw something entirely different in the United Kingdom. Completion rates for targeted voter-matched pre-roll video ads served on skippable inventory were nearly as high as completion rates for the same ads served on non-skippable inventory. Ask anyone in the field and they will tell you such results are virtually unheard of in the United States.

In the end, DSPolitical was able to reach more than 150,000 voters in key targeted constituencies with nearly 10 million pre-roll video and banner ad impressions.

The willingness of our first-time U.K. clients to work with DSPolitical to conduct a targeted, voter-matched digital advertising campaign – even on a limited scale – should put other democracies on notice that such innovative new voter engagement techniques are on the way.

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Jim Walsh
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