The Political Advertising Landscape & Voter Behavior: A Case Study on Print

It’s February 2016 of a new election year, and whether you identify strongly with politics or not, you’ve likely paid at least some attention to the tactics taken to target voters. Candidates continue to ramp up their political advertising game, spending millions to reach voters via TV, mobile devices, tablets and computers. Some, like Bernie Sanders, have dabbled in social media platforms like Snapchat in order to garner interest from younger audiences.

The political advertising landscape has shifted substantially over the years. If we looked at the ratio of traditional offline to digital, say, during the year of Clinton and Gore, it would have rested heavily on traditional. Move to 2008, and we saw social media emerge for the first time as a quintessential tool to motivate voters, particularly millennials. And today, candidates are singing a different, more sophisticated tune, spending between $6 million and $10 million on digital advertising – including mobile, social media, music streaming services, digital video, paid search and display – on top of data tracking tools like Google Adwords, Facebook Custom Audiences and Optimizely. These methods are critical for garnering awareness from today’s tech-savvy, always-on consumer – which of course, as integrated marketers, we know all too well.

Where are voters turning for news?

Aside from interacting with political ads, consumers also follow editorial content about the election via a variety of platforms. Back during the 2012 election, The Pew Research Center gathered data from a survey that showed 80% of voters 35 and older were regular readers of the newspaper, and used it as a primary source for election-related news. Additionally, 1 in 4 Americans reported using a mobile device for campaign news – and of those, online newspaper sources were the number one choice for 58% of the voters surveyed. Now in 2016, the numbers have changed quite a bit as we look at a similar survey conducted by Pew Research. Out of 3,760 Americans surveyed, only 3% identified their local print newspapers as being the primary source of election-related news, and 2% pointed towards national print papers. Instead, social media (14%) and news websites and/or apps (13%) have a much greater impact. The driver of these changes is undoubtedly the new mobile reality. Today, roughly two out of every three Americans own a smartphone, and it has allowed both candidates and advertisers alike to access the consumer through significantly more personalized, real-time interactions.

But, let’s go back to print for a moment….

With these changes in consumer behavior, and in turn advertising strategy, what does all this mean for the print advertiser? Despite decreased readership numbers around this year’s election, print (including direct mail, magazines, newspapers, circulars) continues to be a strong piece of media allocation. In fact, it is estimated to make up 28.5% of advertisers’ spend in 2016, following digital (including email, search and online ads) at 37.1%. Over the past couple of years, we’ve seen advertising make a large scale shift to mobile, which could, in turn, indicate less competition for space in print – historically, this has been challenging and expensive for advertisers. And even though there may be less eyes on the newspaper, it’s still a major venue for editorial content related to the election and other breaking local, national and global news. As in most election years, today you might read about the campaign trail. You’ll also likely read about policy, personal values, past discrepancies and political “fails”. It can get pretty negative out there! When print ads for consumer goods are paired against negative headlines, they have an opportunity to serve as a refreshing alternative for the typical newspaper reader. During the heat of an election could actually prove to be a good time to spend more in the Newspaper ROP channel.

What we’ve seen…

In the midst of all the recent important political events, we saw an interesting scenario play out with a client. This particular brand had gone dark in newspaper for some time due to some softening of results; however, a recent reactivation was made in Q3 of 2015, including a retest of a ¼ page ad spot in the Wall Street Journal in December 2015. The results of the ad far exceeded expectation. With a drop date on December 9, 2015, the ad performed 242% greater than a similar ad from the same time period (a non-election year). In fact, the brand exceeded sales and order projections within the first four days of the ad’s distribution. What sparked the success? Interestingly, the ad fell in the main news section, in close proximity to an article about Donald Trump’s position on immigration. The story was a continuation from the front page, which likely drove natural traffic to our ad.

Due to the extremely positive performance of the ad dropped on December 9th, there was a retest done on January 20th 2016. While not trending to perform quite as high as the December ad, due mainly to seasonality norms (the client typically performs best during Q4), the ad is still projected to outperform our last data point from the same time period (also a non-election year) by 100%.

What can print advertisers do with this knowledge?

Though we can’t say for sure that the performance of the ad was directly tied to the editorial on Donald Trump, it does make us consider the possibilities. And in all reality, we simply cannot ignore these numbers. As digital, particularly mobile, dominate the 2016 election, there is an opportunity for print advertisers to stand out amongst a perhaps less competitive pool. Now might be the time to test print ads and measure performance, and more specifically, test around key political ‘moments’ like caucuses, primaries, debates and political conventions. For advertisers that want to double up on print and online/mobile app advertising, there are opportunities for bundling media buys in order to get twice the exposure.

For this 2016 election, we’re certainly in a different place than we were in previous election seasons, however, advertisers should always be thinking strategically about how they can leverage the changing landscape to their best advantage.

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