How will the election affect digital advertising?

/ by Scott Wells

As we approach Election Day on November 3rd, a tumultuous political climate will no doubt have an affect on digital advertisers—regardless of the outcome. Massive spending on political ads is expected to increase ad delivery costs, and a volatile socioeconomic environment could soften consumer purchasing. On top of that, Paid Social advertising on Facebook and Instagram is extra challenging with new policies and review processes affecting any ad content referencing “social issues, elections & politics.”

But don’t fret! We’ve put together some recommendations on how to best steer the course, no matter what your brand’s perspective is. With the election, Thanksgiving/Black Friday, and the holiday season just around the corner, it’s important to be extra vigilant with not only your advertising strategy and spend, but also your marketing tactics and the way you communicate with your audience. And whatever the outcome of the election, be sure to have a flexible approach that can adapt with a changing consumer climate.

Political ad spending through the roof

Before we break down our recommendations for navigating the next few months, let’s take a look at just how big of an impact the election is expected to have on digital advertising. According to RetailmeNot, “90% of retailers are adjusting their marketing because of the upcoming election.” This year, political spending on ads is expected to reach $10B—up a whopping 59% since 2016 when an estimated $6.3B was spent. That’s a huge number, but of course not all of it goes into digital. In fact, only $2.8B is forecasted to go into digital ads—about 2.2% of all digital ad spending according to the WSJ.

The problem for digital advertisers is that a good chunk of this spend occurs in the few weeks leading up to Election Day, increasing ad delivery costs significantly during those days. Similar to what happens during the holiday season with increased CPMs and CPCs, it may make sense to flight your campaign budgets so you get more bang for your buck now, or after the election, rather than when everyone else is trying to get a seat at the crowded table.

Consumer purchase behavior

The greatest impact; however, is not political ads increasing CPMs for everyone, but rather from consumer purchase behavior and sentiment. In 2016, ecommerce traffic dropped 4.6% on Election Day and 10% the day after (source). People just aren’t in the shopping mood with such a chaotic political environment, on top of a shaky economy brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

And how can you blame them, right? We’re all consumers as well, and as many of you can attest, big purchase decisions, looming B2B deals, or those expensive shoes you’ve had your eye on for a while can probably wait until things settle down.

As advertisers, it’s important we adapt to this change in consumer behavior and sentiment. If you haven’t already, it’s a good idea to adjust both the tone and core of your ad messaging to reflect the challenges people may be going through. Focusing more on value and affordability for B2C—and trust and protecting risk for B2B—is not a bad idea.

What to do about it

Fortunately, even in the middle of great adversity there can be great opportunity. Of course, every brand has a different comfort level for how aggressive they want to be with so much going on. The following are our strategic recommendations for both a cautious and more “daring” approach to navigating your digital advertising around the election and the next few months.

The cautious approach

Reduce ad spend by up to 50%, starting as early as Oct 20th, and even consider pausing all campaigns on Nov 3rd and 4th. Not only will you be fighting rising ad delivery costs, but a “checked-out” public when it comes to purchase decisions. This is especially important in key battleground states where tightly contested ballots are happening. The caveat to this is it’s probably okay to keep SEM ads running as-is, provided you don’t have any keywords that may overlap political ad spend.

Leverage campaign and bidding strategies that put a limit on how much you spend. For Google Ads, switch your bidding strategy to Target ROAS or Target CPA. For Facebook Ads, leverage Cost Cap or ROAS Minimum campaign objectives. These tactics will keep your ad spend efficient, most likely spending way below your average daily spends, but assuring your overall ROAS doesn’t take too big of a hit.

Adjust email scheduling, obviously avoiding sending out emails during Nov 3 and 4, and making sure that if you do send emails during this week, the content is essential and adding value for your customers.

Revise all your messaging, avoiding any copy that could be deemed political or favoring one political viewpoint or candidate. You’ll also want to avoid any messaging that’s overly frivolous or inconsiderate to people’s situations these days. You don’t have to try hard to “relate” to people in ads. We recommend limiting the ads you have running to ones focused only on price, product, and exactly what you’re selling.

Avoid running any new ads on Facebook Ads Manager from October 20 through Nov 4 since Facebook is changing their review process and policy, including an ad restriction period leading up to the election. With an extra-vigilant algorithm driving ad review decisions—and no doubt a swamped Facebook support team less likely to have the bandwidth to assist—running new ads after October 20 may simply not be worth the risk. 

Important note: This extends not just to politically specific ads, but also ads considered “social issues,” which frustratingly includes things like “plastic-free,” “environmentally safe,” and “reduce pollution” messaging—a struggle we and many of our clients have been all too familiar with as of late.

Pay extra attention to monitoring, and check performance more often than you usually do. This will help avoid any large spikes in delivery costs and allow you to rapidly adjust on-the-fly should any ad messaging need to be revised or paused entirely. In addition, be sure to check your platform alert settings so you’re the first to know about an accelerating ad spend or ad disapprovals. 

The more “daring” approach

Get political! Some brands, like Patagonia, are comfortable taking a stance, as “48% of retailers are more willing to take a stand on social values in 2020 than in the past,” according to RetailMeNot. This is your biggest risk/reward strategy as traditionally brands have avoided any sort of political affiliation or favoritism. However, growing public support for free speech, transparency, and “doing what is right” could pay off in the long term for brands that have been passionate and clear about what they believe in from the start. But let’s be clear, this approach may not have an immediate impact on sales, and is more likely to be a long-term strategy to growing your brand and revenue. This is not simply a “try a political ad,” but a company-wide ethos that requires a thoughtful, distinct, and straightforward message.

Or…simply promote “pro-voting” messaging in your campaigns. According to Retail TouchPoints, “43% of retailers will have a sale related to Election Day.” The right to vote is one thing most Americans can agree is a good thing, so promoting and encouraging people to vote can be a brand and revenue booster that people on both sides of the aisle can appreciate. 

Leverage audience targeting to reach political hot spots. As we all know, there are blue states and red states, and states in between. If you’ve decided to get political with your brand messaging, why not double down and target areas of the country you know are especially likely to support your stance? This can be done through geotargeting campaigns, or through interest-based targeting, which includes affinity interests that coincide with political affiliation like “NPR” and “eco-friendly” for more liberal-minded consumers; “Fox News” and “guns” for more right-leaning folks. 

Get started early on Black Friday and holiday sales to beat the rush of competing with other advertisers. According to Retail TouchPoints, “75% [of consumers polled] said that they did not wait until the election results came in to begin their holiday shopping.” Launching your Black Friday or holiday campaign sales on the early side gives you the benefit of less competition, and hopefully lessen the load and stress on your marketing team as they look forward to their own holiday plans and traditions.

Revise and re-revise you messaging. Ad fatigue is real. As more and more digital ads flood the market, consumers are not only getting sick of ads in general, but have a better eye for what content is an ad, thus tending to avoid it. At the end of the day, people relate best to genuine, authentic, and honest stories. By thinking about your brand and the people who represent it in a more personable way that doesn’t ignore the challenges people may be going through in their own lives, you can better-relate to your customers and build trust with them long-term.

Need help adjusting your strategy, messaging, and planning for the election and/or holiday season? Send us a note, we’d be happy to chat!

About the author: Scott Wells is a Paid Social consultant at Apiary Digital®. He has 10 years of experience and has supported major brands, including AARP, Ford, Tableau, and Bokser Home.