We're living in a digital world... but campaigns are lagging behind
U.S. adults now spend an average of 6 hours per day with digital media. In 2019, digital advertising is projected to reach 54% of all ad spending in the U.S. In politics, though, digital remains an area that lacks investment and prioritization – one allocated only about 6.9% of all 2018 spend. New efforts from Facebook and Google have made it possible for TFC to bring some transparency to this largely closed-off world. This report is the most comprehensive analysis of how more than $600M of digital ad money was spent in 2018 at the party and campaign level, sharing what we learned from running ad programs for almost 60 campaigns in 2018.
The State of Political Digital
2018 political digital spend as a percentage of overall budgets was modest
Political digital budgets are increasing but still small: only 2.7-5.1% of total campaign and PAC budgets went to digital ads, while closer to 50% went to television and direct mail. When looking at media budget allocation, it's a similar story with stark contrasts.
U.S. Senate campaigns spent only 4%-7% of their massive media budgets on digital media, while Trump spent 44% and commercial companies spend 54%
The top campaign spenders tended to be large, contested statewide races, or now-Presidential candidates
Top Super PACs and political committees, like Priorities USA, Americans for Prosperity, and the Senate Leadership Fund (charged with electing Republicans to the U.S. Senate) also spent tens of millions on Facebook and Google, outweighing the vast majority of campaigns. In fact, of the top 15 largest spenders, only two were campaigns: Beto O'Rourke and Donald Trump.
Party differences don't stop at politics: Republicans favor Google versus Facebook
For federal races, Republicans spent 48% of their budget on Google, whereas Democrats only spent 25%.
A much higher proportion of Republicans' digital spend went through PACs and political committees – 73% of their total Facebook and Google spend. At 64%, campaigns represented the majority of Democratic spend.
56% of Google political spend happened within a month of the election
This leaves little to no time to take advantage of digital ads' test-and-iterate model to evolve campaign messaging in a cost-efficient and data-driven way. While some of this trend is surely due to last minute donor dollars, 42% of political advertisers on Google only started spending seriously in the final four weeks.
Our campaigns experienced the strong effect of this late rush: CPMs rose 25% in the eight weeks before Election Day. (See more in the full report.) The last weeks of the election were not the only area where dollars competed for limited supply: some states experienced seriously disproportionate spending patterns.
With highly contested U.S. Senate elections and small populations, Montana, North Dakota, and Nevada led per capita Google spend
Per Capita Spend by State - Google Only
Interactive - hover over the states - darkest color states represent highest per capita spending.
While we believe in a 50 state strategy, in 2018, TFC was active in 20 states, where we ran 57 digital advertising projects for Democratic campaigns. Following these efforts, we conducted an exhaustive post-mortem analysis of our work and compiled the top lessons learned.
2018 Campaign Learnings
Digital ads are mobile ads
Over 90% of ad spend was delivered to mobile devices. This was not unique to TFC's experience; in Q4 2018, Facebook disclosed that over 93% of its ad revenue was coming from mobile devices. Why is this important? Mobile ads have unique requirements for creative content - like subtitles, front-loading the narrative, and square/vertical video aspect ratios. Simply repurposing television ads to show online is ineffective, but a frequent practice.
The “Selfie Lift” is real
Selfie-style videos, like those shot on mobile phones, tended to be 20% cheaper to run than more highly produced, television-style content – a mark of positive relevance on Facebook – and that's before factoring in production costs of non-selfie videos.
Authenticity is fundamental. TFC campaigns also found enormous success repurposing organic content as ads. They look less like staid political communications, and campaigns often use this method to promote content that is already doing well. The result are ads that can have a 70-90% lower cost-per-click than traditional ads.
Digital is for everyone
Facebook ad click-through-rate for users 55+ was a full 2-3x higher than for those under 55. The idea that “my district is older” is not a good reason to skip digital investment for campaigns.
The 2020 Presidential race is well underway and Trump has spent more than all other candidates combined
A final note
At TFC, experimentation and learning are fundamental. One of the things we love most about digital media and technology is the quick and continual learning and improvement it allows. Although this report's insights have already been incorporated into how TFC runs our work in this arena, we are publishing this widely so a broader audience can benefit from additional transparency and learnings into what is fast becoming one of the most important ways for candidates for office to communicate with voters. As the country readies itself for 2019 and 2020 elections, truly taking the time to examine what went well – and what didn't – is key to producing better outcomes and continuous improvement. We hope that other organizations and companies continue to make data and analyses more readily available - we'll all be better for it.
Tech for Campaigns is powered by the skills, enthusiasm, and expertise of our more than 10,000 volunteers and incredible staff. This project was made possible by their efforts. Thank you to:
Cindy Wang, Max Brettler, Ryan Schoen, Patrick Stauffer, Karen Rhorer, Larissa Uredi, Paulina Leperi, William Nicholas, Juliet Logan, Matt Hagopian, Suzanne Wong, Amanda Wynter, Kathryn Evans, Zack Gorman, Tony Wu, Zach Harris, Paul Wattenberger, Peter Imai, Kerry Rodden, Jonathan Einav, Kevin Reynolds, Zach Winston, Anela Chan, Greg Dale and Amy Skerry-Ryan.
Methodology and Sources
State of Political Digital Ads: TFC teams worked to research and analyze data from the top 2,167 advertisers available through Facebook's Political Ad Archive and Google's Transparency Report, representing 80% of digital ad spend available on the platforms. Except where otherwise noted, the data runs from May/June 2018, when the archives were released, through November 10th and 11th, 2018. The teams then joined this data together with campaign finance information available from the Center for Responsive Politics and other sources to build a comprehensive look into media allocations. Non-Facebook and Google advertising dollars are estimated via eMarketer's 2019 market share figures for Facebook and Google.
Campaign Learnings: Data sourced from Google and Facebook's advertising analytics platforms.