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Local Media Must Push Back at Facebook For 2016 Election Spend

August 20, 2015 by Reveal Mobile

This article originally appeared on

Media outlets across the country project vast sums of advertising money changing hands during the 2016 election cycle. The Cook Political Report expects $3.3 billion of political advertising to be spent on local broadcast TV for the elections. Borrell Associates anticipates just over $1 billion in digital ad spend with a whopping 50% going to social. While it’s fair to consider digital as an ad-on for now, it’s share and impact will continue to increase with each election cycle.

Facebook sees this coming, and wants that political spend, and badly. After its 2011 hire of Kate Harbath, the former chief digital strategist for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, Facebook has grown its D.C. office to over 100 employees. 

Facebook’s power lies in its ability to target sought-after political audiences, who then willingly post and share these updates with their friends. Paired with its relatively cheap cost and superior ad formats (digitally speaking), and it is pitching itself as a wholesale alternative, not an add-on, to TV spend.  Facebook doesn’t have TV, but it possesses the most sophisticated first-party data audience targeting system on the planet today.

Consider, for example, Sen. John Cornyn’s Facebook strategy as profiled in Washingtonian, where he saw his “online donors double and his email list grow by 2.5 times. He reached a million Republican primary voters for 21 cents apiece, a puny amount compared with TV ads.”

The secret to the campaign’s success was Facebook’s Custom Audience tool: a candidate uploads his or her target voter emails to Facebook. Facebook matches these emails to people, with the candidate using the Custom Audience tool to reach exactly the right audience with a laser-focused message.

The recipients see the message and spread it even further to friends. According to a July 2015 Pew Research Center study, 63% of Facebook users report getting news from the site, representing 41% of U.S adults. Thirty-two percent state that they post about government and politics, with 28% commenting on these posts. This is incredible bang-for-the-buck, reaching voters for pennies.

For publishers, this is a call-to-action to do the hard work now. Start understanding and segmenting your digital audience any way you can. Here are a few approaches to start sourcing the desired data points that campaigns and agencies seek for digital targeting: eligible voters, basic demographics, party affiliation, voter propensity and propensity to donate.

To begin cracking this nut, use existing analytics tools to understand your audience. Both Google and Flurry provide some demographic information and varying abilities to target against those segments. There are also emerging tools that provide mobile audience data for app publishers and developers.

Second, look to the ad server that manages ad delivery for your apps. Ad servers that perform geotargeting well allow the creation of audience segments based upon DMAs, counties, cities, municipalities and sometimes even voting districts. This, at a minimum, provides a focused group of eligible voters.

Another solution is to sell against relevant content, or even relevant stories, to the politically active. The savvier media companies create “Politics” or “Election Center” sections within their app, which make fertile ground for political advertising. A few companies, like E.W. Scripps, go a step further, creating their own app devoted exclusively to politics.

Next, look to existing data sources already on-hand and available to use. What about registration information available in a database or CRM? Any data available here can sometimes be matched with a state’s voter file. By syncing addresses to a state’s Board of Election results, one may be able to assign party affiliation and voting history to a household. Many states allow unrestricted use of this voter data, while most states limit its use exclusively to political purposes only, which includes advertising. Voter data company NationBuilder lists out the various state-level permissions here.

As this list of voter audience data grows, look to use audience extension tools such as or Rocket Fuel. These allow greater reach by finding those same devices while an audience uses other mobile apps or sites. This tactic increases mobile ad inventory that a sales force has available to sell, which in turn leads to larger media buys from political campaigns and agencies.

Facebook has a solid head start in capturing digital ad spend in politics. But working in local media’s favor, digitally speaking, is the time people spend consuming their content and the ability to cross-promote across digital and TV. But if a digital team can’t parse the demographics, behaviors and political leanings of that audience, don’t expect to earn meaningful digital revenue from politics in 2016. Local media has options, but the first step is recognizing who and what they are competing against.

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