If you’ve found yourself tasked with the job of supervising or executing a digital advertising program, you probably have a lot of questions about how you can make sure your campaign is set up for success. This guide seeks to provide the reader with a foundational understanding of how to strategically think about your digital campaign, starting with your objective, goals, and audience and moving onto your budget, platforms, and key performance indicators. We finish by discussing what a media plan is, what should be included in one, and how to read one.
For years, political campaigners were slow to adopt up-and-coming digital strategies to reach voters. However, as Americans’ digital lives have only continued to grow (especially since the COVID-19 pandemic), digital tactics, including digital advertising, are now a key part of any campaign’s path to victory. Digital advertising can be a tool to help campaigns accomplish nearly any objective they may have on a small or large scale, and with a little help from all the resources out there (including this one), folks of all skill levels and backgrounds can become comfortable navigating the digital ads space and advocating for its use on their campaigns.
As the digital ads market continues to grow, so does competition from other advertisers – both political and corporate. The endless stream of images, videos, memes, and articles bombarding voters every day means it is now even harder for your message to breakthrough. Digital advertising can help campaigns cut through the noise and misinformation of digital environments to deliver their message to voters, but it takes a smart, strategic program to make an impact.
Despite endless industry opinions and variations on the best approach for planning and executing paid digital media, every plan should be built using a core framework that defines what you’re trying to do with your advertising dollars.
Before deciding any of the specifics around targeting tactics or budget allocation, the best first step is to clearly define your objectives, goals, and audience for the program. This will inform many of the more detailed decisions that will add up to a media plan that is best positioned to achieve your desired results.
OBJECTIVES → GOALS → AUDIENCE
The first step when building a digital plan is to lock in the ad program’s high-level objective. What do you want to achieve through your digital advertising? In an electoral context, there are normally four overarching goals that commonly arise, and they fall into a logical order: awareness, persuasion, mobilization, and acquisition.
The awareness objective comes first. With this objective, it’s crucial to inform a wide swath of voters of the existence of your candidate or issue. By doing this early, you take the opportunity to define your candidate or issue with the public. If you’re not in a safe race, your next priority is likely persuasion. In this phase, you need to build up support amongst enough voters to win the election. This phase is normally spent talking to undecided voters and can happen ahead of a primary or a general election; an audience of persuadable primary voters will likely look quite different than one for a general election since you’ll be focused on moving voters within your own party. Moving into the final stretch before the election, your priorities shift to mobilization. In this phase, you’re focused on making sure that enough of your supporters are committed to voting and equipping those who aren’t committed with the inspiration and information they need to make their voting plan.
The remaining objective, acquisition, is one that’s often an ongoing priority over the course of the campaign. This objective is crucial for campaigns because it encompasses fundraising and list building, two things that fuel most campaigns. When running acquisition campaigns, digital strategists are focused on acquiring something from an audience that is already likely to support them (often called a base audience); money and emails are the most common examples, but this could extend to petition signatures, voter registrations, commitments to vote, or event responses.
How does your ad program objective translate into a measurable digital outcome? These are critical to identify up front in order to inform your digital media plan. Your goals will guide how you set your campaigns up in platforms to ensure that platforms’ algorithms are optimizing your campaigns to maximize your results. Again, it’s important for goals to be measurable, so if you haven’t already, make sure you familiarize yourself with common campaign results listed in the Digital Advertising Glossary.
So, how does your goal relate back to your objective? With an awareness campaign, you’re trying to make sure your simple message, like your candidate’s name and the office they’re running for, sticks, so repetition is important. It follows then that your goal will be to reach enough eligible voters with a high enough frequency to make an impact.
Persuasion campaigns are similar to awareness campaigns in that you need to deliver your message enough times for people to internalize it, but usually, the messages are more complex. In this case, delivering a sufficient reach and frequency is still important, but we also likely want to prioritize mediums that help us deliver a persuasive argument to a voter, like a 15-second video, and strive for a high video completion rate.
There are a couple of different approaches to mobilization campaigns, one that falls in line with goals for awareness campaigns and one that falls in line with acquisition campaigns. If your mobilization program is just focused on delivering people with a few pieces of information (the date of Election Day, poll close time, etc.) your goal may be similar to an awareness campaign in that you want to hit people enough times for them to remember. There are also numerous polling place lookup tools across the internet, so if you wanted to focus on pushing people to a landing page where they could take an action, like looking up their polling place or making a commitment to vote, you would likely frame your goal as you would an acquisition campaign.
Acquisition campaigns tend to have the most straightforward goals. Overall, in order to evaluate the results of your acquisition campaign, you need to distill your broad goal into a realistic number against which you can measure your progress. If you’re focused on growing your email list, you might want to increase your overall email list by 25%. If you’re fundraising, you may want to deliver an 80-100% immediate return on investment, meaning you make back 80-100% of what you spent to run the ad campaign in donations directly from ads. It’s also common to continue to track people who came in via your ad program for future donations or actions they take and count that to the overall return on investment of the ad program. It’s also important to consider the timing of your program. Fruitful acquisition campaigns often produce results by capitalizing on a rapid response moment. Your goal in a newsworthy moment might be very different from your goal for a more standard campaign.
Who is the audience you are looking to mobilize, persuade, or engage, and how will you reach them? Ultimately, your objective should guide this decision.
Your audience for an awareness campaign tends to be fairly broad. You want to reach your base, but you also want to make sure you talk to more moderate voters and lower turnout voters; when it comes to most races – down ballot races especially – making sure that voters know your candidate’s name is half of the battle.
When it comes to persuasion campaigns, some may define their target audience in terms of level of support or persuadability as outlined by voter file models. Others may use polling to determine a set of broader demographic characteristics such as age or gender. Deciding who to target for persuasion campaigns online is a bit of a science and an art. Ideally you’ll work closely with your campaign manager or field director to use the available data the campaign has as well as your anecdotal knowledge to create the best persuasion audience.
For a mobilization campaign, the goal is to narrow your audience to people who will need an extra push to get out and vote. This could be defined by a turnout score in the voter file. Campaigns often target using demographic profiles of groups with historically lower turnout, like young people. Polling could also help inform which groups of voters aren’t yet committed to voting on Election Day.
Acquisition campaigns tend to have the most flexible targeting. If your goal is to raise money for your candidate, you often don’t care if it’s coming from within your district or not – the goal is just to raise the most money for the least cost. Sometimes, though, your actions do need to be generated by an audience with certain characteristics; for example, if you were trying to register voters, you need your registrations to come from unregistered voters or voters who need to update their registration. Strategists should think about whether or not their actions need to come from a specific group when defining their audience.
Once you’ve identified your audience, next you have to figure out how that translates into a targetable audience in the digital space. Each platform has different targeting capabilities, so it’s important to be aware of the most common options (check out the individual platform assessments to find out which platforms offer the below targeting capabilities).
Here are some audience targeting examples:
Targeting methods are inconsistent across platforms, so your desired tactics will heavily influence the platforms your program can use. For example, some platforms have restrictions around list targeting for political advertisers. If you identified list targeting as the most important way to reach your audience, you would have a narrower list of platform options than if you wanted to rely on platforms’ own demographic or behavioral data or an available third-party audience segment. Additionally, we advise thinking about how your program can creatively use several tactics to complement the strengths and weaknesses of each targeting method.
In combination, your program objective, your goals, and your audience will determine other components of your plan, including your budget, the platforms on which you run ads, and the key performance indicators (KPIs) to which you’ll pay closest attention.
BUDGET → PLATFORMS → KEY PERFORMANCE INDICATORS
The second round of decision-making is more intertwined than the first round. For example, it might make sense for your ad program to run on Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and Pandora because your audience spends most of their time on these platforms. However, if your objective is persuasion and your goals are reach and frequency, then you have to consider that the endless scrolling and busy environment of Facebook and Instagram may not give you the most impactful reach compared to other platforms.
Ultimately, you should be building your media strategy around your ad program goal, while keeping your budget, target audiences, and KPI(s) in mind.
When you create the budget for your digital program, you should consider both the size of the audience you’re trying to reach and the goal you are trying to achieve. Your budget should also be flexible enough to shift over time based on how your program is performing.
If your goal is action-based – such as driving email sign-ups or donations – it makes sense to budget for a greater emphasis on how many actions you’re hoping to drive. For example, you may decide you want to acquire 1,000 new email addresses. How much should you budget for that? That depends – standard costs per acquisition (CPA) can vary between a high name ID incumbent and a newcomer challenger.
To start, your vendors and digital staffers should have expectations for the CPA from past ad programs to use for planning purposes. If you have previous data for a candidate or cause to use as benchmarks, that’s ideal. If not, it’s perfectly normal to start off with an estimated CPA and reset benchmarks post-program launch. In cases like this, you’ll definitely want your budget to be more flexible.
For goals that can be harder to measure – like raising name recognition or persuading voters on a key issue – the size of the audience you’re trying to reach becomes much more important. You need to ensure that your media plan is built in such a way that it projects estimated reach and frequency against your audience and that you are comfortable with the potential levels your budget can achieve. Currently, best practices say the ideal frequency is five to eight times per week. Your cost to deliver ads, usually represented by the cost per 1000 impressions or CPM, also becomes important here. In order to accurately project frequencies for your campaigns, it’s important to be realistic about how much it will cost to reach your audience.
If you want to prioritize inventory where users are generally highly attentive, like OTT and CTV, your costs will likely be more than if you just want to reach users in a social media setting. CPMs can vary significantly based on many a variety of factors, but other than the platform and/or inventory, there are two variables that are often the most impactful: audience size and competitiveness.
The more narrow your targeting, the more likely it is that you will have to pay a premium to reach those voters, and it doesn’t always make sense to expand your audience just for the sake of lowering these costs. If you know based on polling that women 35+ make up the bulk of your persuadable voters, it doesn’t do you any good to open up your targeting to men just for the sake of bringing your cost down. It’s also good to know that certain audience tactics can add to audience narrowness. A custom list audience is a very set group of people, while an audience built using behavioral targeting may have increased flexibility as data updates and shifts over time.
The other variable, competitiveness, is fairly intuitive. As more advertisers vie for the same group of people, your cost to reach those people will increase. This is definitely a factor in the lead up to Election Day, but you can see it other times, like the end of the first half of the fiscal year or around the winter holidays, when political and corporate advertisers alike are spending big.
For guidance on cost benchmarks to help you plan your budget, please reference the Digital Ads Playbook.
The platforms you decide to include in your plan should be able to serve the type of creative you intend to use, reach the audience you need to engage, and effectively use your budget to deliver the goals you’ve set out.
If you’re running a video-based persuasion program, for example, consider running programmatic video or over the top advertising (OTT) with partners like Roku and Hulu. Many of these video streaming placements can be bought via a programmatic platform rather than going through the publisher directly. If you’re looking to reach people on their commutes, try running some audio spots on Pandora or iHeartRadio. Or if you’re running a program to drive donations, we recommend selecting ad environments like Facebook where users are likely to take an action.
Make sure that you’re being realistic with your platform choices. For political campaigns, it’s always important to check on a platform’s political ad policies, because they might have different approaches for advocacy groups vs candidates vs PACs. Some platforms also might require specialized creative. If you don’t think your team will have capacity to produce content that will fit a particular advertising format need, it might not make sense to buy on that platform. Finally, the cost to deliver ad impressions can vary significantly from platform to platform. If your budget is on the smaller end, a premium video platform like Hulu could be prohibitively expensive.
With so many variables to weigh, make sure you dig into the Digital Ads Playbook for helpful guidance.
Because there are so many data points available to you when running a digital advertising campaign, it’s easy to get caught up in results that don’t matter. When evaluating a plan or your campaign’s success, you should identify a few key variables that will tell you whether or not you’re achieving your goal. These key performance indicators, or KPIs, will help you stay focused. Using example goals, let’s determine our KPIs.
Deliver your ads at a target reach and frequency
Deliver your ads at a target reach and frequency and maintain an overall video completion rate of at least 75%
Generate 1,000 clicks to a polling place look-up tool in a state legislative district
Acquire 2,000 new email addresses for volunteer leads in an early primary state
Key Performance Indicators
Just as we said in our goal, reach and frequency are our key performance indicators. Another thing we will want to closely track are our delivery costs, usually the cost per 1000 impressions, or CPM. While our goal isn’t necessarily to drive a low CPM, we do want to make sure that our CPMs are coming in close to what we used when planning our budget; if it’s coming in too high, we risk not meeting our reach or frequency goals, while a low CPM may lead to audience oversaturation.
Similar to the above, reach and frequency are two of our key performance indicators here, and we will also want to track our CPMs. Additionally, we want to drive a high video completion rate, or VCR.
With this goal, we care about driving clicks. In order to maximize our results and reach our goal of $1,000 clicks, we also want to ensure that we’re delivering a high enough click-through rate (CTR) because we want our audience to be taking action at a sufficient rate. We also want to stay in budget, so we want to make sure our cost per click (CPC) is coming in at or under what we planned for when creating our budget.
As with the polling place lookup goal, we want to be tracking our acquisitions, the acquisition rate, and the cost per acquisition (CPA)
Not only should these goals be referenced in your media plan, but you should also make sure you’re tracking these once your campaign is running. It’s important to be responsive to your campaign results once you have data; if one audience is delivering a higher CPA than another, it might make sense to shift budget away from the underperforming audience to the better one. If the metrics that go into these decisions are unclear, it will be difficult to make sure your program is as successful as possible.
Below we’ve provided three media plan examples that are similar to what you might receive from a vendor or digital staffer. It’s important to be able to understand each component of a media plan to ensure that each variable aligns with your ad program goal. Again, be sure to reference our digital advertising glossary to help decode any acronyms or unfamiliar terms you may come across.
Using a digital program to provide information to voters who are looking for where to vote is a great way to engage with your target audience. As such, it is a great idea to devote a sizable budget to this objective. You’ll want to make sure you’re allocating a budget to Google Search because when people are trying to figure out where to vote, they’re going to turn to Google to find the answer. You’ll want to be on Facebook with targeting to reach your voter base to make sure they know an election is coming up and where they can vote, and because our audience is young, we also want to add the youth-oriented platform Snapchat to the plan. Because we can drive voters to a polling place lookup tool to help them make an actionable plan to vote, we will track link click-through rates to ensure we’re meeting our goal
Objective: Persuasion for a Senate race in Arizona
For a persuasion program, your budget should be large enough to make a lasting impression on your target audience. To figure out an ideal budget, use your audience size and expected reach, and test various budget levels until you reach a frequency that will make an impression on your audience. A good goal frequency is about 5-8 a week, and you likely want to be toward the higher end of that range when you’re close to Election Day. Additionally, we’ll want to monitor the frequency of each ad that we run; when an ad garners too high a frequency, you risk exhaustion with your audience or even backlash, so we will need more individual ads on platforms where we have the highest projected frequencies. With a persuasion objective, you’ll want to reach your audience where they spend time and in environments where your creative can make the biggest impact. That means running ads on the biggest platforms (Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube) as well as those providing a less cluttered creative environment (Hulu and programmatic video).
In a fundraising program, you’ll want to plan your budget based on how much money you’re trying to raise from ads. If you wanted to raise $15,000 and previously had been able to drive 120% return on ad spend within 3 months of acquiring a new donor, you could use that to set a budget of around $12,500 to achieve your goal. With fundraising campaigns, it also makes sense to determine a lower immediate ROI goal in addition to a longer term goal to evaluate the success of different tactics as your program is running. If you don’t have access to your own historical data, it could make sense to engage the network of digital professionals who work in the progressive space to see if they have information they can share, or you can search for broader industry benchmarks online. No matter if you’re working off of historical data or more general benchmarks, it’s important to remember that every campaign is different, and your average ROAS and conversion rate can range widely depending on your timing, issue, candidate, geography, and a myriad of other factors; you can always revise your goals based on maintaining or improving on your actual campaign results.
Arena needs your help to convene, train and support the next generation of candidates and campaign staff. Our programs are designed to make politics more accessible to more people. That’s why everything we do is free or low cost. This is made possible by the support of generous donors. Chip in to help progressives build winning campaigns.
Paid for by Arena Summit, a section 501(c)(4) organization, and Arena PAC.
Not authorized by any candidate or candidate’s committee.