Michael Worley: Six digital lessons learned from the 2020 primaries

Spend money to reach as many voters as possible, not just the trolls.

The 2020 Florida primary was one for the history books. Huge turnout, massive shifts in voting preference, and historic investments digital campaigning were the hallmarks of this election cycle. As we head into the general election, here are six lessons political campaigns should take away from the primary.

Invest in video conferencing

Perhaps the most important element of campaigning in the post-COVID world has become video conferencing. Whether it’s a ZOOM call, a Facebook Live event, or an interview on local television, effectively utilizing video conferencing platforms has become critical. Campaigns that are not investing dollars into professional video conferencing equipment -including professional sound, video and green screens- are simply not maximizing the moment.

Facebook ads aren’t all the same

I can’t remember how many campaign media plans I have seen that include just a single line item for Facebook advertising. As campaigns shift more money toward digital, they must realize that Facebook ads aren’t all the same.

The numbers clearly show that reaching older voters on Instagram is much more difficult than reaching them on Facebook‘s mobile app. And we also know that while Facebook InStream video ads are extremely effective at maximizing video completion rates, they are lousy in maximizing voter reach.

Your digital vendor should be providing you with a detailed breakdown of how much money is being spent on each individual ad format available through the Facebook Ad Exchange. That plan should be comprehensive and should reflect the demographic realities of your election. It should also take into consideration the way your campaign media is being consumed on mobile devices. The reality is that the vast majority of digital ads these days are served on smartphones. If your ad isn’t formatted for this vertical medium, you are simply wasting money.

Verify disclaimers early

One of the biggest pitfalls of campaigning in this year‘s primary had to do with candidates not verifying political disclaimers through Facebook and Google early on. To run ads on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and the Google ad network, campaigns are now required to submit verification documents and a legal disclaimer. If your campaign forgets to do this, it will likely result in your digital vendor having to delay the launch of your ads. In many cases, YouTube is taking up to two weeks to verify advertisers. If you are not prepared for this, it could severely impact your digital strategy.

Email still matters

It seems like every month brings news of yet another digital platform banning political ads. Whether it’s Twitter, Spotify or even entire demand-side-platforms like the one owned by Adobe, the future of political digital advertising is very much in question.

One reliable digital alternative in this tumultuous time has proved to be email. It’s easier than ever before to build a comprehensive list of voter emails in your district. Especially among vote-by-mail voters, many of these emails are public records. Leveraging email as a form of persuasion, rather than simply a fundraising platform, is crucial to a successful, comprehensive, digital campaign strategy.

Organic engagement is key

Having supporters organically engage with campaign content on platforms like Facebook and Twitter remains an absolutely critical element of boosting your campaign’s digital reach.

As an example, take a look at Miami-Dade mayoral candidate Daniella Levine Cava‘s history-making victory: Despite her main opponent spending nearly 5 times the amount of money that she did on digital, Daniella‘s army of social media volunteers generated massive organic engagement that clearly translated into votes. As supporters shared her content regularly on their social media timelines, her message reached tens of thousands of voters FOR FREE.

And when Levine Cava was attacked by special interest negative ads on Facebook, her supporters swarmed the comment section with an overwhelming number of positive responses, helping to effectively suck the venom out of the attack.

A phrase I use for this effect is “social validation.” When a piece of social media content organically receives a high number of reactions, comments and shares, individuals seeing the content for the first time through promoted targeting are more likely to pay attention, especially if they notice that their friends have also engaged with the content.

Be careful of boosted posts

Facebook makes it very easy to press a button and promote individual pieces of social media content. More campaigns are taking advantage of these small-dollar promotions, but most are making a critical error every time they press the “Boost Post” button.

By default, when You boost a post, Facebook is targeting the promotion in such a way that maximizes likely engagement. This means that they will serve your ads NOT to the largest number of people, but to Facebook users who -through their algorithm- have been determined as being the most likely to engage with political content.

This is the reason why many campaigns see a higher number of Donald Trump trolls in the comment section. Facebook’s algorithm detects that these users are likely to engage with political content, regardless of whether that engagement is positive or negative, and serves them the majority of your ads.

If you are working with a professional digital strategist, they should be able to easily alter the default targeting so that you maximize unique reach instead, meaning that you’re spending money to reach as many voters as possible, not just the trolls.


Michael Worley is president and founder of MDW Communications.

Guest Author


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