Memo to Democratic campaign managers: Times are a’changin’ and so should your paid media strategy

Old strategies for paid media no longer work. Unfortunately, though the trends are clear, many Democratic consultants still run campaigns like they did in the good old days.

The fact is that media habits have changed dramatically since the good old days. Broadcast TV is declining. More and more people are watching cable, but cable is splintering: There are now more than 1,100 cable channels, so many channels have only a tiny audience. Increasing numbers of voters watch TV online, on iTunes or through websites such as Hulu. Satellite is on the rise. Between DVRs and TiVos, even many people who watch TV the “old-fashioned” way don’t see the commercials.     

The times they are a’changin’, but for a majority of Democratic campaigns, paid media strategy has remained frozen in ice during the past twenty years. The typical Democratic media consultant still makes broadcast television their entire paid media strategy, or at least the dominant component. Cable is added as a luxury aside to an ad buy or it’s used only where the campaign can’t afford broadcast television. And as for online video?  Unless you are Barack Obama, as Al Pacino would say, “fuggedaboutit”.

Trouble is, this broadcast-only strategy no longer works effectively for most campaigns.  In 1970, you could buy 1,000 gross rating points per week and reach the average voter 10 times and you could reach 90 percent of voters this way. Today, in some states, if you’re up on broadcast TV, your 1,000 points per week might reach less than 40 percent of voters. And among those you are reaching, you might be talking to them only 7 or 8 times on average. If you aren’t buying cable, that 1,000 points a week reaches even fewer voters an even fewer number of times. Factor in DVRs, and the numbers drop again.  Broadcast television can still effectively reach many voters, but it can’t reach them all – it needs to be one of many components in media strategy, not the only one.

So what’s the solution? We have to start thinking about media strategy in a new way. We can’t continue to make broadcast TV the centerpiece of campaigns’ paid media strategy, have cable TV be the oddball cousin of paid media strategy and treat Web videos as the weird kid at family reunions who sits in the corner and eats paste (maybe I’ve just been to some strange family reunions).  

Here’s what we need to do:

Start by asking a different question. Most campaigns kick off their first strategy session with the media consultant asking: “How much money will we have to spend on broadcast television?”. Instead, what if we asked: “Who are our target voters, and what’s the most cost-effective way of communicating with them?”.

For some voters, the most cost-effective way of reaching them actually is broadcast television. If your target is an 85 year-old female voter who lives in Jacksonville, Fla., you better believe broadcast TV is a great way to go. It’s relatively inexpensive, and statistically speaking, she’s got the TV turned on an average of more than 13 hours per day.  

But try reaching a 35-year-old male bachelor voter who lives in Chicago and broadcast TV won’t get the job done at all. Odds are, if he even has a TV (he might just have a very large computer and watch everything on iTunes or Hulu), he’s hooked it up to a DVR, and that means even if you’re shelling out the big bucks for a Chicago broadcast, he’s never going to see your ads. He’s unlikely to see more than one hour of live television (non-DVRed) programming per week, and that’s likely to be sports. So, if you do want to reach him on television, ESPN ads would be the way to go, not broadcast. He’s very likely, though, to be spending a lot of time online, so online video (especially on a sports-related website) might actually be the most cost-effective strategy.

Know the limitations of different media channels in your specific state or district. Some states have more than 50 percent satellite penetration (e.g., Montana), so broadcast TV might be an especially poor strategy. Some media markets have more than 50 percent  non-locally-insertable cable (e.g., Columbus), so if you’re thinking cable is a cheaper alternative to broadcast television, you’re sadly mistaken.

In some media markets, the average registered voter watches 21 hours of television a week; in other media markets, it’s 36 hours per week. If you’re buying 1,000 gross rating points per week, it’s going to have a vastly different effect in each of those two media markets.  

Mix it up. For most campaigns, no single channel of communication will reach all your target voters. Some persuadable voters will need to be reached via broadcast TV, others via cable TV, some via the Internet, others in the mail, on the phones, or at the door.  Moreover, there’s voluminous research to suggest messages penetrate better when the same message is reinforced multiple times in different channels.

There’s no silver bullet to design the perfect media buy, but in today’s media environment, a multi-faceted, multi-channel media strategy will likely bring your campaign more success. It’s time for all Democratic campaigns to embrace this reality.

Amy Gershkoff is a founding partner of Changing Targets Media, a company that helps Democratic campaigns with media planning and targeting strategy.