The digital video revolution is just beginning for modern political campaigns
The 2024 election is already shaping up to be historic — and not because of the cast of candidates declaring their presidential bids. History will be made because of broader trends in American consumption, forever upended by the digital revolution.
Long gone are the days when ABC, CBS and NBC dominated prime time viewership and a single ad on the “Big Three” consumed the strategies of campaign media buyers. Prime time is dead. Television itself may be in hospice.
This year, US adults will spend more time watching digital videos than traditional television channels for the first time ever. Viewership on platforms such as Netflix and YouTube consistently beats CNN, MSNBC, Fox News and other TV mainstays. The numbers don’t lie: According to Insider Intelligence, so-called “linear TV” now accounts for less than half of daily viewing, dropping to an average of under three hours. Average daily digital viewership, meanwhile, has surpassed the three-hour threshold, flipping the script.
How (and where) Americans consume content isn’t only revolutionizing sports and soap operas; it has major ramifications for American politics. Today, there is far more to the political campaign than running a 30-second spot on Fox News or CNN and hoping for the best. Although there is still a place for traditional TV ads, modern political campaigning is more all-encompassing than ever before — social media, email marketing, and targeted advertising have become indispensable for winning candidates.
In decades past, a 30-second Fox News ad guaranteed millions of views from conservative consumers of cable news. But those views weren’t necessarily strategically secured in a focused way, with a clearly defined target audience or a viable “call to action” to follow. In too many cases, the campaigns of yesteryear would buy their TV spot, take a deep breath, and expect hearts and minds to just be changed. Targeting early on was as minimal a priority as measurement after the fact.
Digitization has changed the game. On social media platforms, for example, candidates and campaigns target not only generic avatars such as “national Fox News viewers” but also more specific segments of the electorate, reaching people with ultra-focused and exponentially more precise mechanisms.
Want to reach a 40-year-old white male voter who leans Democrat in Florida’s Miami-Dade County? That is possible. What about one who also consumes content such as ESPN and “Star Wars”? That’s doable too.
Let’s say you target individuals who vote Democrat as much as they enjoy lightsaber battles and basketball highlights. That is only the first step. Because of the wide range of digital tools available to candidates, advertisers can also measure specific, actionable engagement, which determines the effectiveness of ad campaigns. Whereas cable news leaves many engagement questions unanswered, digital advertisers now know who enjoyed which content and when — and who didn’t. “Likes” and comments are clear and transparent. So are metrics such as repeat viewership, length of view, and click-through rate — say, if and to what extent a viewer donates to a campaign.
Of course, digital advertising comes with downsides. Like Facebook and Twitter discovered In recent election cycles, the regulation of political advertising online is an arduous process. The spread of misinformation or disinformation also remains a deep concern. Nearly 40 percent of Americans claim to have accidentally shared “fake news” online, and more than two-thirds believe the spreading of fake news causes a great deal of confusion.
Even as ad platforms evolve, bad actors remain and the need for good actors to advertise responsibly is paramount. Candidates and campaigns must use digital media responsibly, refraining from spreading fake news or misleading voters in other ways.
The benefits of responsible digital advertising, however, cannot be overstated. Never before have more Americans had as much access to political content that is directly relevant to their own preferences and interests. The connection between advertiser and target audience has never been stronger, making it increasingly unlikely for consumers to run into content that is irrelevant on an individual level.
At the same time, there is now real potential for new forms of digital media to emerge — those that are even more tailored to specific segments of the US population. Whether you’re a Truth Social user or not, public discourse benefits when there are more ways for people to express themselves online, in much the same way that left-leaning news readers have benefitted from the emergence of BuzzFeed, HuffPostand other 21st-century websites that cater to their needs.
Competition is a win for American democracy. Candidates and campaigns can therefore navigate America’s changing landscape with newfound excitement, assuming they are mindful of their responsibility to voters. The 2024 election is an opportunity for political advertisers to reach millions of people online in more efficient, effective ways. Democrat or Republican, the presidential candidate who leverages digital media best will win the White House. But the ultimate winner will be digital media itself, and all of us who consume it.
Phil Vangelakos serves as managing partner at Push Digital Group. Among his involvement in campaigns, he led digital strategy for Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) in his 2016 reelection campaign. Follow him on Twitter @PhilVangelakos.
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