What is True Measurement of Political Advertising?

By Carly Dome, Senior Director, Agency Partnerships

Campaigns for office and ballot initiatives have fairly black and white success metrics. Either a candidate is elected and a ballot measure passes, or they don’t. Simple.

Political ad campaigns are often judged on the same win/loss scale. If the candidate or initiative won, then the campaign was a success. If the ballot box results were a loss, then the campaign was unsuccessful.

But that’s not how consumer marketing campaigns work, and with a voting body that is increasingly active and outspoken, it may be time to reexamine what qualifies as marketing “success” in the political sphere.

Accountability amid record spending

The 2022 election cycle set records on political ad spending, which was shocking, considering it was a mid-term. Estimates for 2024 are another record-breaking year, with forecasts surpassing $10 billion in ad spend.

That kind of investment requires a careful approach to accurately measuring how audiences across channels respond. Attribution should be at the top of the list for every political or election campaign, alongside the more common concerns like audience targeting and creative messaging.

With all of this money flowing into campaigns and trying to influence voters, adopting refined, precise measurement brings increased accountability. Beyond getting people to pull the lever to vote for a specific candidate, agencies and campaigns should aim for things like influence, attending events, engaging with a candidate’s website, social profiles, video, advertising, and other metrics.

Enter the “super vocal socials.” These are the voters who influence others within their circles and can spread a message via word of mouth, especially on social media. The goal, beyond simply winning, is to identify, target, and influence these “super vocal socials” who can pay huge dividends to spread the word and motivate action. Doing so also shifts the math on what marks a “successful” campaign.

Recruiting super vocal socials

This is not to say that all campaigns should abandon broad voter outreach, issues-based audience targeting, or multiple creative iterations. Rather, campaigns need to be varied in their approaches.

Recruiting super-vocal socials means that campaigns are essentially recruiting brand evangelists, to borrow a term from consumer marketing. These vocal proponents can take their own tactics toward reaching and recruiting even more voters, without additional spending from the campaign. When spending records will be shattered, any additional free messaging is a win.

So how do you find these supporters? It requires a nuanced audience targeting approach – or at the very least, a bifurcated one. Campaigns should absolutely still pursue likely voters, and they also need to devote budget to building profiles of super-vocals and then pursuing those with their campaigns. These loyalists may build a groundswell of support of their very own, which requires adjustments in measurement as well.

Success in a new era

Measurement, and specifically attribution, is perhaps the largest adjustment campaigns need to make. Any campaign that looks to activate super-vocal socials needs an attribution strategy that shows (1) that the campaign was instrumental in reaching and engaging that super-vocal supporter and (2) that the super-vocal supporter was responsible for driving further engagement and voting results beyond themselves.

Even campaigns that don’t deploy this strategy need to get serious about multi-channel attribution. This allows the campaign to understand which channels drove engagement and, if possible, voting results. Armed with that kind of insight, campaigns are able to better allocate spend and adjust audience strategy for future campaigns, based on what was able to persuade voters. Campaigns may lose on election day, but they may have uncovered a previously uncharted media approach that is replicable.

And future campaigns do matter. The current level of political polarization often makes every election cycle feel like a do or die ordeal. Consumer marketing has taught us that success and progress happen on a longer timeline, which requires awareness and loyalty building as much as – if not more than – sloganeering and firm calls to action. Congressional races are every two years. A candidates’ loss in this cycle does not wipe away their chances two years from now. It may simply require fine-tuning a message, building awareness, and working closely with the loyal super-vocal supporters.

The other side of the coin is that candidates and issues-based campaigns may want to begin their campaigns even earlier in the election cycle. We all know how swing states are inundated with political advertising in October, even if we don’t live in these battlegrounds. Campaigns that want a positive result in November 2024 should start building loyalty and word-of-mouth efforts as early as possible so that they achieve the desired result on election day. This is especially important for ballot initiatives, which may not make it in front of voters again.

To be clear, there is much at stake in every election cycle. But the measurement of success in the political advertising space no longer needs to be a win/lose binary. Reaching new kinds of advocates and deploying deeper measurement strategies can result in valuable insights, which will pave the way for future victories.