How Long Will Political Campaigns Continue To Undervalue Social Media Ads?

November 9, 2015

When you consider the substantial reach, targeting abilities and daily engagement rates, it’s sort of shocking how social media continues to be neglected by political campaigns. The whole model is primed for radically different approach.

Let me pause for a moment to say this blog post is absolutely not about politics, but rather media buying. Come election year, the two are intertwined, but not with the sophistication you might expect.



  • Last September, a study by the Pew Research Center found 58 percent of adults in the U.S. maintain a Facebook account. Meanwhile, during the 2012 presidential election, the voter turnout was 54.9 percent. Yet surprisingly, a disproportionately small amount of ad dollars — still hundreds of millions, mind you — are being used for political ads on social media. What gives?
  • As reported in August, digital-media buying by political campaigns is exploding. During next year’s election cycle, digital advertising is expected to reach $1.076 billion, half of which will go toward social media. By 2020, that number will climb to $3.3 billion. However, these figures still significantly lag behind television spending, which is currently slated for $8.5 billion in 2016.

Data dump complete.

Here’s my question: If more adults use Facebook than actually turn out to vote, and we know social media in general (Facebook, specifically) offers cheaper advertising with far superior targeting than television, why are political campaigns funding television ads over social media at a rate of $16-to-$1?

Probably because television ownership still exceeds social-media usage in the U.S., even as more are cutting the cord. Network television still reigns supreme, though it has qualitative limitations.

But the revolution may be afoot. As the Los Angeles Times reported in August, prior to the first Republican presidential debate, “Campaigners are beginning to combine the targeting power of rich data analytics with video’s attention-getting emotional appeal, creating a hybrid form of campaigning tailor-made for the digital age. Many candidates are using the medium to project a more relatable image than what they put out over television ads.”

It’s fun for anyone in digital marketing to imagine the first politician who will actually prioritize social media over television — if not scrap ads on the idiot box altogether.

Let’s pretend a disruptive underdog candidate running No. 3 or No. 4 in polling during the primaries looked at the war chest and focused on two objectives — generating awareness and building affinity. Rather than spend heavy to replay a few ads on television in key markets in Iowa and New Hampshire, the candidate would invest in robust creative content tailored for Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, and maybe even Snapchat, LinkedIn and Vine. Using the the targeting capabilities of each platform, the candidate could — in theory — build a groundswell of support and even resist accepting campaign donations from dubious characters because of his/her more economical and elegant media buy.

It begs the question: Is not running political ads on television in and of itself a solid reason to vote for a candidate?