A number of years ago I started (but eventually abandoned, for reasons I can’t remember) a project examining the dynamics of political media buying. One of the consistent themes that emerged in the early stages of this project was the extent to which political media buying was years behind commercial media buying in terms of the analytical tools and data employed. And as a result, traditional media channels (e.g., broadcast television) were relied upon far more extensively than more targeted, and presumably more efficient, channels such as local cable and the internet.
There were a number of reasons for this, ranging from a lack of resources (in many campaigns, the media buying was actually handled largely by college-age volunteers, who weren’t about to try to reinvent the wheel); to the fact that political candidates themselves didn’t want to deviate from established practices (i.e., they liked seeing themselves on mass-reach broadcast television rather than on more targeted cable channels or online, regardless of whether these other media represented a more efficient way to target voters); to the fact that political media buying agencies get paid based on how much they spend, and thus don’t have much incentive to try to target more efficiently.
I was reminded of this regretfully abandoned project (perhaps I’ll resurrect it one day — still seems like an area that hasn’t received sufficient research attention) by this article about the current state of affairs in political media buying. This piece illustrates how the process of buying potential voters is employing many of the sophisticated audience analysis tools and data that now characterize the process of buying potential consumers. And, perhaps most important, this articule illustrates a growing emphasis on trying to reach potential voters more efficiently and effectively through online channels.
The final paragraph of this piece, however, reminds me of the findings that were emerging from my research five or so years back:
“Will 2012 mark a turning point when political campaigns realize that digital advertising offers them even more efficient and impactful marketing channels, and at much lower cost per impact, than their more traditional channels? Not in the sense that campaigns will invest less in their traditional go-to channels, as confirmed by the heavy TV spending we’ve already seen in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida.”
The 30-second broadcast television spot still tends to be the dominant form of campaign communication. The bottom line, I think, is that no candidate wants to cede that space to his/her competition. And so while efforts to target and reach potential voters online continue to develop, we still see this tremendous reluctance to diminish their emphasis on a communications strategy that seems a heck of a lot less efficient. Plus, of course, it still tends to be the older Americans who vote in the greatest numbers, and these potential voters remain reachable via traditional broadcast television.
In the end, as much as new media technologies and analytical tools are dramaticaly changing the dynamics of reaching voters, these developments are taking place alongside — rather than replacing — traditional approaches.