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Not up for debate: Why Programmatic Advertising Will Dominate the Race for Digital Ad Spend in the 2016 Elections

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By Reed Scharff, Senior Analyst of Market Integrity, OpenX

With more than 20 declared candidates for President in the upcoming election cycle, the race is on. And while we may have to wait until November 8, 2016 to find out who will be our next Commander-in-Chief, it's already clear that one of the real standouts of the 2016 election will be programmatic advertising.

As defined by the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB), programmatic advertising refers to the automated buying and selling of digital media, as opposed to the traditional process involving RFPs and manual insertion orders. While efficient, the real attraction of programmatic for political campaigns lies in the ability to overlay multiple data sources to reach voters with highly targeted, relevant messages while ensuring ads are delivered in a brand-safe environment, preserving the integrity of both publishers and candidates.

Programmatic technology is less than a decade old, and has matured significantly since the last presidential election thanks to rapid commercial adoption. According to eMarketer's 2015 "Digital Ad Spending Benchmarks by Industry" report, US advertisers will spend $14.88 billion dollars on programmatic ad buys this year alone. With this market maturation, 2016 is poised to be one of the most innovative cycles ever experienced in campaign analytics and advertising technology.

How did we get here?

Historically, political candidates have relied on traditional campaign tactics: identifying voter segments based on demographics, and targeting those groups for persuasion and turnout (ensuring the candidates' base voters show up to the polls).

However, a shift began to occur in 2008. Through the growth of data-driven strategies and Nate Silver-like predictive models, campaigns began to move toward focusing on precisely targeted demographics or individuals. Even so, individual level voter modeling was still a relatively new concept, primarily used to influence the older, vetted methods of voter contact - think going door-to-door, and local campaign headquarters with volunteers manning the phones.

By 2012, analytics-savvy data-scientists began to gain ascendancy. Online advertising and e-mail marketing had proven to be extremely effective in fundraising and organizational efforts, and the ability to target voters on an individual basis was becoming increasingly sophisticated.

As originally reported by MIT Technology Review following the 2012 election in an article discussing how the Obama campaign won the election on a vote-by-vote basis:

"...Voters were no longer trapped in old political geographies or tethered to traditional demographic categories, such as age or gender, depending on which attributes pollsters asked about or how consumer marketers classified them for commercial purposes. Instead, the electorate could be seen as a collection of individual citizens who could each be measured and assessed on their own terms."

However, as with any major industry disruption, this new class of digital strategists had yet to convince the old guard of their power in effectively communicating issue-based messages that are so prominent in campaign television commercials.

Reaching Voters Easier Than Ever Before

Television advertising is not disappearing overnight, but budget for focus-group tested, multi-million dollar network buys is anticipated to shift significantly to digital ad agencies that can deliver more targeted campaigns; it is predicted that nearly $1 billion of
will be on digital media, a 5,000 percent increase from 2008.

Coupled with the maturation of programmatic advertising, political campaigns will be able to reach voters with quality ads in a hyper-targeted manner, as well as evaluate and adjust campaigns in real time to consequently move the needle like never before.

Furthermore, many political forecasters are predicting that Millennials will sway the results of the 2016 elections, naturally lending a strong advantage to campaigns with well-developed digital presences. Millennials don't have landlines or use physical mail, and usually aren't reachable at home during typical canvassing hours. However, they are on the Internet all day long, both at home and at work, consuming copious amounts of content.

As a result, the days of the local neighborhood field office are numbered--while these visual landmarks once served as the backbone to volunteer recruitment and lead generation, modern field organizers have much more sophisticated tools at their disposal. They are now focused on building strong online communities and, as a consequence, their reach has grown exponentially. These large online communities are further expanding the opportunities for political campaigns to reach a targeted audience through programmatic methods.

With just over a year until Election Day, campaigns must be prepared to fully embrace the programmatic digital media landscape. This is the brave new world that political data-scientists have been dreaming about, where programmatic ad strategy is innately data-driven and operational efficiency can be measured in real-time.

The 2016 Presidential race may be anyone's game, but one thing that is for sure is that programmatic advertising will play a deciding and important role in how voter campaigns are executed.

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