Political Attention Hogs and How to Be One

Coming out of the 2016 Presidential Election, political organizers were forced to confront a reality that advertisers have understood for decades: attention capture is the key to successfully convincing people to pick a product or a candidate. The frustrating truth is that Donald Trump commanded an outsize level of attention across media and became president, in large part, because of it.

The exponential nature of technological proliferation has made the halcyon days of 2008 with its micro-targeted Presidential campaign bus ads feels like it was far longer than a decade ago, and the unique ability of the Trump campaign to demand eyes and ears and clicks, has forever and absolutely changed the arena of political attention jockeying. It is easy to see trends in the data that would convince even the most skeptical old-media believer that the future of political organizing is online. And this is especially true for Democratic candidates with the opportunity to harness organic digital advocacy outfits.

The fact of today’s world is that volunteers’ social networks might be the single strongest weapon at Democrats’ disposal. The choice for volunteers is simple: Are you willing to use your network to fight for what you believe in?

The advertising world was ahead of this curve—and has been for a number of years, in fact. According to an eMarketer study, digital ad spending outpaced TV ad spending for the first time ever in 2016, representing 37% and a plurality of all ad sales in the United States. This, of course, tracks with Nielsen data about declining television viewership, especially in advertisers’ target demographics. All of this data is simple, straightforward, and points to the logical conclusion that devoting less than a plurality—perhaps even less than a majority—of funds available for the express purpose of attention capture to non-digital media is an inefficient allocation strategy.

And yet, an internal study of all congressional campaign ad spending across 2016 shows that a remarkable 45% of funds were spent on ads airing on broadcast TV with an additional 14% of funds spent on ads for cable TV. Overall, merely 14% of campaign ad spending was used to buy digital ads. The market inefficiency is obvious when one considers these numbers, but the delta of the opportunity cost is even larger in electoral politics than it initially seems.

Much in the same way that advertisers’ target demo is largely online, the same is true of most Democratic candidates’ bases. This population—largely young and minority voters—consume more digital media than any other demographic. This population shares more and consumes more information from their social media connections than any other source. This population also has historically low turnout rates and votes disproportionately for Democrats. The answer is almost too obvious. Here are large swaths of Democratic voters who are paying attention and willing to spread the right message; candidates just need to find effective ways to deliver that message.

Not only are more Democratic voters online to receive campaign messages, but more Democratic voters are online to share campaign messages too. In this way, Democrats can make up huge ground in the 2018 midterms and going forward.

The most impactful way, by orders of magnitude, to reach voters online is via friend-to-friend contacts. And, of course, this makes sense. People have become distrustful of what they see online, often for good reason. The credibility afforded a message that one receives as part of a relational organizing campaign simply cannot be equaled, perhaps even not by the candidate themselves.

For campaigns, the decision matrix is even more obvious. Without question, you should be devoting substantially more money into your digital outfit than you currently are. The choice is how to focus that money. On the one hand, you can throw it after ad buys that will garner precipitously less attention as time goes on, or, on the other hand, you can put that money toward developing a robust digital volunteering team that shares campaign content with their friends and networks and organically spreads your message reliably, credibly, and widely.

Whether we like it or not, elections are now a game of attention capture. Democrats have all the tools to win, the only question that remains is whether or not we will use them.

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