Political ad buyers often follow the digital example of their commercial counterparts, and in some cases have even gotten ahead of consumer marketers' tactics. Now political campaigns and advocacy groups seem poised to buy ads through programmatic systems to a much greater degree than in recent election cycles, in this case enabled by the technology's broader acceptance in the general market.
"They're becoming more comfortable with targeting the audience instead of targeting the context," said J.C. Medici, director of politics and advocacy for Rocket Fuel, a programmatic ad firm that works with digital political consultancies on the right and left.
"We literally started having meetings for the 2016 election the week after the midterms," Mr. Medici added. "I believe that programmatic buying will increase tenfold compared to 2014."
Programmatic sometimes refers to automated, audience-based advertising bought through real-time bidding platforms and exchanges. Targeted Victory co-founder Zac Moffatt defines it a bit more broadly: "Programmatic equals insight plus automation," he said. When Mr. Moffatt ran Mitt Romney's digital efforts in 2012, he said the campaign bought "tens of millions of dollars' worth" of ads programmatically.
Convincing old-school political media minds to move more money away from traditional TV isn't easy, but there's growing appetite for targeting that employs voter file data and layered-in third-party information.
"We do expect to see more of this in 2016 and are prepared to make these part of the media plans we drive," said Betsy Hoover, a founding partner at Democratic digital outfit 270 Strategies, regarding programmatic media buys. "A voter who is getting a phone call from a volunteer on the campaign and getting mail from the campaign is also getting served ads about the campaign. That is a powerful thing."
To encourage growth, tech providers are working to welcome more down-ticket candidates and smaller advocacy groups that can't spend on the level of a presidential or major congressional campaign. Firms including political-focused digital ad consultancies Targeted Victory and CampaignGrid on the right and DSPolitical on the left, as well as Rocket Fuel, now offer self-serve programmatic ad platforms that weren't around in 2012.
Minimum campaign buys are also coming down. In 2014, DSPolitical reduced the minimum amount it allowed campaigns to spend from $5,000 to $500 by the end of the election season, according to Jim Walsh, CEO of DSPolitical. That could have a big effect on the composition of programmatic buyers come campaign season.
"The main growth is going to be at the local level," Mr. Walsh said.
Along with even better-known platforms like Google's DoubleClick Bid Manager, these tools are enticing more campaigns and advocates. But it's not clear whether smaller operations with less-experienced staff and fewer resources can take full advantage of the breadth of data and technology.
Longtime Republican digital ad consultant Eric Frenchman warned that despite their relative simplicity, programmatic buying platforms aren't just plug and play. "I think people think it's going to be like, 'I load up my ads and I press a button,'" he said. The truth is, "I could spend hours on it."
Unlike other advertisers using programmatic buying platforms, political campaigns and groups are accustomed to reserving inventory months ahead of election-cycle crunch times, particularly during primary season and toward the end of general elections.
Anticipating that dynamic, programmatic ad firms are scooping up inventory to make available to clients, either as reserved inventory or as space available in real-time bidding situations. "People are going to reserve inventory far, far earlier than they have previously," said Mr. Walsh. "This is the market maturing."
It's not about whether you bought the media in real time, Mr. Moffat added. "To me, programmatic means you leverage technology to make your decision in real time," he said.