While the anticipation of the U.S. presidential election may be over, its turbulence—for voters and media buyers alike—remains. In addition to the polarizing nature of this political cycle, public health concerns around the coronavirus pandemic led to a decline of in-person political campaign events and an uptick in both early and mail-in voting.
Political ad buyers needed to navigate newly implemented restrictions from tech giants as well as at the state and federal level. Despite the obstacles, digital media spend accounted for nearly $1 billion dollars in political ad sales, three times the amount in 2016, according to Magna Global—and we’re still counting with two critical special election runoffs in Georgia.
In what was certainly an election year unlike any other, buyers craved stability to execute policy-compliant media buys when it mattered the most. As a result, Xandr and others invested heavily to provide customers with powerful platforms to achieve optimal results. For us, this meant offering exclusive assets and robust data integrations to reach voters at scale and across screens, a flexible platform to tailor messages and customize buying strategies, direct access to premium video and omnichannel supply, and an intuitive interface with extensive customer service specifically tailored for the unique requirements of a political cycle.
Amid the deployment of Xandr’s Political DSP, major trends across the board were captured. Here’s what we learned:
- CPMs rose to unprecedented highs.
Early voting drove an escalation in competition for voter eyeballs. This early competition, in addition to increased pressure among the “swing” or “battleground” states across the U.S., led to voter-targeted CTV buys against high-value voters in those areas regularly clearing in the $150-to-$200 range, with CPMs as high as $600 in Arizona, $500 in Michigan and $450 in North Carolina. This is true across platforms, as Magna Global found net CPMs in battleground states were up 20% to 25% in the third and fourth quarters compared to 2019.
In addition, competition for all video and display impressions was incredible as there were multiple instances of customers moving spend from display to video to clear their budgets. With political ad spend projected to reach nearly $7 billion in the U.S. this year, compared to just over $4 billion in 2016, this is no surprise.
- Programmatic Guaranteed provided price stability on premium inventory.
The tightening of supply and flux in media CPMs presented significant challenges to media planners. Buyers who reserved premium supply found it much easier to effectively manage their budgets. Xandr, for example, saw a large increase in the adoption of its Programmatic Guaranteed offering, which allows media owners to pre-agree with, and execute on, reserved delivery commitments. While many digital video players were running out of inventory and turning away political buyers, campaigns using Xandr Invest were able to take advantage of exclusive access to CNN and WarnerMedia properties to get OTT ads in front of the right voters.
- Broad and early campaign execution mirrored early turnout and signaled success.
Data compiled by the Associated Press and the Federal Election Commission shows that 2020 early voting exceeded the 2016 early vote total with just over a week of campaigning left. In fact, by the day before the election, the number of early votes cast in 2020 represented 71% of all votes cast in the 2016 presidential election. As the dust settles, it looks like 70% of all votes cast in this year’s election were early votes.
In response to this early voting surge by the electorate, smart buyers understood their voters were casting their ballots early and therefore budgeted more of their spending much earlier than in previous elections, ramping down to spend through most of their budgets on or before Get Out the Vote weekend and trickling out the last of their budgets through election day.
On the Xandr platform, we saw political buyers using Programmable Splits to build campaigns that automatically filled against the most granular custom voter audiences first, then against broader voter audiences from third party sources, then to strategic voter geos and broad geo plays. This indicates buyers were broadening their strategy to saturate an electorate that started voting in September, meaning that these moves had to happen much sooner than usual.
Campaigns that waited to unload the majority of their budget lost out on media that was already reserved, paid higher prices and, most importantly, weren’t speaking to voters as they were making their decisions.
The political advertising landscape this year proved to be unpredictable, leading to more uncertainty than we, as an advertising industry, have felt in previous election years. The volatility of the environment only reinforced the important role technology platforms play in providing buyers with the flexible, scaled and targeted tools they need to reach specific audiences and drive action.