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Civis Data Science | 2.19.21

Three lessons from the Biden paid media team for more impactful, authentic messaging


Jason Ankeny
Head of Content Marketing

More than 80 million Americans voted to elect Joe Biden, a record turnout fueled by a data-driven paid media campaign that delivered simple, authentic, and powerful messages to the exact right audiences at the exact right time.

Civis Analytics played an essential role in making it happen.

In the six months leading up to the Nov. 3 general election, the Biden campaign used Civis’s Creative Focus message testing tool to scientifically evaluate about 3,300 ads from across the political spectrum, cutting through the noise and misinformation to identify the messages that resonated deepest with target audiences.

Members of the Biden team recently joined Civis for the live webinar How the Biden campaign built an in-house, data-driven paid media operation, sharing how message testing shaped the historic 2020 election cycle, as well as offering insights for transforming your team’s paid media efforts. Here are three key takeaways:

1. Approach paid media as both art and science.

Even before partnering with Civis, the Biden paid media team set out to establish a strong visual identity that could carry the campaign throughout the Democratic primary and into the general election. The team invested early on in pre-production tools like cameras and lenses to deliver high-quality content on a shoestring budget.

“From the outset, there was a mindset that we can and should be able to create content that is at the level of an ad agency. Everything we did was with that in mind,” recalled Jordan Wilson, the Biden paid media team’s creative director. “You can make very high-quality stuff at a lower price point. Leadership just needs to buy in on the front end to get the overall return on creative.”

The Biden team ran its first message test with Civis in May 2020, ramping up the testing process as the campaign gained momentum. As the team completed new ads, they’d share their work with Civis, which launched web surveys to collect data about voter reactions to each spot.

“We would set up a survey that collected standard demographics, and then we would randomize survey respondents into control groups and treatment groups,” explained Todd Harris, Civis Analytics’ director of political applied data science. “Control groups would see no ad, just questions. Treatment groups would be exposed to one ad. After the ad exposure, they’d be asked a series of questions that we wanted information on. We’d get the survey data back, and we’d build a model that helped to understand the impact on an individual being exposed to that ad, relative to the control group. That allowed us to weed out noise, and show what worked best.”

2. Identify your audience, and deliver a message that’s specifically tailored to them.

Creative Focus testing helped the Biden team determine that in many cases, what worked best with target audiences was short, succinct testimonial spots featuring everyday people, not polished creative or attack ads. One of the most compelling ads featured Rick Telesz, a third-generation dairy and soybean farmer from western Pennsylvania.

“That was one of the highest-testing spots of the cycle,” said Amy Romanow, the Biden paid media team’s director of stories. “The power of a testimonial is to illustrate the real-life, human impact of policies at a specific moment in time. They help to humanize or illustrate things in ways that facts, figures, and talking heads alone can’t.”

Message testing also enabled the Biden team to more quickly create content in response to breaking news and unexpected developments along the campaign trail, decisively determining which spots hit the mark, which didn’t, and with whom. “A media approach or creative approach cannot be one-size-fits-all. Segmentation really matters,” Romanow said. “To Civis’s credit, as things were done, we were able to test them and see what was working. At least with any campaign I’ve ever been a part of, there’s not been such a robust, rapid response.”

3. Embrace authenticity.

Message testing also pinpointed the public’s strong interest in hearing from Joe Biden himself, with no-frills spots featuring the candidate speaking directly to the camera testing particularly well.

“The more we could put [Biden] on camera, the better,” said Patrick Bonsignore, the campaign’s director of paid media. “[The ‘Do Your Job’ ad] was a departure from the beautifully produced spots Amy produced, but we threw it into a Civis test on a hunch, and it ended up doing pretty well. It was also cost-efficient. [Fifteen-second ads] are cheaper.”

Spots like ‘Do Your Job’ delivered the authenticity that is increasingly critical to messages of all shapes and sizes, Wilson added. “What is your message, and what is your message in relation to how your audience is receiving it?” Wilson said. “Our message of winning the battle for the soul of the nation was something with such heft and such gravitas. The best communicator for that was a trusted, tested Vice President. The message we were trying to convey required credible, believable voices.”

Want to amplify the credibility and believability of your organization’s voice? Contact me at [email protected] to learn how Creative Focus can help your paid media campaign speak more directly and authentically to target audiences.