Whether promoting people (political candidates, for example), places (travel destinations), or things (consumer packaged goods), digital marketers of all stripes face many of the same fundamental challenges, like attribution issues resulting from increasing data privacy legislation, the imminent demise of third-party cookies, and other emerging disruptions to the status quo.
But when it comes to solving these types of challenges, commercial marketers maintain a decisive advantage over their counterparts in the political space. Because commercial advertisers stand to lose so much money — and because the commercial sector is so much larger and launches so many more campaigns than the political sector — they’re inevitably going to innovate faster and more adroitly, too.
Political marketers should pay rapt attention to what’s happening on the commercial side of the aisle. There is much to learn by following commercial marketers’ lead in engaging audiences and measuring success, and by embracing the best practices they pioneer.
Day-to-day, hands-on experience is the biggest differentiator between commercial marketers and political marketers. Because they’re selling Coca-Cola, not Joe Biden, commercial teams simply get more reps — more opportunities to understand what works, what doesn’t, and how to execute most effectively. They’re learning iteratively, while the inherently seasonal nature of politics means campaigns turn into pumpkins at the end of every other November.
Commercial marketing is also a far more lucrative enterprise than its political counterpart. Consider that while political advertisers are pacing to spend an estimated $8.8 billion in the runup to Election Day 2022, more than double the $3.9 billion spent during the 2018 midterm cycle, politics will still account for just a sliver of 2022’s projected total U.S. ad spend of $320 billion — a record sum driven by industries including technology, telecoms, entertainment, travel, and betting.
That’s not to suggest commercial marketers have more at stake, of course. They just have more runway to try new things, as well as higher monetary incentives — not to mention an obligation to shareholders — to squeeze a few more drops of efficiency out of their campaigns. They also have much more measurable results: they know the month after their campaign kicks off whether Coke sales go up or not. Whereas in political campaigns, we all just have to wait around for November, and see if we were right.
Given these stark differences, how should political marketers think about applying lessons from the commercial side? It starts by mirroring key tenets of the commercial marketing philosophy: namely experimentation, iteration, and diversification.
Experimentation is critical to innovation, so political campaigns should allocate larger percentages of their budgets towards measurement and testing, for instance, as opposed to continuing to do what has always been done. In particular, political campaigns can learn from measuring and bolstering what commercial marketers call “brand awareness” (or what in campaigns is called “name recognition”) — i.e., top-of-the-funnel activities designed to boost recognition, educate prospects, and create positive buzz around a product, service, or brand. A political candidate’s approval rating is fundamentally similar to a brand approval rating, so the better political campaigns understand the public’s perception of their candidate, the more adjustments they can make before voters head to the polls.
We should also follow commercial’s lead and diversify our media mix. The average political campaign still spends 60 or 70 percent of its budget on terrestrial TV advertising, for example, despite ongoing declines in viewership. It’s time for a bolder approach more closely aligned with the behaviors of the population at large: after all, if continuing to spend such a large proportion of campaigns budgets on TV advertisements actually worked, we would see that in the strategies playing out in the commercial sector.
Campaigns additionally should pay close attention to how commercial marketers react to new privacy changes, and how they rethink attribution in a post-cookie world. Commercial marketers are almost always going to cross this type of bridge first, making them most likely to figure out the new best practices for measurement when Apple no longer lets us know to whom we served ads, and who actually clicked on them.
Last but not least, political campaigns must take steps to mitigate brain drain. While there are mechanisms in place to share lessons and insights across political campaigns, as well as trusted external advisors to help inform and shape campaign strategy from one cycle to the next, continuity still poses a major challenge. Some individual practitioners remain in the political space after a campaign cycle concludes, but many more pursue careers in other areas, taking vital institutional knowledge with them.
Adopting ideas and innovations from the commercial sphere is one thing, of course; implementing them is another. Political campaigns can gain insight and smooth the transition by working with expert advisors and creative firms with experience in the commercial space, as well as by broadening the talent pool to make sure that we’re hiring people with the right experience — and not necessarily political experience, either. Candidates with proven track records of optimizing campaigns for commercial clients can be taught the ins and outs of precincts, early voting, and other basics of the political sector: what these people bring to the table far outweighs what they don’t.
It’s also valuable to build relationships with professionals on the commercial side. Commercial can learn from political as well, so meeting for coffee (whether in the real world or virtually) can pay dividends for both. And if you’ve exhausted all other options for expanding your horizons, try digging into the marketing science literature, not just the political science literature.
The similarities between political marketing and commercial marketing are greater than their differences, and I look for them to grow even more similar in the future. One thing’s for certain: candidates would win more votes if their campaigns emulated the innovation happening across all corners of the marketing landscape, and if they implemented tested best practices regardless of where they come from.