How to Win Elections Using Digital Advertising

“You believed, so we won.” That’s what Australian Animal Justice Party candidate Emma Hurst posted after her surprise election win. Considered by the press to be a long shot, she now holds a crucial swing seat and will play a commanding role in her state parliament’s Legislative Council. Because she won, AJP’s goal of preventing the exploitation of animals and environmental destruction through legislation is one step closer to being realized.

So, how exactly did an underdog candidate from a small political party come out victorious against a large field of well-funded candidates? The short answer: a small army of passionate volunteers, a powerful message, and her own incredible activist spirit—along with a little help from digital advertising.

Without a moment to spare, Media Cause’s animal advocacy team worked with Emma and the team at Animal Justice Party NSW to launch a multi-touchpoint digital advertising campaign in the final few weeks leading up to the 2019 NSW State Elections. Our focus was two-fold: energize her base of animal lovers while also winning over swing voters who were fed up with the current political climate.

In just 10 days leading up to the state elections, our campaign reached over 230,000 potential voters, educated over 70,000 on the Animal Justice Party’s candidate and platform, and drove 8,800 high-intent website clicks. When the votes were counted, AJP candidate Emma Hurst beat her opponent by a margin of just 8,000 votes – demonstrating the critical impact of digital advertising to reach voters at scale across multiple touchpoints.

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6 Takeaways You Can Apply to Your Next Political Digital Ads Campaign

1. Invest in paid search to get in front of voters when it matters most.

Whenever an election is just around the corner—and especially when voting is mandatory—you can bet that a lot of voters will be taking to Google to research candidates before making their final choice. Online “window shopping” is practically in our DNA at this point. That’s why it’s so crucial that any candidate, no matter if their election is local, regional, or country-wide, needs to make sure their campaign is front and center when relevant search queries are made. It’s not enough to cross your fingers and hope your organic website listing will be found. If you aren’t bidding on keywords that matter to your party, issues, and candidate, someone else will.

This means bidding on branded and discovery-style keywords, as well as testing competitor terms to appeal to gettable fringe voters. If you’re just launching a campaign, you should establish your paid search program on day 1 and use it over time to turn demonstrated search interest in your party and candidate(s) into website clicks and discovery. Our paid search campaign for AJP NSW garnered an overall click-through-rate that was 358% higher than the industry average for Google Ads, with a 77% lower than average cost-per-click.

2. Establish a Facebook Ads program that makes full use of the platform.

In recent years, social media advertising has become an absolutely critical tool in the tool belt for political campaigns across the globe. The top spenders on Facebook in the US routinely drop hundreds of thousands of dollars a week to reach voters. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t reach your core constituency and even broaden your base with a smaller budget. No matter the size of your budget, you can use features like Custom Audiences, interest targeting, and more to level the playing field by narrowing in on only the most relevant voters to your campaign.

For AJP NSW, we went even further by establishing a sequential advertising framework that spoke to prospective AJP voters over time using a two-message series. The initial ad used Emma’s key campaign video to walk voters through her key talking points. (Consider this the “Why.”) We then followed up with anyone who watched more than a certain amount of that video with a second ad that explained Australia’s misunderstood preferential voting system. (This is the “How.”) The more time you have to run sequences of ads, the more effective they become. By keeping track of which messages certain groups of voters have seen, you can roll out a narrative over time, much like you would if you were having a conversation.

3. Spark curiosity.

As one of our clients likes to say, “invite, don’t incite.” Instead of demanding that someone vote for your particular party and candidate, present them with the basic information the sets your campaign apart and present a non-threatening way to learn more. For example, our top performing search ad for AJP NSW’s campaign asked an honest question in the headline and offered a simple supporting statement:

4. Read the room.

Unlike other advertising mediums such as TV or print, digital doesn’t have to be bound by a “one size fits all” approach. Instead, we can tailor messages to specific audiences based on the ways you target and segment. This means creating specific ads that speak to specific issues for specific audiences, as well as issue-specific website landing pages that go deep on a single policy area.

For example, we created an ad set for AJP NSW targeting people who have shown interest in the environment and served them a video ad featuring a spot about Koalas and habitat destruction.

5. Don’t be spooked by negative comments.

When running ads during election season, tempers will flare and negative comments on ads will be a regular occurrence. This is especially true for an issue-based group like Animal Justice Party. Feathers were ruffled (pun intended). While it’s important to be mindful of the response to each ad you run, you have to take stock of all types of engagement when determining if it’s working or not. An ad might receive 100 negative comments, but if it’s also receiving thousands of reactions, shares, and link clicks, that’s a successful ad. If you’re seeing hundreds of negative comments and fewer reactions, shares, and link clicks, then you should sound the alarm. On Twitter, there’s a term for this: Ratioed. The same general principle applies to other social platforms.

Wondering how best to engage with negative comments? The age-old advice “don’t feed the trolls” applies here. Make use of Facebook’s moderation tools to hide inappropriate, aggressive, and misleading comments from public view. Make sure you have a comment escalation process and a key point-of-contact within the campaign to respond to serious questions from voters and to thank those who actively support you. Bonus points if you have the candidate themself respond to select comments, like Emma did.

6. Embrace the robots!

Features like Google’s Dynamic Search Ads (DSA) are incredibly powerful in the context of political ad campaigns, as they allow you to automatically serve ads with a headline and link destination that perfectly matches a voter’s search. Our DSA campaign for Emma’s campaign had a 41.82% Click Through Rate (CTR), which is 1,219% above the average for search advertising campaigns.

The Facebook Ads platform also offers powerful features that are available to any user. One example is Dynamic Creative, which lets you test thousands of different ad variants at once. If you’re able to kick off your Facebook advertising program early on in your campaign and have enough budget to support it through to election day, this feature can help you suss out your most popular talking points, popular policy proposals, video spots, and more. Take advantage of it!

Finally, the most underrated piece of a successful digital ads program has nothing to do with the ads themselves but everything to do with what comes next: email automation. Even if your objective is reach and awareness, you should always direct to website pages that are optimized for conversions in order to grow your email list in the process and create more opportunities for fundraising down the road. Crucial to this work is having a compelling email welcome series in place that further educates new subscribers about the campaign and polls them about the issues that are most important to them. Most modern email marketing platforms have this functionality, but you should take time to step back, think through your particular email series, and spend time perfecting the writing and design of these emails.

If you’re running a progressive political campaign, let us put our strong framework for digital advertising in place to propel your candidate forward.

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