What Public Affairs Can Learn From The Political Digital Advertising Playbook

November 18, 2020

This year marked a sea change for online efforts and in no place was that clearer than the elections.

Through our sister company FP1 Strategies’ work on 11 winning U.S. Senate races, we saw approaches that succeeded – and those that didn’t. Here are our key lessons that public affairs efforts can take from political campaigns:

Acquisition Advertising

Mindset Shift Is Mandated

There is a tendency in our industry to think advocates need a “breather” after they take action – that they need to rest, or we will “burn them out.” That is wrong. We learned the exact opposite approach is required to generate subsequent actions – and the numbers bear that out.

The question is no longer simply what day of the week or what time of day is best for sending an email – it’s how many times should I be reaching out. The answer is MORE.

The most likely person to take an action is someone who just took an action. The two best determinants for action in 2020 were:

  1. How long it had been since his/her last action;
  2. How many actions he/she had taken in his/her lifetime.

Those who had taken an action in the last week were more than twice as likely to take a subsequent action than those outside of that one week window. There was also a very clear correlation between the actions the individual had taken and the likelihood to act again. Someone who had taken five or more actions were three times as likely to take further action than those who had only taken one.

The More Mediums The Better

We can no longer think of activation as purely an email or advertising play. This cycle, house file texting lists became the second largest revenue generator for many campaigns, with a higher marketing efficiency than email. In plainer English, that means campaigns raised more money per person they texted than per person they emailed. Moreover, we saw a 45% increase in lifetime value as an activist when they had opted into both email and short message service (SMS).

Successful activation campaigns in the public affairs space will build off this learning and investing more in house file texting programs with the same intensity they previously did with their email lists. Peer-to-peer texting and a true cross channel approach to activation are now required elements of any serious effort.

Investing In Your List Is Like Investing In Retirement

We say this to political candidates: the more resources you put in your list now, the more you’ll make off of it later. The analogy is spot on: an email and SMS file that is properly built pays off like compounding interest. With each year that passes, that initial investment makes more and more, to the point where ROI increases each year. To that end, we saw a four times return in 2020 from 2019 investment.

The analogy is not as direct for public affairs, but is still applicable. There will be battles where activating your supporters is needed and the results of that investment will have a compounding impact in years to come. Smart campaigns will plan ahead and set aside funds to grow and nurture a healthy list every month of the year.

Just like planning and investing in your retirement, list building is most successful when you plan ahead and consistently set aside money every month.

Persuasion Advertising

Consumption Habit Changes We Knew Were Coming Are Now Here

In early 2019, we were surprised to see 20 percent of the ads placed on YouTube were aired on television screens. That number exploded in 2020 and is now over 50 percent in most cases. For many campaigns, the amount of television inventory on YouTube is larger than the rest of their campaign budget.

What’s more, YouTube’s television inventory is 20 to 30 percent cheaper than that of mobile devices.

For years, it has been forecast that digital placements on television will make up a material amount of inventory. That time is here. There is now significant reach and frequency at an affordable price to justify sustained public affairs investment and prioritization.

COVID-19 has played a role in the speed with which this transition occurred. This is one of the COVID behavioral changes we believe will endure beyond the work from home and stay at home days of the pandemic.

Video Length Matters More Than Ever

You’ve been hearing it for years: 15- and six-second companions are needed for your 30-second ads.


Facebook will only let you run a five- to 15-second ad on its best (instream) placements. You cannot run a 30-second there. As a result, 30-second ads get viewed for only four seconds, but 15-second ads get viewed for 12. The choice is clear. Do you want your target to see four seconds or 12 seconds of your ad?

On the flip side, YouTube’s forced-view 15-second inventory was expensive. At times they were twice the cost of a 30-second ad. In this case, the numbers warranted a switch in tactics – prioritizing the 30-second spot. A forced-view 15-second ad will be watched for about 14 seconds on average, a skippable 30-second anywhere from 12- to 14-seconds. At twice the cost, 15s aren’t the smartest play. The more efficient spend here is a 30-second ad.

Organizations Should Have an Always On Testing Mindset

New tools have flooded the online space – some worthwhile, some not. This year we saw success with YouTube TV, CPM Masthead takeovers and purchasing live-sports on Hulu. We also saw our share of failures.

But that’s the point behind a testing program.

Innovative and leading-edge public affairs campaigns will have an “always-on” testing mindset, with a dedicated budget and focus on trying these new products as they emerge. Some of the most successful campaigns we saw in 2020 were those that took this approach. Testing constantly, measuring rigorously and ruthlessly cutting what didn’t work. In a space that changes more in a year than some industries do in a decade, this approach creates opportunities to quickly outflank your competition.

You won’t always hit home runs. Sometimes you’ll strike out. But the organizations that consistently step up to the plate and drive singles will fare better than those who stick to the bench with old methods.

We were fortunate to be a part of so many efforts that allowed us to test and refine these new tactics. We’re looking forward to applying these lessons learned to our public affairs campaigns for a winning approach to digital advertising.

Learn more about how PLUS Communications can help your organization or campaign succeed by contacting us today.