IX Perspectives

Bernie Booms in Q1: Early Primary Season in Review

Bernie candidate sign

Yesterday, the research team sat down with the VP of Sales and Programmatic Strategy at a major political news network. A native Washingtonian, he grew up acutely aware of the political machine, its manoeuvres, and the party drama that imbues each election cycle. He began to see programmatic interest from political bodies (i.e. candidate campaigns, PACs, and party committees) during the 2012 election and knew 2016 would yield more programmatic dollars.

He shared a few tidbits that indicate the programmatic race hasn’t even begun to boil. First, he mentioned that the campaigns in this election have “struggled to embrace brand building and position themselves as brands,” specifically around sequential messaging opportunities or thinking through the voter-life cycle of an American voter much the way brands think about their users.

Also, he shared that programmatic’s technical complexity and the differences between private marketplaces vs. open marketplaces intimidates campaigns – they too, want a simple, transparent, way of buying media in real-time and knowing exactly where an ad will show up, and they feel that most programmatic today are ill-equipped to offer that.

My favourite part of the meeting? He told us that we are just now “entering go-time.” At the beginning of the primary race, the focus was on getting donations from the candidate’s biggest supporters and showing love to the diehards. As of July and the party national conventions approach, candidates plan to ramp up advertising spend and put their tested programmatic strategies into play in an effort to swing voters in the centre of the political spectrum – the undecideds. From July to until November D-Day, depending on the selected candidates, we’re sure to see an even bigger influx of programmatic political spend.

As today is the last day of Q1 (and “go-time” is afoot, according to our friend in Washington), we are examining how candidates spent from January to March, what programmatic strategies they appear to have embraced, and how they’ve approached and valued different ad units.

Q1 Spend Overall – Bernie’s On Top

campaign spend and impressions - Q1 2016
campaign spend and impressions – Q1 2016
Source: Index Exchange Global Marketplace Data (Q1 2016)

We looked at exchange-wide spend by each campaign (not including PACs or party committee) over the course of Q1. Here’s what we found:

  • Bernie Sanders accounted for nearly half of the candidate spend. Bernie spent most of all candidates buying programmatically from January 1 to March 31. He outspent the second-biggest spender, Ted Cruz, by nearly 3x and spent 5.85x more than Hillary Clinton.
  • Hillary turned the volume up before South Carolina and Super Tuesday 1. Hillary Clinton spent within Index Exchange each week of Q1. January was lighter for her with a major ramp from February 14 – February 28. The two weeks between Valentine’s Day and the end of February were important for her politically, the Nevada and South Carolina caucuses and the build-up to Super Tuesday 1 on March 1 fell within this range.
  • Cruz spent the most the week before the South Carolina primary. Cruz’s spend has been constant throughout the quarter. His two biggest weeks were the week of January 24 and February 14. The week of January 24 was the week before the first primary in Iowa on February 1 and included a Republican debate on January 28. February 14 included the wind up to the South Carolina primary on February 20, a race where Cruz yearned to capture the votes of his evangelical base and ultimately lost, after Trump and Rubio.
  • Carson and Rubio spend indicated hesitation. The two candidates that have dropped out since we began covering the Programmatic Election evidenced more uncertain campaigns through their programmatic spend. Ben Carson spent sizably during the month of January. After January 31, we didn’t see any spend from Carson, who formally dropped out of the race more than a month later, on March 4. Rubio had a small presence in the programmatic race – his campaign didn’t start spending until the week of February 27 and stopped spending the week of March 20.
  • Campaigns missed the PMP opportunity in Q1. In the United States, 89/11 is the typical spend break down between open and private markets – the average for these campaigns was 98/2 over the course of Q1. In January, 1% of campaign spend was through the private channel, the number rose to 3% in February, and dropped down to 2% in March. Cruz spent the most in private marketplaces, 3.66x higher than second-place Kasich, and 4.2x more than third-place Sanders. The small scale spend within the private marketplace channel suggests the campaigns aren’t leveraging programmatic as cleverly as they could – if a major strategic objective is to reach and message your base, the granularity, control, and publisher data available for targeting in the private marketplace sure would have helped.

Despite Quiet Weeks, Sanders Secures Top Impression Spot

In my opinion, the number of impressions won by each campaign bears more of a story than total spend – it sizes a campaign’s digital visibility. When you evaluate impressions alongside spend you can an idea of the value of the inventory – how much demand there is for it, how it’s priced by the publisher – which tells the best story of all. Over the course of Q1 2016:

  • Bernie bought the most impressions thanks to a spree over three key weeks. Eighty-one percent of Sanders’ impressions were bought between January 10 and February 1. During each of these three weeks, he bought more impressions than any campaign did during any week in the race. The rest of the quarter, Sanders focused on buying fewer, higher-value impressions. It seems he leveraged the blanket strategy to build awareness early on in the campaign and then appeal to his followers later on. If Bernie goes on to secure the democratic nomination, it will be interesting to see if he takes the centrist approach – to blanket as many users as possible – or a niche-targeting approach.
  • Cruz and Clinton came in second place and bought nearly 70% as many impressions as Bernie. Cruz and Clinton bought nearly the same number of impressions over the course of Q1. These two have also consistently had the lowest CPMs in the race, which suggests the impressions they’re buying are less attractive to most other buyers in the exchange.
  • Kasich is tapering but isn’t done. Kasich has had the fewest impressions in the race (not including Rubio or Carson) and has tapered a bit in the last week. His biggest weeks for impression buying were February 14 and February 28.

Candidates spend by week
Candidates spend by week
Source: Index Exchange, Average CPMs, per week by the campaign (Q1 2016)

Bernie’s High CPMs Are Thanks to an Affinity for Video Ad Buys

We took a look at which ad units the candidates spent most on over Q1. Here’s what you need to know:

  • Sanders, Cruz, and Kasich were the only video buyers. Over the course of Q1, Sanders spent 24% of his budget on video ads, which explains his high CPMs. Cruz allocated 21% of spend to video, while Kasich put 7% there. Notably absent is Hillary Clinton, who has used programmatic display buying for just that … securing banners programmatically.
  • 300 x 250 and 728 x 90 were the most popular units. Hillary put 59% of her spend toward the 300 x 250 unit, while Cruz and Sanders allocated 43% of spend and 41% to that unit, respectively. We also saw candidates spend significantly on the 728 x 90 banner.

campaign spend by ad unit - Q1 2016
campaign spend by ad unit – Q1 2016
Source: Index Exchange Global Marketplace Data (Q1 2016)

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