A crash course in programmatic advertising for Liberal Democrats

I was hoping that the new Programmatic Buying Fundamentals course that I’ve created for Simplilearn would be available by now. But, it looks like the United Kingdom general election, which is scheduled to be held on December 12, 2019, will be done and dusted before the Liberal Democrats (Lib Dems) have a chance to take my new course, which would teach them new ways to use programmatic advertising to increase the number of seats that the party currently holds in the House of Commons.

That’s a pity because Jo Swinson, the Leader of the Liberal Democrats since 2019, has told Peter Walker and Kate Proctor of The Guardian that the Lib Dems are “within a small swing of winning hundreds of seats” in what is being billed as the most volatile general election in living memory. And Swinson would make a terrific Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

Plus, the Lib Dems have refocused themselves since 2016 as a party opposing Brexit, using the slogan “Bollocks to Brexit.” For an idea of what they’re currently saying, watch “Demand Better than Brexit,” which is the featured video on the Liberal Democrats’ YouTube channel.

Now, I’d admit that I was called “a bloody Yank” when I studied comparative colonial history at the University of Edinburgh. But, I launched magazines and websites in the UK during the 1990s, when I was the director of corporate communications at Ziff-Davis. And I’ve spoken at nine Search Engine Strategies (SES) conferences and the International Search Summit in London since 2005. More to the point, I covered the United Kingdom general election in 2010 for Search Engine Watch.

So, I know what “tactical voting” is. As the BBC explains, “Put simply, tactical voting is when someone backs a candidate they wouldn’t normally support, to stop someone else winning. This could happen in a constituency where two parties are in a tight race and candidates from other parties trail far behind. In these circumstances, a supporter of the candidate who was a distant third, might pick their favourite of the two who are in with a chance. At this election, campaigners say voting tactically could help MPs who share voters’ views on Brexit win more seats.”

Back in 2010, when I covered what some called the UK’s “first social media election,” I met Dr. Mark Pack, who was then the Associate Director, Digital, at Mandate Communications and the Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, the most widely-read Liberal Democrat blog in the UK. He’s now the co-author of 101 Ways To Win An Election and co-host the “Never Mind The Bar Charts” podcast. He also edits the monthly email newsletter, “Liberal Democrat Newswire” Oh, and he’s also a candidate for Liberal Democrat Party President.

Pack’s record of innovations speaks for itself. Working with the team at Liberal Democrat HQ, the party achieved a number of internet firsts during his time, including:

  • The first UK party leader on Facebook;
  • The first UK party leader on YouTube;
  • The first UK candidate website to take credit card donations;
  • The first party to have an MP regularly using Twitter.

Pack shared several insights back in 2010. For example, US President Barack Obama’s use of social media in 2008 had inspired all of the major British political parties to ramp up their digital campaigns for the general election that was held in May 2010. However, online fundraising plays a much larger role in the US than in the UK. Pack said this was because there is less money spent in political elections in the UK because the country has lower limits on how much a candidate and a political party may spend.

Forecasting the outcome is ‘complicated’

That’s also when I learned that the math for forecasting the outcome of the general election in the UK is “complicated,” because you need a model translates shifts in voter preference in the national polls into seats gained (or lost) in 650 individual constituencies. For those who speak English, you need a model tries to take “tactical voting” into account.

For example, Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight took a look at the national polls in the UK five days before the UK general election in 2010 and saw Conservatives would get 33.5%, Liberal Democrats get 28.7%, and Labour would get 26.3%. But, because of the British first-past-the-post electoral system, these percentages would not be reflected in the Parliament.

So, The FiveThirtyEight UK forecasting model back then projected that Conservatives would win 299 seats, short of a majority. Labour would win 199 seats, despite coming in third. And the Lib Dems would win 120. The remaining seats would be divided among three other regional and nationalist parties in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

But, Conservatives ended up getting 36.1% of the vote and 306 seats, an increase of 108. Labor got 29.0% of the vote and 258 seats, a decrease of 97. And Liberal Democrats got 23.0% of the vote and 57 seats, a decrease of 5. In other words, “a small swing” in the national polls in the five days before the election meant winning or losing scores of seats. It also meant the FiveThirtyEight UK forecasting model was wrong, wrong, wrong.

That’s also when I decided that, if I’d been born in the UK instead of the US, then I would probably have become a supporter of the Lib Dems. So, it’s hard for me to watch silently from the other side of the pond when I could be sharing some of the latest developments in programmatic advertising. Now, I may be “carrying coals to Newcastle,” because I’d be very surprised if there aren’t people at Lib Dem HQ who already know how to manage programmatic advertising campaigns. But here’s a crash course – just in case new members of their expanded team need to be brought up to speed quickly.

Programmatic advertising training course – abridged version

To begin at the beginning, Liberal Democrats shouldn’t be intimidated by all of the industry jargon that makes programmatic seem more complex than it really is. According to the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB), “Programmatic is the process of buying and selling (digital) media in an automated fashion.” It’s is such a straightforward concept that you could explain programmatic to an eight-year old.

And, even if only a few people on the team at Liberal Democrat HQ have managed a programmatic advertising campaign before, there are a ton of agencies in the UK that have. According to eMarketer, “Nearly nine in 10 digital display ad dollars will be spent on programmatic inventory in the UK this year. Despite uncertainties around the effects of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and Brexit, programmatic’s march continues unabated.”

What do the UK trends look like for mobile and video programmatic spending? Well, according to eMarketer, “These areas are the two key growth drivers for programmatic. Mobile will account for 80.0% of programmatic digital display ad spending this year, up 22.5% over 2018. Video, meanwhile, will account for 43.4% of total programmatic display ad spend this year, up 33.7% from last year and double its proportion in 2016.”

To harness the potential of programmatic, the Lib Dem team needs to master a five-step workflow: Organize your audience insights, design compelling creative, execute with integrated technology, reach audiences across screens, and measure the impact. Let’s take a quick look at each of these steps.

Organize your audience insights

Great marketing begins with audience insights. But, how do you organize your data effectively during the planning process for a programmatic campaign? Well, the first step in this process is thinking about your key audience segments.

Positioned in the center of British politics, the Liberal Democrats have called for constitutional reform, including a transition from the first-past-the-post voting system to proportional representation. The party also promotes stronger protections for civil liberties as well as socially liberal approaches to issues like LGBT rights, drug liberalization, education policy, and criminal justice. The party favors a market-based economy supplemented with social welfare spending. Lib Dems are internationalist and pro-European, supporting a People’s Vote for the continued UK membership of the European Union and greater European integration. The party has supported further environmental protections and opposed certain UK military engagements like the Iraq War.

The Liberal Democrats are historically strongest in northern Scotland, southwest London, southwest England and mid-Wales. Membership is primarily middle-class and more heavily university educated than most UK parties. But, the party needs to build on and expand this base in 2019.

Design compelling creative

Now, it’s easy for the Lib Dems to tell their advertising agency to design compelling creative. But, up until recently, it was harder to choose “horses for courses” that can compete successfully in more than 325 first-past-the-post races across the UK. Why? Because they couldn’t afford to devote lots of time and resources designing and hand-coding custom creative executions for digital campaigns. But, today, they can build logic-based ads with dynamic creative quickly and affordably.

For example, nearly everyone in India is obsessed with the Indian Premier League (IPL), a professional cricket league consisting of eight teams from different cities that compete in April and May. Mondelēz International, one of the world’s largest snack companies, wanted to tap into the excitement around the IPL and build awareness for its brands, including Cadbury Dairy Milk, 5 Star, Bournvita, and Oreo. But Mondelēz didn’t run a standard campaign aimed at all cricket fans. Instead, Mondelēz used Display & Video 360, which is part of the Google Marketing Platform, to develop data-driven display ads that delivered the right message to the right audience at the right time.

Working with its media agency, Carat, Mondelēz selected 104 cricket moments — from catches to scoring plays to innings changes — across 13 IPL match events and eight teams. Specific moments and team combinations featured different brands, and messaging was updated in real time using Cricbuzz’s live score API feed. The dynamic ads were built in Google Web Designer and pushed to Campaign Manager with the help of Google Data Studio. And the Google Cloud Platform was used to automatically trigger the campaign flights in Display & Video 360, which was used to serve ads to users across multiple ad exchanges. So, when a catch or score was recorded on the live feed, users were served Bournvita ads that said, “What a crunchy catch,” or Cadbury Dairy Milk ads that said, “A sweet bite for a sweet score.”

The automated process saved Mondelēz more than 50 hours of campaign setup time. And, over the course of a week, the campaign reached more than 42 million unique users, resulting in more than 2 million clicks with a click-through rate that was 3X the industry average. In the end, the contextual ads garnered more than 246 million impressions.

Here’s another example: When soup sales were down in Australia, Campbell’s Soup turned to Director Mix, Google’s new tool, to run a dynamic, creative campaign on YouTube. The tool helped generate customized creative for different audiences, leading to over 1.5M total views and a 55% increase in Campbell’s Simply Soup sales between May and July 2016. Watch this video to see how they created 1,700 variations of a single video while targeting specific audiences on YouTube.

Now, the Liberal Democrats have already designed some very compelling creative. Just watch “Liberal Democrats – Stop Brexit. Build a Brighter Future.”

But, imagine if the party leveraged tools like Director Mix to create hundreds of customized videos at scale, swapping out different elements to tailor content to specific audiences. Some of these would emphasize the message, “Demand better than Brexit.” But, others could emphasize “Demand better from our economy,” “Demand better for our NHS,” “Demand better for our children,” “Demand better for our communities,” “Demand better for the environment,” “Demand better civil liberties,” “Demand better for our world,” or “Demand better for politics.”

And it’s worth noting that only 12 Liberal Democrat Members of Parliament (MPs) were elected to the House of Commons in the 2017 general election. But, Jane Dodds won a by-election in August 2019. Former Labour and Change UK MP Chuka Umunna joined the party in June 2019, followed by former Conservative and Change UK MP Sarah Wollaston in August 2019. In September 2019, former Conservative MPs, Phillip Lee and Sam Gyimah, as well as previous Labour and Independent MPs, Luciana Berger and Angela Smith, defected to the Liberal Democrats. And on October 31, 2019, Antoinette Sandbach, an expelled Conservative MP, joined the Lib Dems, bringing the total number of Liberal Democrat MPs to 20.

So, imagine if the party used “Smart” adverts featuring Jo Swinson in East Dunbartonshire, Ed Davey in Kingston & Surbiton, Berger in Liverpool Wavertree, Tom Brake in Carshalton and Wallington, Vince Cable in Twickenham, Alistair Carmichael in Orkney and Shetland, Dodds in Brecon & Radnorshire, Tim Farron in Westmorland and Lonsdale, Gyimah in East Surrey, Wera Hobhouse in Bath, Christine Jardine in Edinburgh West, Norman Lamb in North Norfolk, Lee in Bracknell, Layla Moran in Oxford West & Abingdon, Sandbach in Eddisbury, Smith in Penistone & Stocksbridge, Jamie Stone in Caithness, Sutherland & Easter Ross, Umunna in Streatham, and Wollaston in Totnes. And they would feature other Liberal Democratic candidates in hundreds of other constituencies.

By building a logic-based ad with dynamic creative, the Lib Dems could deliver the most relevant ad for each viewer – in real time. The ad unit can translate signals from the party’s organized audience insights (demographic, location, interest-based) to ensure that every ad is the most compelling for the context in which it’s served. This means that an individual Liberal Democratic candidate – or groups of similar seats — could use different campaign approaches depending on the relative strengths and weaknesses of the Conservatives, Labour, or Brexit party candidates.

This “horses for courses” approach leverages the “tactical voting” that a by-product of the current first-past-the-post voting system until the UK finally gets around to adopting proportional representation.

Execute with integrated technology

Using one ad-technology platform will get the Liberal Democrats closer to the holy grail of delivering seamless, cross-channel experiences to voters in the UK. It will lead to clearer audience insights, better brand lift results, and more efficient use of resources. And, fortunately, the Liberal Democrats and their agency have several integrated technology platforms to choose from.

Gartner’s latest Magic Quadrant for ad tech was published on September 12, 2019. Gartner Magic Quadrants are vendor evaluations plotting offerings against two XY axes: completeness of vision and ability to execute. And the leaders in the ad tech category are:

The Lib Dems’ agency may already be using one of these platforms. But, if they don’t have one yet, then they must choose one quickly. And, as the Grail Knight says in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), “You must choose. But choose wisely.”

Reach audiences across screens

Whether on mobile or desktop, in app or on a TV, programmatic makes it possible to deliver a message across screens at the moment of greatest potential impact. If the Lib Dems’ desired audience happens to be using a smartphone in the morning to watch YouTube, programmatic will deliver the appropriate mobile video ad. If the party’s audience is sifting through local news results on a tablet before dinner, programmatic will ensure the right ad is served. And as UK audiences adopt new types of connected devices and consume content in new ways, programmatic technologies will adapt to those too.

So, what are the programmatic buying best practices for seamlessly reaching audiences across screens? Well, mobile and video consumption is skyrocketing, and inventory is steadily increasing. So, Liberal Democrats should take advantage of programmatic buying to reach their audience where they are.

Next, the party should prepare dynamic ads to run in all sizes and build them using HTML5 so they can run across screens. Lib Dems need to ensure they have a strong stable of video ads to communicate their party’s message alongside premium video content.

Finally, programmatic direct deals offer the audience targeting and efficiency benefits of programmatic along with the confidence that their ads will appear on only the high-quality publisher inventory that they choose.

Measure the impact

Programmatic buying affords an opportunity for Liberal Democrats to take a big leap toward integrated, actionable measurement. I’ve dug dig deeper into this topic in the article, “Digital analytics vs web analytics is a lot like a bear vs an alligator.” But, let’s take a quick look at how the party can get better answers to their questions and make more informed decisions about their spend and creative direction.

Lib Dems can learn what audiences think about their ads – and how perceptions might shift as a result of ad exposure – almost instantaneously. But first, they must have solid measurement tools and optimization plans in place.

Now, marketers have always used measurement to improve their media and creative strategies. But, programmatic buying and integrated platforms have given marketers the ability to act in mid-campaign. The resulting real-time feedback loop helps make each digital interaction smarter than the last.

For example, Dr. Pepper Snapple Group relies on digital advertising to ensure its products stay top-of-mind for consumers. The company relies on Adobe Advertising Cloud to manage its programmatic media effectively. Partnering with Adobe helped Dr. Pepper Snapple Group boost ROI across its brand campaigns, improve its ad spending strategy, and increase confidence in where and how the company spends its digital advertising budget.

I need to emphasize that this is a crash course on programmatic advertising. An actual online course or on-site workshop at the Lib Dem HQ would take a full day. But, hopefully this abridged version comes in time to help the Liberal Democrats at a critical moment when the party is “within a small swing of winning hundreds of seats.”

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