Ad Spend Doubles, But Donations MIA

Jul 26, 2023

Jordan Cohen

Back to all posts

Back in October of last year, I wrote that in a soft economy for ad-tech and mar-tech, one vertical stood out to me as recession-proof: Politics.

While traditional big spender CPG and retail brands have been tightening their purse strings, I opined that digital marketing spend in the 2024 presidential cycle would be double what it was in 2020, to the tune of more than $4 billion.

As we cross the halfway mark of 2023, we’re seeing that prediction bear itself out.

A recent study by analytics firm AdImpact found that presidential campaigns have spent $480.2 million through July 7, 2023, about 100% more than they did at the same point in 2019, with an eye popping 16 candidates currently vying for the presidency.

Higher Spend But Fewer Donors

Campaigns are pouring millions into elections but are struggling to raise money during this critical stage of the campaign cycle when fundraising is the paramount objective.

A recent feature in The New York Times described online fundraising amongst small donors as “sluggish” so far.

“…the small-dollar online money spigot that helped Mr. Biden smash fundraising records during his 2020 presidential campaign has not yet turned on, and there are ample signs that it may be months before it does.”

As the article went on to explain, the $10.2 million that the Biden campaign has raised from small donors is half of what President Obama raised during the same time period for his 2012 re-election effort (which was more than 10 years ago, and the figure isn’t adjusted for inflation).

On the Republican side, things are even worse. All of the Republican campagins combined have raised substantially less than Biden, and the DeSantis campaign downsized its staff twice already in July — representing approximately 30% of its payroll — with far more money going out than coming in.

Enthusiasm, Inflation, and Technology

Democrats involved in Biden’s campagin told the Times that the Party’s base just isn’t as fired up as it was in 2020, when Donald Trump’s presidency had them up in arms and created a “floodgate of money.” They also point to inflation as a root cause for fewer donations across the board.

Meanwhile, on the Republican-side, no candidate has managed to match the fervor of Trump supporters, with the former president enjoying a comanding lead in the polls. DeSantis is a distant second, and no other candidate has double-digit support.

The elephant in the room though when it comes to fundraising is that digital marketing simply isn’t working as well as it has in the past.

According to Bully Pulpit Interactive, a powerful DC-based ad agency known for its Democratic party ties, President Biden’s campagin has spent at least $3.3 million on advertising on Facebook and Google, suggesting that the campaign is investing heavily in its seach for small donors (but isn’t seeing expected returns).

And it’s not just political campaigns who have been struggling with those mega-platforms: consumer marketers have been facing rising costs and fewer new customers for years now.

Email Isn’t Working Either

Email marketing has been the reigning champion of campaign fundraising ever since the Obama 2012 team hauled in $500 million, representing half of all donations received, and the vast majority of the $690 million acquired through digital channels.

But the landscape for email has changed dramatically over the last decade, with new privacy policies and technologies making it vastly more difficult for marketers to get into the inbox and drive results.

The most significant development since the most recent presidential election has been the introduction of Apple’s “Mail Privacy Protection” (“MPP”), which went into effect in the fall of 2021.

MPP hides recipients’ IP addresses, making it difficult to link emails to other online activity and impossible to determine location. MPP also prevents seeing if and when an email has been opened, obfuscating critical deliverability data and eliminating open-time personalization functionality.

Lastly, email overload has always been a problem but is now really hurting campaigns. As the Democratic insiders told the Times, “donors are exhausted by the unending flow of emails asking for money, and recipients are responding to far fewer of them.”

Making Email Work Again

The stakes are too high for the email channel not to work for political campaigns, and operatives have no other choice but to adapt with new strategies, tactics and technology solutions.

Below are some of the most important things they can do to make email marketing work again, and raise the funds necessary to win in 2024.

  • Tap into user-level data to identify and fix deliverability problems.

First things first: political campaigns can’t raise money if they can’t make it into the inbox.

Campaigns are more prone to deliverability issues than commercial mailers due to having stale email lists with large numbers of invalid email addresses and high bounce rates.

They also often inherit or purchase lists from other campaigns, which not only have higher bounce rates, but also drive unacceptably high spam complaint rates, given they are mailing to people who haven’t opted-in.

Campaigns should complement seed-list based email analytics platforms with detailed user-level reporting to get the actionable insights they need to identify and resolve spam blocking issues.

  • Target advocates who are most likely to donate.

Past donations are household income aren’t the only predictors of future donations. Recency is arguably more impactful than anything else — the more recent an individual has engaged with a mass sender in their inbox, the more likely they are to engage with others.

They can likewise use recency data to identify recipients who will benefit from reactivation campaigns, as well as email addresses which appear to be dormant and should be removed from lists altogether to improve deliverability.

  • Send at the right time, not all the time.

The days of sending campaign emails multiple times a day, every day are over. While the approach worked wonders and broke records for the Obama campaign in 2012 — see Wired’s vintage, “Annoying Emails Work Way Better Than You Think,” circa Nov. 2012 — it doesn’t anymore.

Consumers are fatigued by the sheer volume of solicitations received from all mailers and don’ distinguish between commercial and nonprofit or political senders – it’s all just noise to them.

Marketers have to get back to the basics and ensure their messages are relevant at the moment of send. Messages that are timed to be “above the fold” and the top of inboxes when users are most likely to be checking their email will drive increased opens, click throughs, and donations.

Email marketing will work again and be the top driver of donations in the 2024 cycle — but it’s up to campaigns to change up their mindsets and tech stacks to ensure that it does.