Persuading voters online featuring Megan Clasen
A former Biden for President digital ads pro & persuasion expert shares how campaigns should think about moving voters online
Welcome to Campaigner, a new weekly newsletter exploring the tactics that drive winning political campaigns and highlighting the players pushing the buttons. Produced by Arena & FWIW Media.
When most people think about politics, they think of persuasion. Candidates and campaigns spend millions of dollars each cycle in an attempt to win over hearts and minds -- and go on the attack against their opponents. Most of that money has historically gone to broadcast and cable television ads, blanketing Americans’ TV screens non-stop in the weeks leading up to Election Day. As more and more Americans are cutting their cable subscriptions and streaming their favorite shows online, the persuasion advertising industry is beginning to shift -- and campaigns must continue to fine-tune how to get the right messages to the right voters.
For this week’s issue of Campaigner, we spoke with former Biden for President digital ads boss Megan Clasen, now a founding partner of Gambit Strategies, on what campaigners should consider when building out their online persuasion programs. After the jump, we’ll also have some 🔥 resources from Arena’s Toolbox that readers can put into practice on their own campaigns.
Q&A with Megan Clasen, Gambit Strategies
The below interview has been edited for clarity.
Campaigner: Thanks for taking the time + agreeing to be our inaugural interview! Just briefly, how did you get your start in politics & campaigns?
Megan Clasen: About 10 years ago, I was in New York working at branding agencies on big brands like Samsung and AT&T. I was working crazy long hours, but it wasn't super fulfilling. So, I started to think about the different places that I could apply my skillset to, and I ended up cold-applying online to work on Hillary Clinton's campaign (HFA) on their digital advertising team. When people ask for my advice as to how to break into politics, I feel kind of guilty, because that's not really a thing that works out for a lot of people. But for me at least, it worked out that HFA was actually looking to balance out their team. The first few people on the digital ads team were really experienced in political advertising, so they wanted to get some outside perspectives. I ended up joining the campaign and was one of the first members of her digital ads team, helping build the entire operation.
From there, after tragically losing the election to Donald Trump, it was hard to imagine stepping out of politics. When I went into that [Clinton campaign] job, I didn’t think, “oh, I work in politics now.” But after Hillary Clinton lost the election, I definitely wanted to stay involved and was very lucky to get connected to JB Pritzker who was gearing up to run for governor in Illinois.
Pritzker really wanted to run the largest, most innovative statewide digital operation that had ever been run. He was very invested in it, so it was a huge opportunity. When a candidate and campaign manager are invested in making digital a priority, it makes a huge difference in terms of the type of program that you can run.
After the 2018 cycle, I landed at GMMB to run their digital political practice, as well as Kamala Harris' persuasion program. I also worked on a bunch of other great races up and down the ballot, and ultimately was asked to lead the digital advertising operation for Joe Biden’s campaign for persuasion and mobilization after we entered the general election. Biden’s campaign ran the largest digital advertising operation that had ever been run by Democrats, spending over $250M in 17 states. It was another great learning opportunity but was crazy to do during a pandemic totally remotely, and we all got such a different experience from Hillary's campaign.
At first, I was nervous to take on another presidential campaign (for my emotional health) but I’m so glad that I did, especially with the outcome being able to kick Trump out of office. And then most recently I teamed up with Patrick McHugh to start Gambit Strategies because we really felt like there were not a lot of firms in the industry that actually focused on digital persuasion as experts in the topic.
Let’s talk a little bit about the “tools” you use for persuasion, either from a large campaign perspective or for smaller campaigns. Some people think that it's all about using Facebook, but what are some of your favorite or most effective tools for online persuasion?
Whenever I'm thinking about digital persuasion platforms, it's always evaluating two things: their targeting capabilities and the ad experience. When it comes to a state legislative race for example, and where you’re going to spend your first dollar, I think Facebook makes the most sense. There, you’re able to target really narrowly and there's a lower barrier to entry in terms of cost and is fairly easy to set up. The creative that you need is pretty low production quality for Facebook too -- you don't have to go out there and do some big production shoot in order to have an effective ad.
“When it comes to a state legislative race for example, and where you’re going to spend your first dollar, I think Facebook makes the most sense. There, you’re able to target really narrowly and there's a lower barrier to entry in terms of cost and is fairly easy to set up.”
That's a good place to start, but as I think about campaigns with larger budgets, being able to prioritize a large portion of your budget to be “forced view” video inventory is really important. That’s because I think it's really hard to change somebody's mind when they're scrolling through their newsfeed and there's no sound and they only look at something for a few seconds. Making sure that you're allocating resources to this type of “forced view” video, where viewers have the sound-on, even if it's like YouTube 15-second unskippable ads, is really important.
Considering the ad experience overall and being able to make sure that people are seeing and hearing your ads is really important. Usually in my media plans, if I have a pretty big budget, we’ll have a mix of both premium video and partners with strong targeting capabilities and enormous reach, like Facebook and YouTube.
Meanwhile, when you get to Hulu or other full episode players, like NBC or CBS, the amount of your audience that you're actually reaching is going to vary. Having a variety of platforms at your disposal is important to be sure you are reaching all the voters you need to reach, and reaching them enough times to change their mind.
You already mentioned some other streaming platforms. We often talk about Facebook, Snapchat, and Google all the time, but I do know campaigns and groups spend a large chunk of their digital budgets elsewhere. Talk a little bit about those other platforms like Hulu, Roku, etc and how campaigns should utilize them.
If you have the budget to invest, I think being able to place ads on those other platforms (like Hulu etc.) is great because people are going to be forced to view your ads the same way they would a television ad. They're going to both hear it and see it (for the most part). There’s a much higher probability that someone's going to spend more time watching it when it's an unskippable ad that they have to view in order to get to the content that they want to actually see. While CPMs (cost per thousand views) will be higher, the value of the ad that you're serving is much higher because viewers may spend 15 to 30 seconds with it versus three to five seconds on Facebook. Paying that premium for that impression makes sense, and in my opinion, will ultimately pay off.
The downside is that you also need to make higher production value, quality creative for those environments. Even though some of those impressions are served on connected TV screens, some of them serve on mobile devices. Creative displayed in a connected TV environment should be thought about differently than creative on broadcast TV because there's going to be a percentage of impressions that don't serve on a television screen. On mobile, it’s going to be some tiny ad and your screen's not going to be beautifully lit in the same way as a TV, so using imagery that's super dark, for example, or not having text on screen could ultimately harm you. It’s important to take into consideration all the places that the ad could potentially serve.
What's your approach to deciding on what messages to test and what could be the most persuasive? Are you just chasing the news cycle or going into it with core issues that the campaign wants to test?
A lot of it is similar to how TV consultants look at the polling and determine what messages to test. I know there are clearly some challenges in the way that we currently poll… A lot of times the way that a poll is written is much better suited for TV because the length of those messages can't really fit into a 15-second (or 06-second) ad. So sometimes it requires developing multiple ads to figure out what part of that paragraph-long question or message is actually gonna persuade somebody. I also think that there's always a risk in taking a paragraph of text somebody read out loud on the phone during a survey and translating that into an actual video ad that people can watch. The visuals make a difference.
Doing a secondary step of ad testing prior to going live can be really helpful (if you have the time and resources). The worst thing we can do as political insiders and consultants is assume that we're the best people suited to make a decision about what ad is effective. We’re just so fundamentally different than the people we are trying to talk to. Sometimes if you really love a particular ad, it can be heartbreaking if it doesn't test well, but at the same time, we don't want to be throwing our money in the garbage by using something that's not effective. Persuasion is such a tricky thing -- you don't necessarily know in advance what's going to change somebody's mind -- so it's really important to do that extra level of testing.
“The worst thing you can do as insiders and consultants is assume that we're the best people suited to make a decision about what ad is effective. We’re just so fundamentally different than the people we are trying to talk to.”
I think for digital too, at least from my perspective, it can be really helpful early in a campaign to get humanizing “likability” content in front of persuadable voters and just introduce the candidate. Focusing on content that’s not message-centric can be helpful if voters like a candidate and feel like they're relatable, they’re more likely to believe something that they're saying. So when the candidate is pushing out messaging later in the campaign, there can be a higher level of effectiveness and better reception. If the opponent starts to come after you, at that point, it's harder to land that hit because voters already feel like they know the candidate as a human being.
That can be helpful particularly on social media and sometimes being able to sneak those messages into a message test can be the best way to convince campaign leadership that it’s an effective use of money. I’ve had several experiences where those are the highest testing ads that we run, even though it seems like there's not a lot to them or they're fluffy. At the end of the day, I think a lot of people just want to like the person that they're voting for.
Let’s talk about messenger. You’re one of the pioneers of creating and using different brands and messengers to advertise on behalf of a candidate… can you talk about why and how important using different messengers can be?
Yes! It feels like everyone is so politically polarized right now that it's really difficult, for example, if you're somebody who is traditionally Republican to hear a message directly from a Democrat and be persuaded. So I think using different messengers is effective – sometimes that’s just using a page on Facebook that isn't branded with the candidate's name. For example, we have a page for JB Pritzker’s campaign called Illinois Daily that we’ll run ads from, just boosting actual mainstream news articles about the Governor.
I also think when it comes to testimonials, the messenger really matters too. Being able to get the right person in front of the right group of people and find somebody that's relatable to the different groups of voters that you're talking to can increase the effectiveness of your ads overall.
Digital is best positioned to serve those different ad messages to different people, whether it’s different geographic parts of a state, demographic targets like men or women, diverse groups of voters, or different affinity groups. Being able to put the right message in front of the right people, while also having somebody that is trustworthy to that group of people is critical.
I think it’s really interesting that we’ve seen a bunch of Democratic campaigns, nonprofits, and PACS use this tactic of creating different brands on Facebook to promote mainstream news articles.
I know, I know. I think just seeing something from a different source, a generic source, rather than directly from the candidate is useful. Having a generic Facebook page that’s sharing these informative, mainstream news articles makes people feel like the content is more believable. And I don’t think the effect would be the same with a video that's direct-to-camera of a candidate. It's the fact that you're just promoting factual content written by a third party that's verified that drives the credibility.
Another thing within that category that I think is interesting to think about is using very neutral sources -- for example, People Magazine instead of CNN -- can really help enhance that value. Because even with the different news sources that we have today, there are some people who are more likely to believe certain news publications than others depending on their backgrounds. The ones that are very, very neutral, I think can even add to the campaign’s effectiveness.
What about measuring success: whether messages are resonating, whether you double down on a campaign or not. I know that’s really hard, and the TV consultants aren't asked to prove their worth, but can you share any thoughts on measurement and how you know you're being effective?
I'm a big believer that engagement does not always equal persuasion. I still think you should keep an eye on engagement metrics to make sure there's not something that's totally off from benchmarks. If you're seeing something like 20 times the average amount of comments on an ad, it might be worth taking a look to make sure that the majority of those aren't negative comments. My point of view is that if you can test the message beforehand, have a strong media plan, have a tested message, and then format your creative to be tailored to each platform where the ad is running, you’ll be set up for success. Then, tracking reach and frequency throughout the campaign, optimizing between partners to ensure that you're reaching your audience effectively is the best way to really drive the highest persuasion value.
There are other things you can do obviously like YouTube brand lift, but it’s very hard because a lot of times, by the time you get the results of a brand lift study, you've already basically run the entire ad campaign and you've spent the resources.
Going into Virginia and the midterms, what are you most excited about? What do you think Dems should be focusing on in terms of who we’re persuading or what we're persuading them with?
One big lesson out of the last cycle, particularly on the Biden campaign was that we need to consider mobilization targets as persuasion targets. We need to communicate with our mobilization targets earlier and make sure that we're giving them a reason to ultimately turn out and vote and not just saying “go vote.” I'm hopeful that if that tactic continues, we can continue to turn out more people than we have in the past.
“We need to consider mobilization targets as persuasion targets. We need to communicate with our mobilization targets earlier and make sure that we're giving them a reason to ultimately turn out and vote and not just saying “go vote.”
Virginia will kind of be our first peek into how this cycle is going to go. I think that there's a lot of work that we can do to communicate early and make sure that we're getting information in front of people, particularly with the amount of misinformation out there.
We should continue to take opportunities to put real information in front of people early and just make sure that they're aware of all the accomplishments of our candidates. We have to keep pushing positive messages out there so that all this negative stuff doesn't totally tank us before we even get to the point of communicating. 🇺🇸
🧰 Arena Toolbox Highlights
Arena Toolbox democratizes access to tools that help newcomers and experienced practitioners alike to build best-in-class campaigns. You can browse and download any of our 60 (and growing) tools for free on arena.run/toolbox.
Here are a few tools that relate to our conversation with Megan we think you should check out:
Apply to Arena Academy 201: Data Fluency for Campaign Leaders to take your data skills to next level. This 2.5 day training will be held online December 10-12. You should apply if you are working in progressive politics in a non-data role and want to learn more about how to use data to win campaigns. Apply today! (psst any data staff out there, encourage your colleagues to apply, trust us it will make your life easier.)
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