Three Strategies for Navigating the Impact of Election Season on Digital Advertising

Carnegie Higher Ed May 20, 2024 Carnegie Higher Ed Persona The Visionary Frontrunner

When it comes to digital advertising and politics, it can be hard to sift through the muck. So, let us discuss the facts.

The good news: We can estimate how much money will be spent on political ads this year by looking at the 2020 election and 2022 midterms.

The bad news: Even when you are not in the business of politics, politics have a way of getting into your business!

The hard truth: Election ads will impact digital advertising strategies as they compete for placement and attention during this particularly polarizing election year — so, wishing them away isn’t an option. In fact, it’s projected that more than $10B will be spent on political messaging in 2024, the most in history (so outspending them isn’t an option, either).

Your best chance to reach prospective students this year is to develop a clear and actionable strategy. Let’s work one out together.

Two Factors to Consider for Your Higher Education Marketing Strategies

Before adjusting your strategies for election season, let’s first talk about what’s different about the digital ad landscape during this time. Here are two main factors to consider:

  1. Variety: With the growing popularity of streaming services and social media apps, new digital ad possibilities have emerged. This means there’s room for universities to expand their reach across other various platforms, especially by leveraging each platform’s political ad policy to their advantage.
  2. Timing: Similar to 2020, there will likely be a flood of political ads one month before election day, with over half of the political ad budget reserved for that final push. With some planning and patience, this can work out well for higher education.

These factors are tricky to navigate, but they’re not impossible! Now, let’s get into the three adjustments that will serve as key workarounds for these challenges.

Adjustment #1: Placements and Content

7 out of 10 adults are likely to switch from traditional TV to streaming platforms to avoid political ads. Even though these users are reachable via Connected TV (CTV) ads on devices like Roku or Apple TV, it’s also predicted that two-thirds of digital ad spending during the election will occur between traditional live TV and video-on-demand platforms.

While meeting students where they are is important, you’ll want to be more strategic during times of higher competition. Here’s what we recommend:

  • Streaming Services: Political ad spending will always be highest on traditional TV, so when viewers shift away from traditional live TV and engage more with streaming, an opportunity opens for your campaign. Choosing to advertise on CTV and YouTube with programmatic ads won’t mean you’re in the clear, but it will mean your content can serve as a much-needed break from the influx of political content (especially when considering dual-device usage).
  • Linkedin, Spotify Ad Studio, and TikTok: Choosing formats with minimal competition will provide the most bang for your buck. With political ads being banned on these three platforms, the chances of users seeing your ads will dramatically increase. Plus, similar to streaming, you may also see an influx of users on these platforms as they try to avoid the political noise.
  • X, Snapchat, and Meta: We don’t advise fully abandoning these platforms due to saturation, but we do suggest adopting a strategy of positivity as a powerful way to create contrast and pull attention during election season. Consider using uplifting music and optimistic content to stand out against the predictably aggressive political ads, especially as the clock ticks toward election day.

Adjustment #2: Spends

Spending in 2024 isn’t just about how much — it’s also about where and when. The most significant difference in spending from 2020 is that digital platforms like Meta and Google, which have generally received a smaller chunk of political ad budgets, are expected to experience a 156% spike in spending. Here’s how to adjust:

  • Increase Budget: Consider increasing your budget by 5-10% overall to maintain or improve on last year’s results, as digital impressions will be at a competitive level for much of 2024.
  • Shift Spending:  To stay competitive with political ads, strategically increase your budget during August, September, and October. This aligns with when prospective students start thinking about college applications and visits. Then, lower your budget back down to normal as political advertising slows.

Adjustment #3: Agility and Safeguards

You can’t control which ads appear next to yours on any given website, but you can control where your programmatic display ads show up. To avoid potentially controversial placements, you can become highly strategic by implementing these safeguards:

  • Negative Keyword Lists: Keep your ads from showing on irrelevant or questionable placements, like webpages or searches related to “[college name] + controversy.” These can be used on pay-per-click (PPC) ads and applied to programmatic campaigns.
  • Placement Exclusion Lists: Choose specific websites, apps, or channels where you don’t want your ads to appear, such as contentious or unreliable political news sites.
  • Sensitive Category Exclusions: Prevent your ads from showing in categories that may seem tragic, triggering, or controversial.

It’s essential to keep up with current events to adjust negative keywords, especially during debates. Equally, it’s important to monitor Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) closely to catch any ad fatigue as political ad frequency heats up.

Your level of tolerance for political participation will be unique to your school’s mission, so deciding to hide comments, flag potentially problematic interactions, or make blanket adjustments to your ads, like shutting off comments entirely, are all social media safeguards worth exploring. Fair warning: this adjustment is by far the most fickle and nuanced!

Cut Through The Noise

In short, consider video and audio streaming platforms, be prepared to increase budgets, and strategically spend during certain times to stay competitive. Remember that safeguards can protect your messaging but potentially limit your reach, too. While this will certainly be a more complex year for higher education’s digital campaigns, the class of 2029 will thank you for your efforts!

At Carnegie, we can help you cut through the noise to achieve your unique marketing goals — and as a 2024 Google premier partner, we’re one of the best. Learn more through our case studies, and then let’s start a conversation about reaching the right students at the right time; even during election season.


This blog was brought to you by Amy Lytle, Assistant Director of Paid Search; Deja Rodriguez, Programmatic Specialist; Desiree Jones, Social Media Specialist; Maddy Chouinard, Senior Digital Strategy Specialist; and Silvana Gargione, Senior Digital Copywriter.



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