For Political Ads, A New Web Micro-Network
It was just past 10 a.m. on a Saturday in mid-October when Dan Beckmann pulled his rented SUV into the gravelly parking lot of Jack Cobb & Son, a barbecue joint in Farmville, N.C. He had only two days to shoot 10 video segments on barbecue that will run on the website of WTVD, the ABC affiliate in Durham. The rush had nothing to do with the station’s interest in smoked meat. Beckmann’s company, Programming Corporation of America (PCA), had sold advertising on the barbecue videos to a super-PAC, with a promise they’d be viewed 500,000 times before Election Day.
Political campaigns have seized on online advertising as an efficient way to reach ever narrower groups of voters. Web ads combine the persuasive power of a TV ad with the precision targeting of a mailer, phone call, or knock at the door from a volunteer. Political ad buyers especially love the time right before a web video begins, known as the pre-roll, which is hard for viewers to skip.
The trouble is that in the weeks running up to the election, advertisers who want to be juxtaposed against something more predictable than random YouTube videos can’t find anything to buy. “There isn’t very much local programming that’s high-quality and online,” says Beckmann, a former producer for Current TV. “We make the shows where there’s demand” from advertisers.
This year there are more websites and social media networks than ever running political ads. Snapchat has jumped in, and platforms like Hulu and Pandora aggressively courted campaigns by offering geographic targeting and ways of reaching narrowly defined demographic groups. But the volume of locally produced web content in small cities and rural regions hasn’t kept up. As a result, campaigns will spend twice as much to reach voters in Ohio and Indiana as in New York or California. Web ads targeting voters in New Hampshire and Nevada command even higher prices, says Zac Moffatt, co-founder of Targeted Victory, a Republican digital strategy agency. “How much of a premium are you willing to pay for context, viewability, or actual known audiences?” he asks.
Beckmann got the idea for PCA in early 2015, when he began meeting with political consultants to discuss developing software to make online ad buying more efficient. He kept hearing that the real problem with digital ads wasn’t the technology; it was that there weren’t enough of them for sale. Beckmann had served as a creative executive at Current, when it was chiefly a platform for crowdsourced video. In 2008 he left Current to join Barack Obama’s campaign, where he directed efforts to channel the footage that rank-and-file backers uploaded to YouTube into the campaign’s own productions.
With PCA, Beckmann set out to create a studio that could generate just-in-time programming to satisfy the unpredictable demands of the electoral marketplace. He tapped the network of filmmakers who had contributed to Current and invited those in early primary states to pitch stories from their communities. A 10-part series costs about $2,000 to produce. None reference politics, even obliquely. Beckmann arranged to have the videos distributed through local outlets, including affiliates of national networks, with ads presold. 99 Counties in Iowa! (And We’re Visiting Them All!) appeared on the website of the Des Moines Register, and Swimming Hole Secrets on WMUR in Manchester, N.H. (“People in bathing suits jumping off cliffs in the middle of winter” was Beckmann’s pitch for that one.) The videos appear on news sites as partner content; they and PCA share the ad revenue.
In New Hampshire, advertisers on PCA’s series have included the American Federation of Teachers, which has run ads on behalf of Hillary Clinton, and the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which is trying to help incumbent Senator Kelly Ayotte hold on to her seat. PCA has developed seven series under the umbrella “New Hampshire Originals,” including Shaker Addiction, about furniture, and Barefoot and Alone: Into the New Hampshire Wilderness With Only Five Things. Bernie Sanders bought ads running with PCA-produced videos across states voting early in the primary calendar. “It was a really gridlocked digital space,” says Keegan Goudiss, who served as Sanders’s director of digital advertising. “We probably could have gotten them other ways but not on a site as trusted as the Des Moines Register.”
As the Democratic primary dragged on into the spring, Beckmann’s productions grew more improvised. A couple of Fridays before the Washington state caucuses, Goudiss placed a desperate call to PCA. The Sanders campaign wanted to run ads encouraging supporters to turn out but couldn’t find anywhere online to place them. PCA got to work, and two business days later released a fresh series called Game On: Love, about dating among Seattle-area video gamers. Pretty much the only people who could possibly want to watch it were unmarried white twentysomething Washington state residents—exactly the voters Sanders was trying to reach. The campaign bought out all the pre-roll ads that played alongside the nine episodes of Game On: Love.
In July, anticipating a tight presidential contest in North Carolina, Beckmann commissioned an eight-episode fishing show called Outer Banks Experience. (One was titled “Throwing Up.”) Since then, the U.S. Senate contest between incumbent Republican Richard Burr and Democratic challenger Deborah Ross has tightened. North Carolina also has a fiercely fought governor’s race on the same ballot. PCA has scrambled to generate even more programming in the state. “TV inventory is fixed—you have a certain amount of minutes per show—but growing interest on digital creates more supply,” says Mike Schneider, the managing director of Bully Pulpit Interactive, a Democratic agency whose clients include Clinton’s campaign and the Priorities USA Action super-PAC working on her behalf. “In this case, demand creates supply.”
Beckmann had commissioned a South Carolina barbecue series during the primaries and decided to revisit the idea for North Carolina. When the local filmmaker he’d assigned to the project got flooded out by Hurricane Matthew, Beckmann—who has only about a half-dozen full-time employees at PCA—flew out himself to fill in as director, shooting on his iPhone 7.
On their first day together, Beckmann and on-camera host Sam Reiff-Pasarew headed west from Raleigh and visited five restaurants between Lexington and Charlotte. The next day he headed east, starting with Jack Cobb & Son. In the parking lot, Beckmann found a man selling an unusual strain of cabbage collards from a van. He proved an able raconteur of the folkways of multiple food groups.
It ensured that the visit to Farmville would generate enough usable footage for at least one minute-long episode that would bring some diversity to the series. “Well, we checked two boxes here,” Beckmann said as he headed out of the parking lot toward another restaurant 17 miles away. “We got a nonwhite establishment, and we also finally got a place that was doing whole hog.”