Grappling With Digital's Known Unknowns


Written by RJ Caster, Senior Director, Client Accounts


During a press conference with the press back in February of 2012, then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld answered an inquiry about weapons of mass destruction with what would become one of his most famous quotes from a long and industrious career in public service:


“....as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say, we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns - the ones we don't know we don't know.“


Besides being a small tribute to Rumsfeld after his passing just a few weeks ago, his quote resonates deeply with those of us digital campaigners who occupy the small, dark political and advocacy corner of the $138.9 billion digital advertising industry in the United States. There are known knowns in the digital-political world: like knowing that you can’t spread lies about an opponent. Then there have been the unknown knowns: like when we knew that the iOS 14 upgrade was going to have a significant impact on Identifier for Advertisers (or IDFA) sharing across platforms which would put a damper on campaign measurement and attribution but no one (not even Apple’s Big Tech cousin, Facebook) had a grasp on just how much attribution tracking and conversion optimization would be affected. And then there are the unknown unknowns, like when platforms pulled the rug out from under political advertisers and banned all political ads, leaving political digital organizations scrambling for different ways and platforms to engage voters.


Fortunately for political strategists, our lives seem to inhabit that darkness between known unknowns and unknown unknowns on a regular basis. Like Bane, we were “born in the darkness… molded by it... “ That’s why our clients work with us, because we are able to meet an unknown unknown and not only adapt to it quickly, but immediately outmaneuver it if need be. One case in point was when Facebook and Google decided to shut down political advertising toward the end of the 2020 election day, and not resume political advertising until they deemed it fit. Political advertisers had to find other platforms that could take Facebook posts and turn them into display ads across the digital ecosystem, and we did.


Now digital advertisers find themselves in a world between known knowns, known unknowns, and unknown unknowns as companies like Apple promote more updates that limit IDFA sharing or cross-platform tracking, Google makes further moves (albeit slow and timid) toward banning cookie tracking on their Chrome browser in 2023 - the political community shared a bipartisan collective sigh of relief when they pushed that till after 2022. Besides, Google has already stripped political marketers of their ability to remarket to interested voters, and they refused to run political ads in certain states like Washington and Nevada after they accused the tech giant of not abiding by the states’ transparency laws for election ads. So what does this mean for the unknowable future of digital political advertising?


My insatiably curious friend Dustin Siggins wrote a piece over at Forbes where he tries to help untangle the different levels of knowns and unknowns, and help readers and interested parties better understand what all of these current and future changes mean for digital advertising. What we are seeing is the slow death of passive data collection on voters, customers, visitors to websites, etc. Marketing companies and political campaigns aren’t going to be able to use these passive data tools like remarketing audiences and conversion data to retarget people, and even in walled gardens like Facebook, the ability to retarget people is still proving to be adversely affected by privacy upgrades on browsers and phone operating systems.


As I explained to Dustin in the article, “The iOS14 update and the Google Chrome third-party cookie blocker won’t end digital tracking, but they will eliminate most of the ‘passive’ tracking that’s so common today...The marketing funnel for businesses won’t change for businesses … but how you engage with those people in the middle of the funnel has changed and will change more. The future of digital advertising is more nuanced, with greater influence and less data accessibility for businesses.” Clients are looking to us to help them navigate this new, more regulated digital landscape. And what they need to understand is that digital campaigns need to start earlier, and they need to start engaging and collecting voters and followers, and speaking directly to those people in the middle of the funnel to create that relationship. Because whether or not you’re a small business getting leads and turning them into customers, or campaigns getting leads and turning them into voters, how you engage and talk to them is going to need to be more intimate and thoughtfully done than before.

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