Much before the actual Lok Sabha polls, a digital face-off is in the offing this year in the political arena, as gauged by media experts, who say 60-70% of digital ad spends are expected to be directed towards social media. “Digital spending is expected to be somewhere between `1,000 crore and `2,000 crore, which includes social media and mobile — SMS and outbound dialer (OBD) campaigns — while the share of Facebook alone is expected to be around `600 crore,” shares Sandeep Goyal, chairman, Mogae Media. However, not the entire `600 crore can be attributable to political parties directly, he adds.
While most of the paid spends will be directed towards Facebook and Twitter, mobile SMS and OBD campaigns are expected to be big categories in themselves, constituency-wise. “Anywhere between `100 crore and `200 crore each are likely to be spent on OBD campaigns and on SMS,” says a media planner who had worked on OBD campaigns for finance minister Arun Jaitley in Amritsar in 2014, back when `35 lakh worth of such campaigns were executed for Jaitley.
Normally Google gets the lion’s share in digital marketing, but this year, search and YouTube videos are not expected to be a huge part of campaigns. “Social platforms like Facebook and Twitter make it easy to target the active consciousness of the recipient. The most potent medium is WhatsApp, but it doesn’t have paid advertising,” explains Goyal.
In fact, for the first time, social media has been brought under the purview of the Election Commission, making it mandatory for every party to declare its spends. “The stringent regulations by the Election Commission, coupled with self-regulation by social media giants, may result in at least 20-30% lower direct spends than what would have been otherwise,” opines Saurabh Uboweja, CEO, Brands of Desire, a management consulting firm. This means higher spends through influencers, content armies of political parties and WhatsApp, are not attributable or measurable.
“The top national parties, BJP and Congress, are likely to collectively spend as much as Rs 500-550 crore on digital as part of their political ad campaigns. When it comes to social media, the share of regional parties combined is likely to be 30-35%, with the balance to be spent by national parties,” Uboweja explains.
BJP and its affiliate pages continue to be among the top spenders on Facebook while Congress is slowly upping its game. Till March 9, 2019, the total amount spent on Facebook on political advertising and national issues was Rs 5.6 crore, according to public data provided by Facebook. Out of this, BJP and its affiliates accounted for over 50% of political ad spending on Facebook. The top Facebook pages of BJP such as Bharat Ke Mann Ki Baat spent Rs 1.8 crore; Nation with NaMo spent around Rs 91.7 lakh and My Gov India spent Rs 42.7 lakh. Pro-Congress pages have officially made an entry, though the party is still behind the pages of regional parties like Biju Janata Dal and Karnataka government. The key Facebook pages of Congress are Konda Vishweshwar Reddy (Rs 1.9 lakh), Indian Youth Congress (Rs 28,542), the page for Congress MP Milind Deora (Rs 33,000) and Congress My Voice — Odisha Manifesto (Rs 60,134).
“BJP pioneered digital in political advertising in 2014. Back then, Rahul Gandhi didn’t even have an official Twitter account. And because BJP used digital extensively in the 2014 elections, it has lot of legacy data to capitalise on this year,” says Bindu Balakrishnan, country head, India, DCMN, a full stack marketing company.
While social media has been brought under the ambit of the Election Commission, assigning exact spends to a candidate or a political party is not going to be easy, say experts. “Measurability and accountability in this medium are somewhat grey areas. Also, it is not easy to determine the motive of the campaign. The same thing applies to mobile, where nine out of 10 mobile messages are done by VAS partners who normally don’t have authorised databases,” opines Goyal.
According to Shashi Sinha, CEO, IPG Mediabrands India, who handled the BJP digital campaign in 2014, there are two parts to social media advertising — the first is paid advertising and secondly, there are the huge monies spent on content armies (influencers, social pages and content creators) run by political parties which are posting content on WhatsApp or Twitter. “For such unofficial content armies, it is virtually impossible to pinpoint the finances spent on them,” Sinha says.