Donald Trump proved a candidate could have a viable presidential campaign without spending as much as his competitors.
Instead of relying mostly on TV commercials, Trump's campaign focused on digital and "earned" media (or publicity gained through promotional events). But it's not just the Republican presidential nominee: More candidates are moving away from the traditional 30-second spot.
Borrell Associates found across-the-board political campaign spending is going up, and by and large, candidates still spend the majority on TV ads. This year, it projected $11.7 billion in campaign spending. But digital media is eating a larger share of the pie, taking away mostly from broadcast and cable ad budgets.
"When people are watching TV they are either skipping or fast forwarding through commercials or watching something else on their phone," said Jason Stein, CEO of social media agency Laundry Service. "The traditional TV spot has lost its relevance. You no longer need TV to run for president of the United States, and that tells you something about the state of TV."
While it is true older people are more likely to vote than the youth, the shift in behavior toward online and mobile media has increased interest in digital advertising. Many experts believe that digital ads will become even more important when today's youth becomes the coveted voters. Add to the fact that online ads can target specific voters even better than regional television commercials ever could promise.
"In many ways, people looked at social and digital channels as a check-the-box platform in previous elections," said Lenny Stern, founding partner of marketing communications agency SS+K. "Now, the social and digital world is the nerve center for finding people and targeting people."
In addition, political TV ad prices are too high right now in many markets, said Michael Beach, co-founder of advertising technology company Targeted Victory. The demand and price for ads are increasing only on the few shows that people are watching live, he said. Most candidates feel they have to buy TV because that is what is traditionally done, inflating prices even further, added Beach, whose company worked with Republican candidates including Ted Cruz and Mitt Romney.
"(Digital and TV) ads are probably equally as effective per person, but less people are seeing television ads than cycles past," Beach said.
Digital media isn't as crowded because there are so many different platforms, and candidates are just starting to really utilize it, he pointed out. Beach said in some key areas like Columbus, Ohio, television ad prices can go up as much as 10 times, where digital ad prices increase 40 to 50 percent at the most. The three final Republican candidates in the primaries — Trump, Cruz and John Kasich — relied heavily on digital advertising, Beach said.
And, TV ads just aren't as necessary today, SS+K's Stern said. Commercials were used to define a candidate's stances on big issues. Today, the 24-7 news cycle is hungry for content to cover, so candidates don't need that commercial soap box. Advertising serves a new purpose for a campaign: It can amplify attention for the candidate, he said.
"'The traditional political ad is dead and buried' is a superficial read of what's going on," said Stern, whose agency is working with Emily's List, a super PAC that supports pro-choice Democratic women candidates. "What I think has happened is the role of the traditional political ad, be it the 30-second ad or outdoor billboard, is changing."
Instead of using a highly produced ad to define a candidacy, key quotes from the presidential debates become quick clips that media organizations jump all over and post on their social media feeds. Candidates use these moments as jump-off points for real-time social media reactions that can also be easily shared. People post these links on their online accounts, and voters are more likely to pay attention to them because they're posted by friends and family.
"The world has changed," Stern said. "We're not just 5,000 websites. We communicate through social networks. There's peer-to-peer sharing. That is how we interact. The more real-time information shared the more microscopes there are into everything we do. … It creates a much more targeted, customized and bespoke way to use advertising than 'We're going to define our race through a 30-second ad.'"
— CNBC.com's senior economics reporter John W. Schoen contributed to the report.