Hyper-Local Political Targeting

  |  September 22, 2010   |  Comments

How a candidate for Congress went over the top with misdirected online display advertising.

Like most states, my home state of New Hampshire just finished political primaries to determine who will end up on the ballot in November. In many areas, hotly contested races have led to a bombardment of direct mail (most pointing out the shortcomings of political opponents within and across partisan lines), increases in e-mail traffic asking for financial and political support, and a huge surge in online display advertising.

It was my 10-year-old son who called my attention to the last group when he asked me who this woman was who kept showing up in a short video banner ad whenever he went online. A candidate for an open Congressional seat, Ann McLane Kuster's campaign had gone into overdrive to get the word out by saturating the state with ads pointing out her qualifications to become a Congresswoman.

Trust me when I say it was over the top.

While Kuster was my personal choice as a voter, the campaign was so unfocused and in-your-face that it almost made me change my mind. Not only were her ads running at the top of any site that had something to do with local news or politics, but any IP address that terminated in New Hampshire became a carrier of her messages, no matter how irrelevant or nonsensical the relationship.


For my son, who won't be eligible to vote for many years, the onslaught of these political ads on the gaming sites he visited were a point of frustration. He didn't care about how she was going to create jobs, lower taxes, or stop wars. The only message that made it through to him was that this woman was in his face every time he changed websites and he had to wait for her to finish what she had to say before he could do what he wanted to. Had he been a voter, it would have gone very badly for her.

Even if you did away with any behavioral targeting considerations, it stands out as a reasonable consideration that sites that attract the attention of 10-year-old boys are probably not going to also be sites that cater to the needs and interests of voting-age adults who care about such political matters.

The "mass marketing" approach that the campaign took fell short on many fronts. For starters, the reality that nearly 50 percent of the people who see the ads are probably not voters in your party is a good place to start. Plus, there are plenty of people of non-voting age who are going to see these ads as well. Just who was the target audience for this campaign and what did the candidate want to say to them?

While political races have very different goals or ROI models to think about with regard to outcome, I believe that they should still work to optimize campaign results by addressing the needs and interests of the target audience. While I don't expect any campaign to be able to effectively target across party lines, I do expect to see media buys that correspond to contextual content instead of using "spray and pray" reach and frequency models.

For media planners who find themselves thinking about these types of campaigns, here are a few thoughts:

  1. While getting your message out is important, to the recipient, it's still less important than the reason they came to a website. Making your message a higher priority than their needs is on par with trying to give a speech in the middle of a crowded movie theater after the movie has started. Few people will be listening to you and most will consider your attempt inconsiderate and inappropriate. Identify the audience who might want to receive the message and do so in a way that shows consideration for your audience's other needs.
  2. You can't push a rope. Most voters are looking for information to help make an informed voting decision. Find a way to position messages so that potential voters are drawn to the campaign and what it stands for. Blunt force trauma isn't going to work here.

While Kuster won the primary, I would chalk the victory up to her experience and supporters. As for the campaign, I can't help but wonder what kind of negative branding came out of the push of these online display ads. I just know that if I ran a similar campaign for a brand or service client, it would have been a bloodbath.

Can you share any thoughts on what you witnessed with your local races?

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Rob Graham

Rob Graham is the CCT (chief creative technologist) of Trainingcraft, Inc., where he heads up development of customized training programs for a wide range of digital marketing, entrepreneurial development, and digital media clients.

A 20 year veteran of digital media, Rob has served as the CEO of a multimedia development company; an interactive media strategist; a rich media production specialist; a Web analytics consultant; a corporate trainer and seminar leader; and a chief marketing officer.

When he isn't on the road presenting training workshops, Rob teaches at Harvard University, Emerson College, and the University of Massachusetts - Lowell where he teaches classes on Digital Media Development, Web Store Creation, Software Programming, Business Strategies, and Interactive Marketing Best Practices.

He is the author of "Fishing From a Barrel," a guide to using audience targeting in online advertising, and "Advertising Interactively," which explores the development and uses of rich-media-based advertising. He has been an industry columnist covering interactive marketing, digital media, and audience targeting topics since 1999.

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