It was just a few years back that political campaigns and consultants were reluctant to discuss their use of voter file data and other data sets to target online ads. This election season it’s a hot topic, and today the biggest online ad industry trade group is touting the practice. The Interactive Advertising Bureau, which has lobbied against proposed privacy bills that could impede data-driven ad targeting, wants to ensure that legislators understand how important microtargeting has become to the political campaigns that help them get elected.
The Republican and Democratic Parties, along with presidential and large statewide campaigns have used publicly-available voter file information matched with other online and offline data in the hopes of reaching key constituencies such as likely GOP or Democratic voters, Hispanics, Evangelical Christians, and other groups, through digital ads.
A new report from the IAB’s Data Council details the use of data matching and ad targeting by a variety of digital ad firms that serve the political market. “Microtargeting has become the predominant means of delivering political messages online,” notes the report. “Microtargeted political ads are being used at all key points in political campaigns – to recruit and raise money, to persuade undecided voters and to get out the vote. They make use of online and offline data to find appropriate audiences, and create constantly-adjusted models to further refine their focus.”
A separate piece of research based on a survey conducted by the IAB and Campaigns & Elections Magazine complements the paper. According to the IAB, “all strategists polled” said they were currently using microtargeting. Participants were not required to use microtargeting to be involved in the survey, said Sherrill Mane, SVP, research, analytics, and measurement at the IAB.
“We didn’t set out to ask only about microtargeting – it just came up so much…it just popped,” said Mane, who also noted that “politicians themselves find microtargeting for their campaigns to be really effective and useful.” Mane called the survey results, “serendipity between [the IAB’s] policy goals and the real world.”
The survey found that all respondents said they are spending more money in social media this election cycle than in the past, and all are spending more in digital compared to ’08. One key finding: “a few” participants said they are spending less in search.
Although the IAB may not have set out to prove that lawmakers can and sometimes already do benefit from data-driven online advertising, the outcome of its survey and related paper support efforts the organization has undertaken from a public policy standpoint for some time now. In 2010, IAB General Counsel Mike Zaneis illuminated the strategy during a Politics Online conference in Washington when he asked political consultants and media firm representatives what portion of congressional members running for reelection used behavioral ad targeting. The idea was to convince lawmakers that they, as advertisers, may be benefitting from behavioral targeting, a data-driven online ad targeting method that has prompted several privacy bills that could shackle the practice.
Business is responding and assisting in the growth of data-driven political advertising online. Several data partnerships have emerged in the online political sector this election season. For instance, in April, Mitt Romney’s digital ad firm Targeted Victory joined with Hispanic online ad targeting company Pulpo Media to refine its digital ad targeting to Hispanic voters. President Barack Obama’s campaign has invested heavily in data resources and in hiring people to put it to use – to target ads with specific messages to Democratic women for example.
In March, Catalist, which stores one of the largest pools of Democratic data, partnered with online ad targeting and data company Collective to launch DSPolitical, an ad targeting outfit serving Democrats and progressive groups. Later this year, online ad supplier Intermarkets linked with veteran non-partisan data firm Aristotle and digital ad data management firm Lotame to beef up its voter-targeting capabilities.
Also, Intermarkets and GOP digital ad firm CampaignGrid recently said they are part of Facebook’s real-time ad exchange. Known as FBX, the exchange opens Facebook Marketplace display ad inventory – the ads that sit on the right rail of the page – to advertisers buying through outside ad firms like Intermarkets and CampaignGrid.
Firms serving political campaigns weren’t always so willing to hype their data tracking and ad targeting capabilities. In 2006, ClickZ reported on the use of voter data for ad targeting and met several obstacles when trying to get people to speak on record on the topic. “These are the kinds of things that I think smart people would keep to themselves,” said one interactive political consultant interviewed for the 2006 story, noting the privacy concerns associated with tapping information like voter history and party affiliation for targeting ads.
Even Aristotle, a firm that was near impossible to contact regarding the subject six years ago, is more than willing to speak on record about it now. “It’s a competitive market, and the politics has gotten more competitive,” said John Aristotle Phillips, CEO of Aristotle, in July when discussing his firm’s relationship with Intermarkets. “It would be natural, you’d assume the competition and the people providing tools to these hyper competitive campaigns would also be competitive themselves.”
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