MarketingPolitics & AdvocacyObama’s Reelection Site Is Tracking You, Too

Obama's Reelection Site Is Tracking You, Too

How the Obama camp manages multiple third party ad tech relationships.

For a glimpse at the online sophistication of President Obama’s reelection campaign, look no further than a meager payment made by the campaign to a tech firm this year. In addition to buying $3 million worth of online ads in January, the Obama camp paid two-year-old Chicago area ad tech company BrightTag $5,000.

The company doesn’t sell advertising or handle online media buys. Instead, BrightTag helps website owners – from e-commerce companies to political campaigns – manage third party tags from ad partners, analytics firms, and social sites like Facebook and Twitter.

Third party tags are also at the heart of online privacy concerns raised by consumer advocates, legislators, and the Obama administration itself. Online privacy concerns are getting more attention than ever, with a recent Google privacy policy change and renewed emphasis on privacy legislation on Capitol Hill. The Obama administration published its Consumer Internet Privacy Bill of Rights last month. And several privacy bills are pending in Congress, including one introduced last year by Senators John Kerry and John McCain.

The Obama document declares, “America must apply our timeless privacy values to the new technologies and circumstances of our times. Citizens are entitled to have their personal data handled according to these principles.” It goes on to say consumers should have control over the types of personal data companies collect, and “a right to reasonable limits on the personal data companies collect and retain.”

To be clear, the privacy bill of rights deals specifically with personal data. The data collected through tags online is usually considered non-personally identifiable, and typically is anonymized, though some privacy watchdogs argue that so-called anonymous data can be combined with other data to tease out personal information.

The BrightTag payments are a handy reminder that corporate marketers aren’t the only ones collecting user data. The Obama campaign has already spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on technology consulting and data staff. The information it gathers through analytics tags can be used to better understand the potential voters visiting


The Obama campaign website features tags from analytics platforms Chartbeat and Google Analytics, according to Ghostery. When it comes to advertising, the Obama site includes tags from retargeting platforms AdRoll, Leadback, and Lucid Media. These appear alongside tags from ad platforms such as Yahoo-owned BlueLithium and Right Media, Google-owned Invite Media and AdWords Conversion, Microsoft’s Atlas, and Valueclick’s Mediaplex.

obama-ghosteryWebsites like the President’s campaign site “have to maintain more and more of these third party relationships, and with each relationship comes a different piece of software,” said Mike Sands, BrightTag president and CEO.

By dropping cookies, the ad tags allow the Obama campaign to reach voters who visited but didn’t sign up to volunteer or donate. The aforementioned ad networks and exchanges place cookies on users’ computers when they visit the campaign site, allowing the networks to deliver Obama ads to them while they visit other websites. That’s one of the simplest purposes. Cookies also allow the campaign to trace the sites people clicked through from to visit, and then track their interactions while on the site.

But Obama is not alone among political campaigns in using various ad tags. Mitt Romney’s campaign site is also tagged with several analytics platforms and ad networks including Lotame, a data driven ad targeting system. Official sites of the Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul campaigns also feature analytics and ad network tags. Obama’s site has the most tags at 12, followed by Santorum with 9, Romney with 8, Gingrich with 7 and Paul with 5.

“The fact [] is using BrightTag is probably a good step,” said Rob Beeler, VP content and media for AdMonsters, an ad operations and technology community and events company. “That tells me that someone is at least looking at this not only from a [management standpoint] but is probably aware of the tags that are on the site.” Beeler said more sites are using BrightTag and TagMan, another tag management platform. “It’s certainly growing more common as the complexity around tagging grows.”

Tags Find Believers in Politics

Retailers use third party tags to serve ads spotlighting products consumers may have looked at but not purchased. More and more, this approach is beneficial for political campaigns. They target specific messages to people based on the types of sites they visit, such as Spanish language sites, or their direct interactions with the campaign site.

They can also aim e-commerce-style ads at potential donors. The 2012 presidential campaign sites have become more like mini e-commerce sites, selling a wide array of merchandise in exchange for donations. In theory, the Obama camp could serve an ad featuring the Obama basketball jersey a voter looked at but didn’t purchase, for instance.

Because BrightTag handles the data transfer from site to third party, site owners no longer deal with several tags. The system gives them “greater control and security,” according to Sands, who suggested site owners get a clearer view of what types of data are provided to each third party. And, because multiple tags can slow down loading time, site performance can improve.

A tool like BrightTag “centralizes and handles all of the calls from one tag, possibly providing easier implementation of the many levers that we have the ability to control,” said Michael Bendell, who directs ad operations for Federated Media Publishing.

The typical BrightTag client has relationships with 10-15 third party analytics and ad firms, said Sands. The company partners with several third party firms, and once a client installs BrightTag, they can switch on and off any number of those third party partner tags. BrightTag serves as a conduit, collecting all the data passed through each tag, standardizing it and delivering it to the appropriate partner, while making it accessible to the client.

“Now the client, the brand, knows what data is being collected and who it’s being shared with,” said Sands.

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