Political Data Firms Push Controversial IP Targeting

Political groups love to be able to target direct mail fundraising and persuasion messages to specific households, and some data firms say they can do essentially the same thing with online ads. Elect Strategies is one data company promoting the ability to match IP addresses to email addresses and other data sets showing party affiliation, donation history, race, religion, and income level. IP addresses denote a particular computer or device, and using them to target online ads or associate a computer with personally-identifiable data, is a controversial practice.

“We can provide physical addresses and phone numbers for the entire country, email addresses for a significant segment of the US population (120 million), in addition to up-to-date IP addresses,” noted Elect Strategies in a recent email sales pitch promoting its data offerings to political advertisers. “For 99.8% of consumers, we can identify Age (Date of Birth), Gender (M/F), Race (5 Groups), Ancestry (189 Countries), Religion, Linguistic Preference, Education Level, and Income Level.”

Using the service, a political organization – a presidential campaign or SuperPAC for instance – could take their own internal database of supporters’ contact information, and attach it to IP addresses. The data pairing could result in serving highly-targeted digital ads to specific people through their computers or smartphones.

IP data matching and targeting “isn’t really a part of our core business,” said Stephen Molldrem, partner at Elect Strategies. “It’s not going to be a standalone solution; it has to be part of a very well rounded campaign to have an impact,” he said. The company focuses mainly on processing voter files and appending email addresses to voter files for political clients. According to Molldrem, there is an increasing interest in IP targeting for online ads from his political and public affairs clients. “Recently we’ve been dealing a lot with IP data,” he said.

Some political advertisers don’t trust the quality of IP data, and question whether targeting to narrow voter segments using IP addresses combined with other data can provide a large enough pool of people to be worthwhile for generating donations or persuading voters.

Privacy Trumps Quality Concerns

But the more common concern is privacy. In fact, some political advertisers say matching IP addresses to email addresses or behavioral data should not be allowed at all. “I know of no reputable firm that will take external IP addresses and ad serve to them,” said Eric Frenchman, digital ninja at marketing consulting company PardonMyFrench, who has handled online ads for several Republican campaigns. “I doubt that every IP Address that they have captured has given permission for this.”

One ad network that says it won’t do IP-based targeting is ValueClick, among the largest and oldest online ad networks. According to Mark Failla, director of Mid-Atlantic sales at ValueClick, who sells to political and advocacy advertisers, the company has been contacted by several data firms offering IP addresses, but has turned them down.

“We have been approached by several different data providers about IP targeting,” he said, adding, “After further review with our legal team we don’t like it and we’re not going to do it.” The company’s qualms are “definitely privacy oriented,” he said.

For one thing, there are questions as to whether companies gathering IP addresses are careful enough to ensure user privacy is protected – by allowing users to opt-out from having their IP addresses collected, for example.

“When we collect data everyone gives their consent to have it licensed,” said Molldrem of Elect Strategies.

The company can gather IP addresses when people open emails sent through its data partners, which Molldrem would not name. Essentially, when a user opens an email from a partner – such as an opt-in email from a news publisher – a cookie is generated which reports back to Elect Strategies the IP address associated with the user’s computer or device.

From there, the data firm can provide a list of IPs an advertiser client wants to target to an online ad network which could then target ads directly to those people.

Demandbase, which also provides IP address targeting serves business-to-business marketers. The company keeps a proprietary database of IP addresses it uses to customize business website messaging to the person visiting the site, based on the company the site visitor works for. For instance, if a software buyer from a hotel chain visits a company website advertising online reservations software, the site copy can be customized for that person based on the set of corporate computer IP address Demandbase associates with the buyer’s company.

IP-based ad targeting is akin to direct political mail targeting, suggested Josh Koster, partner with Chong and Koster, a digital agency that does work with political clients. Data firms serving the political market, he said, aim to appeal to the common desire of political campaign consultants to target individuals. “Many of them [political campaign consultants] only think in terms of, ‘I want to reach people who voted in two of the past four elections,” he said, noting the concept was originated by catalogers.

Still, he said, IP targeting for online political advertising has yet to become an important component of campaigns. “I don’t believe it’s going to happen this cycle,” Koster said.

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