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Campaign 2.0: Microtargeting Voters Online

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Then-presidential-candidate Barack Obama speaks at an early presidential rally on Oct. 29, 2008, in Raleigh, North Carolina.

hide from political campaigns? don’t even try

No Matter What Screen You're On, Politicians Will Find You

Why you should care

This campaign season, politicians will be invading your digital world more than ever before.

Are you one of those “cord cutters”? That small but growing crop of Americans who’ve ditched their landline and cable TV for a smartphone and tablet?

If so, you probably think you’re pretty smart. For one thing, you’re saving money on your monthly bills. And come fall, while everyone else in the neighborhood is inundated by robocalls and darkly tinted TV ads intoning ominously against Candidate X or Y, you’ll be happily streaming your Scandal episodes, with nary a hint of that campaign nastiness.

Sounds pretty great. Well, unfortunately, the political campaign pros are on to you. And with the rise of digitized microtargeting, you’re less likely to escape their grasp than ever … at least if you’re in a desirable voter demographic.

’Buying people, not places’ — paying a site for access to a certain set of eyeballs rather than a certain placement on its page — is spreading across the campaign world.

As the 2014 campaign season gears up in earnest (a dozen states held primary votes this month, and 21 more go to the polls in June), hundreds of candidates are going for voters through old-fashioned door-to-door canvassing, direct mail, phone calls and television ads. But this election will be different, too: with widespread adoption of online advertising and marketing developed over the last few election cycles. You’ll see more online content designed precisely for you — you 35- to 45-year-old mother living in the Philadelphia suburbs with 2.5 kids, a Prius and an affinity for Starbucks Frappuccinos — whether it’s a small text ad on the right rail of a Facebook feed or a video that runs on Hulu, before you binge-watch your favorite TV show.

What’s changed for campaigns in the last decade “is that marketing happened,” says Ben Coffey Clark, a partner at the digital media consulting firm Bully Pulpit Interactive (which was founded by President Obama’s lead digital marketing strategist).

What does that mean? It started with the microtargeting tactics pioneered by President George W. Bush’s reelection campaign in 2004 and then-Senator Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign — crunching mass consumer data to determine which specific voters they needed to win the election. Then in 2010 and 2012, campaigns began to experiment with Web 2.0, using popular online platforms not just to fundraise and organize, but to persuade.

Combining those two trends led to a powerful tool to connect with individuals and — campaigns hope — win their vote, no matter how they consume media content.

Screengrab of facebook logo and window

Take the campaign that Josh Koster and his digital media firm, Chong and Koster (full disclosure: OZY has a contract with the company), ran in Florida in 2010, relying primarily on online media — no traditional TV advertising. They aimed to rally votes against a statewide ballot initiative that would have resulted in larger elementary school classes in Florida. The “No on 8” campaign used Facebook to find groups of voters in the age groups and locations that they most wanted to influence and then used different messages — depending on age, gender, listed interests – in ads on those people’s Facebook pages as well as on banner ads that popped up when they looked at other sites.

That’s a lot different than buying TV ad time on a show like Grey’s Anatomy to target women, but reaching an audience that’s just some majority female, notes Koster.

According to a study conducted by Facebook afterward, in the two counties where the Facebook ads ran, “people with the most online ad exposure were 17 percent more likely to vote against the proposition than those with the least” exposure. The ballot measure lost by a 5-percentage-point vote margin that fall. And Chong and Koster won the industry’s “Pollie” award in 2011 for the “Best Use of New Technology” for “No on 8.”

TV ads are still the proven way to reach a large number of voters.

At the time it was novel. Four years later, the notion of what Clark calls “buying people, not places” — paying a site for access to a certain set of eyeballs rather than a certain placement on its page — is spreading across the campaign world, as it has for private-sector marketers. Koster estimates that, for a growing number of campaign media budgets, digital media expenses have grown from zero to as much as 20 or even 25 percent in that time — what he calls “a seismic shift in politics.”

That upward trend is expected to continue as voters switch up their video diet. So if you’re creeped out that an ad for a pair of shoes you just looked at on Zappos is now following you around the Internet, well, get ready for similar phenomena on spending policy and Obamacare.

An annual survey conducted over the last four years by leading Republican and Democratic polling firms has found a slow but steady increase in the percentage of people viewing television in ways other than live TV, be that on a computer, tablet, smartphone or streaming service. In the most recent survey, this past January, less than half of voters said live television was their primary source of video.

politician being interviewed outdoors

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That doesn’t mean TV won’t remain king for the foreseeable future, even though it’s by far the most expensive form of campaign advertising, says Robert Blizzard, a partner at Public Opinion Strategies, the Republican polling firm that helped produce the study. It’s still the proven way to reach a large number of voters.

But it does mean only running ads on broadcast or cable television is quickly becoming obsolete, Blizzard says.

The challenge for campaigns is to match the message and the person and the medium.

“For me to get your attention online, I have to deliver the message quicker and more dramatically,” says veteran GOP messaging guru Frank Luntz. A TV ad usually runs 30 seconds, while an online video is more like 15.

Campaigners know that digital tailored campaign messages get results. No way switching off the TV will stop them from trying to find you.

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Meet The Author Emily Cadei

Emily covers government, world affairs, business and sports for OZY. California-bred and D.C. based, she's reported from four of the world's seven continents -- still waiting for a byline from South America, Australia and Antarctica!

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