Online Microtargeting Grows Up

An integrated microtargeting strategy has been a necessary but elusive aspect of campaigns for several election cycles, but that method of reaching fringe voting groups came of age this year.

An integrated microtargeting strategy has been a necessary but elusive aspect of campaigns for several election cycles, but that method of reaching fringe voting groups came of age this year. By 2008, Web access was ubiquitous and personalized data on individuals had become prolific enough to make microtargeting possible and cost effective, but the technique was still underused. This year, the absence of a targeted Web strategy meant placing a campaign at a serious disadvantage.

Peter Pasi, Executive Vice President at Emotive, LLC, a microtargeting firm that worked with Republican gubernatorial candidates like John Kasich and Bill Haslam and Senate candidates like David Vitter and Rob Portman, has reason to be proud of their work in this year’s campaigns. Their electoral success is due, in part, to 2010’s pro-Republican “wave,” but also to their effective microtargeting strategy.

Pasi believes there is a lot of confusion about what exactly microtargeting is meant to accomplish. “I think microtargeting is something people claim to understand but don’t,” he says. “It is really about using real data to find people online.” Private lists of individuals or groups and enhanced voter files and data from private companies can be combined to create a list of individuals with similar interests and the ebsites they frequent. Those individuals are then targeted with specific messages designed to resonate most within that carefully defined group.

Social issue voters are often in the crosshairs of microtargeters, but the dynamics of a particular cycle may change the message broadcast to swing voters. For example, delivering [d1] ads on conservative-friendly sites is an easy way to target potential Republican voters. However, since voters this cycle were primarily concerned with economic issues, Pasi says that serving ads on financial sites or tax newsletters was particularly effective.

To be effective, a microtargeting strategy must engage in some degree of prospecting to reach blocs of voters that are not plugged into the news cycle. Social networking sites are effective tools to broaden the microtargeting pool. “We did a lot of advertising on Facebook,” Pasi says, on the assumption that a conservative voter’s friends are likely to be conservative as well. “If someone is interested in [Louisiana Governor] Bobby Jindal, they may be a dyed-in-the-wool Republican, but their friends may also be interested in our message.”

Social-issue voters are a perennial target of microtargeters, but, in a year like 2010, polarizing and complicated social issues were not as relevant. This allowed for broader targeting across multiple platforms. “I think, ironically, the Tea Party will help microtargeting,” says Pasi. “Those [voters] that are maybe not pro-life and don’t check 3 of 4 boxes on the GOP’s [ideological] ticket are still voting Republican because they are afraid of massive debt.” Pasi says that this dynamic helped make a given candidate’s message [d2] even more penetrating and effective. “[The] rise of the Tea Party means fiscal conservatism is reaching more people, they might vote for ideas rather than parties and that is where microtargeting is most powerful.”

So what tools do microtargeters need to get the job done even more effectively? Pasi says data sharing is critical to the future precision of the microtargeting industry. “The campaign works best when there is openness across vendors and consultants with a coherent plan that they can execute across all media – TV, radio, billboards and the Web. The data is all there. [The future] is about unlocking data from one vendor to the next.” With this in mind, candidates would be well advised to ensure data sharing between their media planning team and their microtargeting firm.

More candidates are integrating the Web into their overall media plan, but some still treat their online strategy as an afterthought. Those candidates are placing themselves at a disadvantage. Pasi suggests that candidates who were willing to take risks and rely heavily on a targeted Web strategy did well. He specifically cited Ohio’s state-wide Republican candidates. For what it is worth, GOP Senate candidate Rob Portman won by almost 20 points. Pasi also suggests that a young, Web-savvy campaign manager who “understands” the medium will do better in the general election cycle than the manager inclined to purchase a more traditional media schedule. The 2012 election cycle began this week – campaign managers who aspire to success would be advised to invest in a winning Web strategy.

Noah Rothman is the online editor at C&E. Email him at

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