Imagine if you could peek over voters’ shoulders as they navigate the Internet to understand their hopes, passions, and concerns. Certainly the data are there, and sifting through the record of what people watch, read, and interact with online to predict behavior and responses has become a lucrative business. So, how can smaller campaigns tap into this data stream? And are the insights gleaned from online data a viable substitute for traditional polling?
 
As we buy, browse, comment, and watch online, each of us leaves a trail. Many marketing companies have come to specialize in connecting the dots of this online activity, even as the balance between individual privacy concerns and the benefits of targeting (to both consumers and marketers) rages on. If you can spring for at least a low-five-figure budget for online advertising—and you also have the resources dedicated to customizing your messages and responding appropriately—you can plug your campaign into this data universe with the help of companies such as resonate networks or CampaignGrid that specialize in microtargeting advertising programs.
 
If you can only commit a few thousand dollars (or even a few hundred dollars) to online advertising, you can access the power of microtargeting on your own using Google’s search ads or Facebook’s social network ads. The key to success at this level is to keep the targeting tightly focused and to maintain a clear distinction among the different messages you are testing. In your targeting, aim for a narrow slice that will give you a strong “hit or miss” even if the numbers are small rather than for a big audience that’s more likely to give you an average result with no direction. As long as you monitor the results daily, you can use these tools to quickly validate hunches and test options for less than you’ll spend on pizza and soda at a single volunteer event.
 
If you want to take a do-it-yourself approach, both Google and Facebook provide easy-to-use self-service tools to get you started immediately testing messages and refining your targeting; the Facebook advertising tool even suggests potential target “interests” based on your initial selections, to help you think creatively about your potential audience. Once you’ve gotten started, you can bring in outside help as needed and as your budget allows. For example, before Scott Brown’s U.S. Senate campaign gained national prominence and a big budget, his team used keyword ads on Google to quickly determine which issues resonated most with voters. When the money arrived, they already knew where to aim.
 
The key is to start your testing early in the campaign, review the results daily, pay close attention to what they are telling you, and keep things small until you see some clear results. You may think you have a great message or you may be attached to a particular issue, but if the numbers don’t support your initial approach, you should be prepared to rework your message or shift your focus to an issue that is resonating. Once you hit on a successful combination of messaging and targeting, you can scale up your online expenditures with the click of a mouse.
 
Online microtargeting has a number of advantages over mail microtargeting. With online advertising, the cost of entry is lower, you get faster feedback, you have shorter lead times to execution, and you can make adjustments on the fly. If you have had success with direct mail and want to keep it in your mix, by all means do so—but take advantage of online advertising to help refine your message and improve the ROI of your mail campaigns. You may be tempted to use online advertising as a proxy for polling, but there are some caveats to take into account. Yes, you can measure the response to your messaging and gauge audience interest in different issues; however, you will not be able to control your survey sample and weight the results to reflect likely voters. At the end of
the day, though, your ad results will provide valuable information on the reactions of specific online audiences.
 
Steve Pearson is the president of CivicNEXT (www.civicnext.com), a provider of practical online communications and social networking solutions for campaigns and organizations. Ford O’Connell, a C&E 2010 Rising Star, is the founder of ProjectVirginia.com, winner of the 2010 Reed Award for Best Use of Twitter.