- Associated Press - Monday, May 28, 2012

NEW YORK — Voters who click on President Obama’s campaign website are likely to start seeing display ads promoting his re-election bid on their Facebook pages and other sites they visit.

Voters searching Google for information about Mitt Romney may notice a 15-second ad promoting the Republican presidential hopeful the next time they watch a video online.

The 2012 election could be decided by which campaign is best at exploiting voters’ Internet data.

The Romney and Obama campaigns are spending heavily on television ads and other traditional tools to convey their messages. But strategists say the most important breakthrough this year is the campaigns’ use of online data to raise money, share information and persuade supporters to vote.

The practice, known as “microtargeting,” has been a staple of product marketing. Now it’s facing the greatest test of its political impact in the race for the White House.

“The story of this presidential campaign will be how both sides are using data and algorithms and personalization and math in their marketing,” said Adam Berke, president of the digital retargeting company AdRoll. “The promise and beauty of it is that it’s highly measurable — it’s easy to collect data and see what’s resonating and not resonating with voters.”

Campaigns have worked for years to target subsets of voters using commercially available demographic data, ZIP codes, shopping preferences and television viewing habits. But the growing sophistication of data-mining tools has allowed campaigns to dig deeply into voters’ online habits, giving politicians an unparalleled ability to personalize messages.

Officials in both campaigns declined to discuss their digital strategies, but a review of their most recent Federal Election Commission reports shows both are spending heavily on it. The Romney team spent nearly $1 million on digital consulting in April and Mr. Obama at least $300,000.

Television advertising continues to be one of a campaign’s largest budget items, but a TV ad is a blunt instrument hitting a large number of people at one time — many of whom won’t vote or don’t support the candidate who is buying the ads.

Online microtargeting, by comparison, is far less costly and touches only those the campaign wants to reach.

“It’s used to prevent campaigns from wasting time and money on people who won’t vote for them anyway,” said Jeff Coleman, a digital developer and former field organizer for Mr. Obama’s 2008 campaign.

Campaigns use microtargeting to identify potential supporters or donors using data gleaned from a range of sources, especially their Internet browsing history. A digital profile of each person is then created, allowing the campaigns to find them online and solicit them for money and support.

Online searches offer campaigns the simplest form of targeted advertising. When a voter searches on a candidate’s name or a keyword that indicates interest in that candidate, campaigns will place ads next to the search.

The ads offer a great return on investment because the campaign only has to pay for the ad if the voter clicks on it. By layering additional data about the person who clicked on the ad, such as their sex or geographic location, the campaign can tailor a very specific message to get that person’s attention.

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