- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 28, 2014

With consumers fleeing in ever growing numbers from broadcast TV and radio for YouTube, Pandora and Hulu, political candidates this midterm season find themselves forced to chase after voters online. But the shift is also giving campaigns a chance to better target their messages to their Internet viewers.

Candidates for the House who run ads on television often end up wasting most of their money on viewers who don’t live in their districts. Online ads, though, can be targeted down to neighborhoods, making them far more cost-effective for candidates, said Zac Moffatt, co-founder of Targeted Victory, an audience-driven technology company that helps conservative candidates and causes.

“Seventy cents on the dollar went to people who can’t even vote for them,” he said. “Broadcast has this huge reach, but it’s blunt and going into the wrong area.”

As campaigns chase eyeballs online, Web surfers increasingly will see political commercials as pop-up ads on music services such as Pandora or running in the middle of their favorite sitcoms on Hulu. Campaigns are also increasingly using what’s called “promoted content advertising” — spots that look like they might be news stories but are actually ads.

And the extra options mean campaigns can get a better deal for their dollar, homing in on viewers they believe will be receptive to their messages based on both platform and content.

The changes can be felt in virtually every election cycle.

“Whereas last cycle this is something that was still being played with and built out for the biggest races, it’s been the coming-of-age story for this cycle,” said Matthew Dybwad, co-founder of CRAFT | Media/Digital, a public affairs and brand management agency. “By 2016 it’s going to be the default position. Everyone will be buying this way, because it’d be foolish to buy any other way.”

In the past, campaigns would go to huge ad networks, tell them what kind of people they wanted to reach and then “hoped for the best and crossed their fingers,” Mr. Dybwad said. Now campaigns can be very specific about who they want to reach, have access to someone’s party affiliation and whether or not the Internet user voted in primaries or general elections. It’s then easy to link that person with things they’ve bought or surveys they’ve completed, he said.

“I know where you live, I know what you buy, I know how you vote [and] where you’ve been. I have a good idea of what you’re in the market for,” Mr. Dybwad said. “That gives me a pretty good idea of hot-button issues and what will motivate you to take an action.”

In practice, that means one person might see an ad on Second Amendment gun rights, while his neighbor could see an ad making an appeal on abortion issues. The goal, Mr. Dybwad said, is to show each Web viewer as specific a message as possible to drive them to donate, vote or otherwise get involved in the campaign.

About the only major digital space where there aren’t political ads is Instagram, the popular photo-sharing service for mobile devices. Alex Skatell, co-founder of IMGE, a digital consulting firm in Alexandria, Virginia, said Instagram only advertises to a national audience, not the regional targeting necessary for political ads. If it were to ever open local advertising, he predicted, it would be “a hit with political advertisers.”

Digital advertising is expected to attract about $271 million this year, the Los Angeles Times reported this week, up from $159 million in 2012, citing figures from Borrell Associates, a consulting firm. In 2016, Borrell analysts are forecasting that political advertisers will spend nearly $1 billion online.

Better targeting

Through websites like Hulu and YouTube, campaigns can target voters based on geographic location and age, but can’t bring their own data with more specifics like income, the number of children in the household and voting history, Mr. Moffatt said.

Some campaigns can also track which websites potential voters visit and use such info to target them for ads, Mr. Moffatt said, as well as target people with an online profile similar to that of people who already like the candidate. A campaign could create a profile of a typical visitor, for example, to GOP Iowa Senate candidate Joni Ernst’s website — using age range, income, consumer data — and then target others who match that profile, he said.

Campaigns are turning to science to see which messages move voters most efficiently toward a candidate. Adam Schaeffer, director of research at Evolving Strategies, said his company conducts studies that randomly show people — who don’t know they’re part of the experiment — specific messages and polls them before and after to see if they’ve changed their mind on an issue or candidate.

“What people say is not a very good guide to how [they] will respond or react,” he said. “It’s a dangerous thing to guide targeting based on what people think or what they say right now.”

These studies allow campaigns to test out messaging strategies on a small population to see if there’s any backlash. Mr. Schaeffer then extrapolates from the data to determine the characteristics of voters who are likely to respond positively to certain ads — and which groups would respond better to no ads at all.

“The goal is to maximize efficiency and minimize risk in terms of backlash and create a lot more certainty in the amount of impact or number of votes you’re going to shift on Election Day,” he said.

One surprising finding from his studies: Women who are likely Democratic voters tend to lean more to the right when shown pro-life ads.

“‘Weak’ Democratic women are the best targets for hitting with pro-life or anti-abortion messages, even though they’re predominantly pro-choice and they’re likely a Democrat,” Mr. Schaeffer said. “They move in response to that type of messaging.”

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