Saturday, January 19, 2013

Digital Analytics and Micro-targeting

This past week, Amelia Showalter, former Direct of Digital Analytics for President Obama’s re-election campaign, announced that she was starting a new company to assist other organizations, firms and campaigns in maximizing their analytics capabilities.  As part of the Obama campaign, Showalter specialized in creating experiments to improve the reach of all digital methods.  She also spearheaded one of the more ambitious efforts of the campaign: micro-targeted advertising and marketing.1

In the past, potential voters have been profiled using more historical demographics: age, marital status, geographic location, party affiliation, etc.  With the acceleration and progression of digitalization and improved analytical tools, voters can now be profiled using much more specific – and perhaps invasive – data: magazine subscriptions, gun ownership, and personal automobile type.  This allows each political party to narrow down their marketing to target voters more likely to favor their party, down to the neighborhood or even household level.2

All this analytical data can be applied to any digital marketing channel: web browsing, television ads, or even the scripts for door-to-door campaign canvassers.  The improved efficiency provided also helps reduce the costs of marketing, favoring cheaper online banner advertisements in communities where micro-targeting suggests it would be more effective than traditional methods.

No longer can it be said that “this state is all blue”.  Instead, certain communities within certain states can be micro-targeted, creating the possibility that the Democratic candidate could be campaigning across the street from where the Republican candidate is holding a fundraising benefit, and they both will be targeting their own respective micro-targeted audiences.

Many argue that this is how Obama won the 2012 election – through the expertise of aides like Showalter.  She and her group used analytics and micro-targeting to reach specific key groups (18 - 24-year-olds, African Americans, Latinos, and single women) and to encourage them to vote early, or to vote at all.3

Technology companies are seeing the business opportunities in this popular micro-targeting approach.  Companies like Catalist are creating models that include millions of variables to profile voters.  Online advertising platform CampaignGrid has signed a deal with AT&T for the next campaign cycle.  And now former political insiders, such as Showalter herself, are getting into the game.

But while this method may be beneficial to those employing it, the targets themselves are finding it uncomfortable.  In July 2012, the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg school of Communication conducted a study in which they surveyed over 1500 people on their opinions regarding targeted marketing.  A staggering 86% of respondents stated they do not want political campaigns to be marketed to them and their interests.  Over half (64%) said they would be less likely to vote for a specific candidate if they found out that candidate was targeting them differently than their neighbor.4

So, even though political candidates (and those that give them the tools to do so) are trying to increase voter turnout, could they in fact be doing the exact opposite?  And how will this negative opinion of micro-targeting affect voters’ views of digital analytics as a whole?

2. Hamby, Peter. Micro-targeting offers clues to early vote leads. October 26, 2012. Accessed January 19, 2013.
3. Brand Media Strategy. How Data and Micro-Targeting Won the 2012 Election for Obama. Brand Media Strategy. November 26, 2012. Accessed January 19, 2013.
4. Turow, Joseph; Carpini, Michael X. Delli; Draper, Nora; and Rowan Howard-Williams. Americans Roundly Reject Tailored Political Advertising. Annenberg School for Communication, University of Pennsylvania. July 2012. Accessed January 19, 2013.

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