Campaign tools: Digital media, geo-fencing — and more

This article appeared in Capitol Weekly.

For years, the Silicon Valley mantra was “The Internet changes everything.” These days it’s more accurate to say “The Internet is always changing.”

That’s why the conventional wisdom about online ad targeting and other digital means of finding voters can easily slip out of date. Things are always changing.

 For a few years, some vendors claimed to be able to match voter data to ad placements with a success rate of more than 60%.

That’s possible – but only if you’re running a national campaign that uses other demographic data to bolster voter information reaching millions of online ad viewers over a period of several months. With a potential audience below one million and a short time frame, matching is considered a huge success at 40% – and that rarely happens.

Why? Well, the Internet is good at compressing space and time. Anyone can buy a can of Coca Cola from anywhere at any time – as long as they have an Internet connection. Voting is restricted to specific places and times and only some people can participate. And if you take a look at how voter file matching to cookies and IP address actually works, you see the problems compound pretty quickly as accuracy degrades.

The “data” that any voter file vendor provides to a digital match service  is ALWAYS redacted. What’s removed is called “Personally Identify Information” or PII.

 What’s PII? Your name, your date-of-birth, your physical address, in some cases your phone numbers and email address. What’s left? Voting history and party affiliation.

Those two points – and only those – are used to buy “cookies” – a name for a computer code that tracks users’ online activity via web browsers. The cookies purchases are based on characteristics shared with other people who have similar voting history and party affiliation.  Those cookies are then matched to IP addresses against zip codes which further degrades the accuracy.

There’s loss at every point in the chain, especially when the PII is stripped out. More of a problem: cookies don’t work with mobile devices. And increasingly, mobile is the best way to reach voters.

So now we have a new silver bullet: “geo-fencing”  as a way to target voters. But that familiar term has taken on new and interesting definitions in the political sphere. Geo-fencing is NOT targeting ads to a specific Congressional District using IP addresses matched to zip codes. That’s a constant of any online buy. Geo-fencing is NOT recording a mobile device ID and tracking that phone to make a subsequent call to that user. That activity is illegal.

Geo-fencing IS the use of cell tower locations and mobile activity to reach a group of specific people at a particular time and location. It can be used to put your GOTV message up in a 1-mile radius of a polling place on election day. It can be used to “talk” to potential voters at rally or large event and secure their permission to contact them at a later date.

Even without the move to mobile, our firm, Spot-On, has seen plenty of evidence that tight targeting doesn’t work as well as it does with mail or even cable TV. Our firm regularly splits client’s online ad buys between those aimed at a specific district and the  larger area around the district.

Our clients have consistently seen little or no difference in engagement between tightly targeted ads (district only) and more general placements (citywide). And they’ve won.

Spot-On has had great success with and encourages clients to  use ‘rich’ media – audio, video, expanding ads, ads that take over a page for a set period of time – on local high-traffic news sites simulating a TV-like experience. Those sites are voter-rich: more than 60% of regular news readers are regular voters. Which is why rich media placements ALWAYS leads to higher engagements. They also bump up engagement rates for other less dramatic placements.

Rich media grabs the reader’s attention and sends them to a site where they learn more about a candidate or campaign. And that, at the end of the day, is the reason to buy an ad, isn’t it?

The long-standing emphasis in the political market on targeting is a legacy, a way to make sure that the large sums of money needed for mail, field, phone GOTV and TV weren’t wasted. And while many statewide and national campaigns can and should use voter targeting and matching, for most consultants and campaigns a broader online strategy combined with targeted mail and cable buys produces a 360-degree media buy that’s compelling and victorious.