Putting Things in Context

It’s gotten a fancy high-tech name now but the old fashion technique that political ad buyers have relied on – buying ads where they think they’ll find voters – is coming back with a vengeance.

This time around it’s called “contextual targeting.” Which means that advertisers run ads where they’ll reach people who care about the things related to the ad messaging. You know, like buying local TV news during an election!

The main driver behind this back to the future renaming is a series of actions that may well come to be called the “online privacy wars,” a fight among web browsers to see who’s best at reassuring customers all the while throwing shade on Google and Facebook.

Here’s Apple’s opening salvo off a page from Hearst’s SFGate website.

The SFGate page has 27 trackers, according to Apple. Some of which are companies that have almost nothing to do with news publishing and a lot to do with following people around the web to sell them stuff. Here’s Firefox’s version of the tracking on CNN which has 24 of the pesky little bots on alert.

Both of these privacy tools are, of course, aimed at Google and Facebook. Firefox, which is run by a bunch of super nerds has always worried about user privacy – well ahead of everyone else. Apple’s getting in on the game to make sure its well-off, well-educated customers know the company is, to invert a phrase, not doing evil.

Tracking is creepy and most people aren’t aware of it. And when they are aware they don’t like it. So, it’s a good bet that the average web user seeing these warnings might have a new interest in some of the once-boring conversations about privacy, tech policy and regulation.

Over the past two years, Congress has had a big think about Big Tech and, well, it’s decided that what happens online is something that bears watching. Hearings through this year, largely ignored by anyone with anything else to do – like run a political campaign – did a pretty good job of educating lawmakers to the ins and outs of how tech companies operate. It wasn’t pretty.

Put another way: The stage is set for regulation. And if it’s not legislative regulation, it may be court-ordered controls.

What does all this mean for your average political campaign: big changes, that’s what. Because the regulation isn’t just aimed at how companies behave; it’s squarely aimed at reining in their ability to collect and sell data about their customers.

Which means that political campaigns going to have to think about online targeting in a new way. The reliance – and mistaken belief that so-called voter matching enabled advertiser to reach specific individuals – is thwarted by privacy concerns and laws. Restrictions on how user data can be used will put up more obstacles.

Why? So-called voter-match targeting isn’t targeting voters. It’s targeting people who may be like the voter a campaign wants to reach. Maybe they share a similar financial or credit history; live in the same neighborhood, own the same type of car. So when people get more control over the information used to make those associations – if a user can block CNN and SFGate’s trackers – that user has opted out all ad targeting, not just political.

So, we’re back to the future. It’s in political campaigns best interest to buy ads on local news site because – just like TV – people who vote are people who care about local news.

And local news sites, having weathered what can only be described as an extended depression, are coming back. Bad news, as anyone in the news business would happily tell you, is very good for business. And there’s been no shortage of that lately.

The problem that’s emerging with folks who are interested in contextually targeting political ads is the fractured nature of the marketplace. Well, we here at Spot-On have made the same observation. Over the next few months you’ll be hearing about our Pinpoint Placement platform which allows campaigns of all sizes to buy ads on local news – and other sites – by election district.

If you’d like an early preview to learn how you can target local news outlets – by state legislative, Congressional district or zip code – drop us a line.

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