The Last Dance?

If you’re reading this, chances are good that the majority of your digital ad spending this election cycle has gone through what are known as programmatic ad buying platforms. After all, most political ad dollars are being spent that way.

But this may be the last cycle where the freewheeling no-holds-barred programmatic market serves political as though it’s just another brand silo.

The omens have been building for a while. First, there’s a lot of conflicting messaging in the marketplace. Hulu’s ban on ads with guns or any abortion-related messaging is one indicator. So is Spotify’s decision to not take political, as they once said they would. Some platforms review creative. Some don’t. Some allow micro-targeting using voter data linked to other information. Some do not. Facebook won’t take ads immediately before the election. Everyone else will.

No one likes this system. And until the money spent on digital political ads got real – it’s about $1 billion this year – no one much cared. But that’s changing.

This study from the University of North Carolina’s Center on Technology Policy follows a look by the New America Foundation in 2018. In both cases, former employees at digital platforms – in this case Facebook – authored white papers showing how programmatic ad buying is rife with confusion, chicanery and chaos. Put another way: It’s not just Facebook anymore.

So what’s next? More than ever, it depends on the outcome of this year’s election. If Democrats manage to hold on to the U.S. House, it’s likely that the election reform package known as the “Honest Ads Act” will be passed once again and headed to the U.S. Senate. If Democrats increase their majority in the Senate, the bill is likely to receive a much warmer reception than it did in earlier years.

The sorts of reforms envisioned by the bill, as it was written, are also easy to slip into any sort of Big Tech break-up legislation. They’ll also fit nicely into laws designed to protect consumer privacy. That’s three bites at the regulatory apple.

This is all bad news if you’re counting on the voter match targeting you’ve been relying on to actually reach voters. But it could be good news if Congress realizes it can create the ability to target voters responsibly.

As currently written, privacy laws will make that all but impossible. Big Tech break-ups will continue to hamper the ability of those companies to watch users move from one suite of products to another (say, Apple TV to iPhone or YouTube to search). The result: Campaigns’ ability to follow and target voters – already weakened – falls apart entirely. As of right now, there are no carve-outs for political targeting, mostly likely because elected officials have no idea how their campaigns find voters online.

Spot-On has long advocated for the segregation of brand advertising from political ad sales. That’s how political ads are handled by TV stations. It’s how political mail is treated by the U.S. Post Office. And it’s probably what most members of Congress think happens with their digital ads. Actually digital segregation of political ads buying and selling could allow campaigns to use the data they have about voters – they data they use to send mail and decide on TV placements and field outreach – to better effect. A system that uses voter data that’s independent and sealed off from use by brand advertisers would mean political target of digital could become more effective, reliable, safe and secure.

Here at Spot-On, we’re not just talking. We’re walking. Our Pinpoint Persuasion platform is coming soon. We’ll have targeting by election district and zip code. And lots of census and other data. We’re ready for the future.

Are you?

Many Voters, Multiple Solutions

Here at Spot-On, we focus on strategic implementations while our clients dictate strategy.. But also we read a lot and this piece in the New York Times about how campaign should talking to different voters – maybe the ones that aren’t easy to find – hit a nerve.As the authors point out, it’s hard to reach rural voters. One, bandwidth is not evenly distributed across the U.S. That makes it hard to use this year’s media buyer silver bullet of choice – streaming video – to reach their TVs or laptops. And since incomes in that part of the country are usually lower than on the coasts or in urban areas, mobile phones often have plans with data caps.

Besides, most of the tracking done on the web is for people with incomes to spend on goods and services. If the Internet is a shopping mall and you’re a shopkeeper, you want to catch the attention of the lady with the Platinum Amex, not the guy who pays cash and haggles. That tilts any sort of targeting away from lower income households, young people, those with spotty financial records or recent arrivals who may not be native English speakers or have long U.S. credit histories.

In other words, the exact people that savvy political campaigns want to reach.

The good news is that there are changes in the ad marketplace that will help political and advocacy campaigns. For many strategists, this may sound like old news, but the idea behind a multi-platform approach with an emphasis on context for your ads is gaining traction with the brand ad crowd.

Digital can be used very effectively to introduce an idea, but one of its strongest benefits is frequency and delivering a message multiple times to create familiarity. When you build that familiarity in association with a specific partner, some of the trust that their users have in that brand can rub off on yours. This is valuable if you are trying to build or rebuild your brand.” – MediaPost

Sure sounds like a political ad buyer, doesn’t it? Substitute “partner” for TV station, and you’d think it’s 1988 all over again.

Part and parcel of this so-called new way of thinking is the idea that buyers need to look at multiple platforms for discrete chores.So savvy buyers aren’t spending their digital dollars in one place, figuring one platform works on the Internet the way their local cable operator does on TV. Instead, brand buyers are starting to parse out tasks based on a platform’s strengths.

For reaching folks who aren’t easily targeted, almost nothing beats a direct ad buy on a trusted local news site.

This particularly works for segments that campaigns are anxious to reach this year – rural Americans, African-Americans and those who have a preference for news and communication in other languages. Recent U.S. arrivals and lower-income households read local news more, according to a Pew Research survey. Most of the people regularly reading a local news site are voters – that’s been repeatedly verified with surveys on all sorts of sites across the country.

Direct buying doesn’t rely on income or financial behavior to find engaged viewers; its strength is that it covers a county, city or town – the very place where voters are centered. It’s the ultimate context play: ads about current events (elections) surrounded by similar editorial (news stories about campaigns, current and local events.

Plus, there’s the security feature: Know where your ads run, how much you paid and how they performed. Oh, and for the most part, those performance rates will put your targeted programmatic buy to shame.

Spot-On has seen a lot more emphasis on direct buying this year. And since we’ve been preaching the value of direct for some time, we’re gratified by the shift.

Wanna learn more? Send us an email and we’ll tell you about how we put video on small rural news sites, the fabulous click-through rates we see on new stand-along journalism sites and how we think the shift to direct buying helps campaigns prepare for a year of massive upheaval in the ad tech marketplace.

Direct Dial Deals

Well, well, well, it looks like the rush to access publishers’ advertising inventory directly – without going through the black boxes called programmatic ad buying – appears to be getting traction.

Or at least lip service. More and more players in that world, from Google on down, seem to acknowledge that programmatic ads hurt news sites, particularly local news sites which don’t have and never will have the scale and reach of national platforms.

This is important for political ad buyers. It means that some firms will be able to access the ad placements they want on key publishers with more certainty. But it also means change in the market could wreak havoc for smaller or episodic buyers.

Spot-On doesn’t put a lot of faith in Google saying it no longer wants to control every aspect of digital ad buying. They didn’t get to be a trillion-dollar company by playing nice. Nor do we think that buying scenarios like the ones spelled out by Trade Desk for its Open Path offering are going to help political ad buyers very much. Open Path feels more like a challenge to a new weakness in Google’s ecosytem and market dominance.

Still, we think there are several trends here to notice – just not the ones being touted from the rooftops. And yeah, we do think they’ll have an impact in November.

So, let’s start with Google’s ideas about allowing advertisers to target their ads based on their perceived interest in topics users explore on the web. This strategy is more general than the cookie-based targeting political advertisers rely on to match voters to ads. And it raises a question. Is a reader interested in political subjects nothing more than a political insider or influencer? That’s not a swing voter; that’s the base. And what about lag time? Google’s idea uses hindsight and elections – and the events leading up to them – can change fast.

Then there’s the big ad agency race to claim control over quality advertising. Putting aside Trade Desk (which is hard, it’s as big a player in the market as Facebook or Google), other agencies are trying to secure high quality inventory on known outlets for their own by cutting access deals with publishers to replace cookie-based tracking. The result is that the market is in danger of being split between the “have access” and “want access.”

Here’s the take from DigiDay’s reporter:

“Put simply, fewer third-party cookies means less granular data and the less there is of that the fewer people advertisers can track and reach in the open web.

“The more this happens, the more divided the market will get: on one side there will be a larger portion of high-quality ad inventory powered by first-party data and consent; on the other side, there’s a long tail of poorly targeted impressions far more susceptible to fraud and manipulation.”

So, if you regularly run high profile national campaigns – if your clients are victorious presidential campaigns or Super PACs, you’ll be fine. The rest of political ad buyers may well be out in the cold. No targeting, no access and precious little inventory to snap up at the last minute.

There are some things that Spot-On likes about this trend. We have long maintained that political and advocacy advertising has no place on blind programmatic exchanges. No one’s happy with the current situation. Buyers don’t know where their ads are running; sellers don’t know who’s buying or what the ads are saying. And compliance with the law isn’t equitable.

And we’re stepping in to do our part. Starting this week, we’re opening up our Pinpoint Persuasion Automated Direct Buying platform to customers. Our introductory offer will be in your email shortly. But if you hate lines, feel free to give us a shout. We’ll give you access and information about more than 4000 local news sites across the county, as well as let you search by zip code and election districts. And that’s just for starters. We’re loading up census and other data as fast as we can think of ways to use it.

So, beat the crowd. Get an account and start buying political ads on Pinpoint Persuasion, a platform built by political people for political people.

The Year – No, Week – Ahead

About this time every year – Spot-On sits down and thinks about the year ahead, gives you our take on what’s happened and what’s likely to be popping up on our political ad buying radar.

We started this year’s naval gazing back in early December. And, well, we got distracted. Being caught in a bad version of a good movie – Groundhog Day – is frustrating. Our usually clear crystal ball is pretty cloudy.

So this newsletter has a few predictions along with some pointers to folks we read – and you should, too – to stay on top of things as they change. Because they will – and fast.

First up, it looks like the Census Monkey Wrench is going to be less distracting that initially envisioned. Maps are getting drawn pretty quickly and candidates’ assessments are coming in just as fast. We’ll have some lawsuits but not the coast-to-coast conflicts many anticipated.

As a result of Frances Haugen’s revelations about Facebook’s user tracking, it feels as though Congress will pass some sort of privacy legislation particularly in regard to children. Legislation that protects kids can be put to all sort of other uses, of course, so further limitations on targeting technology – the stuff that can be used to target voters – may become law.

Facebook’s post-Haugen decision to join the ban on voter ‘micro-targeting’ looks to be the last shoe to drop in the “will they or won’t they take political ads?” debate that many platforms are having. There are some who disagree, of course but with a month to go until buying starts in earnest, it’s feeling pretty quiet out there.

Now, ‘pretty quiet’ isn’t the same as ‘nothing’s going on.’ There is a lot going on in a volatile environment which is why we’re going to point you to some on-the-ground sources who track activity that’s going to affect political ad sales.

First up, our friend Katie Harbath, formerly of Facebook, who’s started a regular newsletter, Anchor Change, dealing with policy and politics around online political speech. You should subscribe. Harbath’s got a specific point of view as a former Fb employee and its Republican Party liaison. She’s well informed and candid.

On Twitter, Jason Kint, head of the trade group Digital Content Next is obsessed with all the lawsuits against Facebook and Google and privacy issues. The man has a thing for court documents. He reads them whole so you don’t have to. Much of what he talks about is good background for how the platforms see political engagement of all sorts across their companies.

For news and straight-up analysis, Spot-On’s go-to is the ad trade news site DigiDay. They’re tracking developments and changes in how first party data is used and collected, changes in privacy laws, the death of cookie targeting (which makes voter targeting all but impossible), and the rise of alternative user ID solutions. All of these will have bearing on how political advertisers can operate.

So, three points of view and some trends. Now it’s time for the Spot-On year ahead – a big change for us and one we think you should know about.

Spot-On’s Pinpoint Persuasion ad buying platform is going live to a handful of our customers this month. We’ll be opening up to new clients in the Spring with an eye on the June primaries. Our offer is simple: We’re giving political ad buyers a much-needed alternative to programmatic advertising’s black box infrastructure.

We have the latest census maps for all districts – state and federal – matched to the local outlets that serve those districts. You’ll be able to pick where your ads are running, get creative uploaded and approved and – with the push of a button – know those ads have been delivered to those outlets, safely and securely. You can get feedback on your creative AND real time reporting for your campaign.

Pinpoint Persuasion is build by political people for political people. You’re not a season event with us, you’re the only event.

Interested? Email us and we’ll get you on a free, no-strings attached demo.

Separate, Maybe More Equal

The time has come for political advertisers to demand different treatment in the digital buying space.

In the analog world, political campaigns enjoy special treatment that brand advertisers don’t. TV stations set political rates for candidate ads. Election-oriented mail is red tagged by the post office.

But in the digital arena, political is just another brand silo – and an intermittent one at that. So all the problems that have plagued automated programmatic ad buying – fraud, black box placement, misuse of targeting data, malicious and underhanded behavior – also affect political sales.

Now, before we dive into why political needs its own digital marketplace, let’s state the obvious: There are two kinds of political campaigns. Presidential and everything else.

Presidential campaigns are the types of ad campaigns that digital ad platforms understand because they are like brand campaigns. They represent millions of dollars in spending; they occur in a variety of markets, and because the work is on a national scale, the use of targeting and parsing work as it should. Presidential campaigns are flashy, fun and can land the CEOs a White House dinner invitation.

Everything else – state house races, local campaigns, even Senate races – isn’t anywhere near as exciting or lucrative. So, unlike presidential campaigns, they get short shrift. There are some platforms with dedicated ad sales folks, sure. And they sell up and down the food chain. But once an ad is sold, it goes into the brand mix – there’s no assurance that any of the targeting, time or even pricing set in the insertion order gets executed.

Which is why this New York Times article is an important read.

Referring to the changes that Apple and Google are making (or announcing they will make) to protect user privacy, readers are warned.

“The developments may seem like technical tinkering, but they were connected to something bigger: an intensifying battle over the future of the internet. The struggle has entangled tech titans, upended Madison Avenue and disrupted small businesses. And it heralds a profound shift in how people’s personal information may be used online, with sweeping implications for the ways that businesses make money digitally.”

In other words, what’s worked for the past two elections won’t work next year. Really.

Techniques that are going by the wayside include anything that deal in personal information. And voter information IS personal information.

Here’s a list of soon-to-be obsolete political outreach strategies: voter-matched ad targeting, newsletter fundraising, donor re-targeting, micro-targeting ads using demographic information, mobile device ID targeting and the ability to track users from one device to another.

Political advertisers like to argue that they can’t be treated the same as brand advertisers because they have smaller budgets raised on shorter time frames with a hard election day ‘close’. That’s one good set of reasons why the digital market needs to be adjusted for political ad outreach.

Here’s another: Political ads are about influence. It doesn’t really affect the public trust if a lot of people see an ad for a soda brand that doesn’t exist. It does matter if they see – and are persuaded by – ads that defame a candidate. Or if a platform agrees to carry one type of ad but not another. Or if a platform agrees to carry one candidate’s ads but not their rival’s. All of these things have happened to campaigns.

Clearly, it’s time for political advertisers to ask to be treated differently. Instead of buying video and banner ads via black box exchanges or platforms, political ad buyers should have a system similar to the post office’s red tag where they go to the front of the buyers’ line and get special treatment.

If political were segregated from brand advertising, it might re-open the door to micro-targeting and other forms of identifying voters as campaigns do with political mail. A system that’s separate from brand advertising might be permitted more leeway in using data for the very reasons that TV and the post office make exception for campaigns – because the goal is to talk to voters.

That’s not something that’s likely to happen overnight and there are plenty of party divisions that might preclude a solution. But the idea that digital is a separate type of ad outreach is one that might solve some of the chaos that’s threatening to ensue – and could prevent some of the problems we’ve already seen.

Spot-On has long believed in the segregation of political and brand advertising. We told the Federal Election Commission as much in 2018. And we’ve built an ad buying platform that takes a step in that direction by allowing political and advocacy ad buyers – and only those types of buyers – to place ads on local and national news sites.

We’ll be showing it off publicly at the AAPC’s Las Vegas conference and talking about how we think a new digital marketplace should function.

Drop us a line, and we’ll get you on the schedule.

Waste Not….

There may be no better indication of the rising cost of digital advertising than a little missive Google sent out earlier this month to its ad buying customers.

In a number of countries that are taxing digital ad placements, the big ad firm will be adding surcharges to cover those increases. Sounds pretty standard, huh? Lots of things are taxed.

Yes, but things that are taxed are generally money-makers. Governments may be stodgy, hind bound and in love with their own red tape but like everyone else, they know how to follow the money.

These days, digital ad sales is a big business and the tax man wants a taste.

Google’s tax dilemma underscores a reality: the super cheap CPM (cost per 1,0000) is fading into history.

All Spot-On can say is “Good Riddance.” One of the dumber ideas floated for political campaigns was the notion that search advertising offered a particularly good deal for campaigns because buyers only paid for ads that got clicks. Those “free ads” appeared to lower the cost of each ad.

That thinking took root. A lot of ad sellers like to figure costs by taking a campaign’s total ad buy and dividing it by the number of displayed ads – regardless of engagement. The result is a lower price that ignores waste – all those ads that viewers ignored – in favor of volume.

A more accurate measure would be to take the successful ads then divide by total cost. That raises price for engagement but gives a buyer a truer picture of the result of their spend. If you spend $10,000 to buy 1 million ads your CPM is $1. But if only 50,000 of that 1 million garnered a click your real cost $200 per ad.

Many political ad buyers remain in love with this spray-and-pray approach, even as the tide is turning. Budget pressure is the main reason, of course. Campaigns are accustomed to spending big on TV, mail and field – all established outreach – often have difficulty coping with another demand on resources. And many buyers still don’t see how 1 million ads at $1 each is a bad investment.

But it’s time to refocus this conversation. More and more attention is being paid to the hidden costs of the low priced CPM. Fraud is the main culprit here. The programmatic ad market is riven with content farms posing as editorial sites, server farms pretending to display ads to real viewers and just plain human carelessness.

All of which is getting to be more important as the platforms raise their prices. Facebook and Google are charging more this year than they did two years ago but much of that cost isn’t solving waste or fraud problems.

You pay for what you get. Buy cheap ads in volume. get questionable results. This is why a TV ad on the “A” block for local news costs more than the Home Shopping Network at 2 a.m.

Direct placement solves this problem for online buyers. Ads run on known outlets at specific times with established delivery metrics. CPMs are higher but so is quality control and transparency.

Spot-On has been preaching the value of direct ad placements for political campaigns since we started our business. We’re going to stick with it. In fact, we’ve built an ad buying platform that helps political and advocacy efforts maximize their spending on reliable, known outlets frequented by voters.

Buys placed via our Pinpoint Placement platform go to known outlets. Buyers know where the ads run, when they run and how they’ve performed. Voters see these ads, not bots.

Want more info about our Pinpoint Placement platform? Drop us a line and we’ll tell you all about it.

When The Circus Left Town

Looks like Google’s first attempt to shut down the circus known as “ad tech” was more clown car than Big Top.

After months of saying that cookie-based ad targeting – used to support voter file matching – was going away, the tech giant pushed that transition back by almost two years. Google’s substitute, something called a “Federated Learning of Cohort,” will not be implemented until late 2023 – if then.

It’s not often that a big company reverses a much-ballyhooed announcement, creating a dramatic and irreversible change in its primary marketplace. But that’s what Google has done with its announcement that it will continue to allow so-called cookie-based ad targeting through 2023.

This has absolutely nothing to do with the political ad market. Its collective worth – maybe – $2 billion – is not enough money for anyone outside of Google’s DC-based political sales team to worry about.

But, there is no shortage of considerations that political ad buyers should bear in mind as they make their way through the next year. The short list of considerations that have triggered Google’s decision point to an interesting conclusion: the ad tech giant no longer has absolute power and authority in the digital ad world.

Here’s our take on Why Google Will Keep the Cookie:

Things are not going well on the tech front. To us regular people, it may sound easy for Google to gather up lots of information about people using its Chrome browser and then use that to target ads. They’re Google, right? But software engineering at this level is seriously complicated, and Google may have gotten a little bit ahead of itself.

Gossip about Google being poorly managed and risk adverse might be true. With great power, comes great responsibility, not to mention press and regulatory scrutiny. Google might have pulled back rather than push ahead to avoid internal conflicts and bad press – especially if the tech isn’t sound.

Amazon said it would not go along with Google’s new ad scheme. Amazon has deployed technology to block Google’s Chrome from collecting information from its sites. That means a lot of good data about consumer behavior wouldn’t be available to Google.

Regulators in the United Kingdom and the European Union have been taking a close look at Google’s FLOC system with many saying – almost immediately – that it would benefit Google to the detriment of other platforms.

And lastly, Google’s announcement came the same day that the U.S. House of Representatives started a collection of anti-trust bills on the path to passage. This lawmaking is by no means fast-tracked. It takes years of negotiation to get legislation like this passed. But it’s an indication of the seriousness with which Congress is taking Big Tech’s role in voters’ lives.

What does this mean for political ad buyers? Well, in the short term, voter match targeting using cookies will hang around, but its ineffectiveness will get more obvious over time. Smart buyers – that’s you – are going to keep an eye on trends that don’t use cookies – or cookie fakes like so-called universal IDs – to see how they can start to find new ways to reach voters.

Spot-On’s here to help with that effort. Our Pinpoint Placement ad buying platform automates direct ad buying to help your campaign reach voters, not bots. Drop us a line and we’ll set you up with a demo.

The Wonderful World of Colorful Data

It’s late. It’s likely to be questioned for the next 9.5 years but – finally – the 2020 U.S. Census data is getting kicked out for review and analysis.

The re-allocation of Congressional districts got the headline but lots of folks are digging around on more granular data. The results are interesting.

The tables and charts filed on the Census website under the very sexy title “Voting and Registration in the Election of November 2020” were the first to get this treatment by the Washington Post which summarized the findings for us English majors. Here are some highlights:

  • Under 30’s voted in larger numbers than ever. Participation in the 18-29 cohort is up to 2008 (Obama) levels. This is looking like a trend.
  • Asian Americans turned out big-time. This was a spike, hard to know if it’s a trend.
  • African-American turn-out was highest in ‘swing’ states and up overall from 2016.
  • Women voted more than men – no real change here.

The census can’t tell if the increase in polling hours, use of mail-in ballots or drop-boxes helped with turn-out; those drill-downs will come in time as results are compared between locations and years. But given the increasingly colorful data landscape, it’s likely that info will be available soon – and not from your paid pollster.

We may be at the start of an interesting trend: The widespread use of data – real data – about voters, location and behavior in new and more public places. There is a ton of good statistical analysis going on. And it’s made a lot more accessible with a host of computerized graphing and illustration tools.

What used to be the purview of pollsters and modelers and the occasional nerdy reporter is getting more and more public and a lot less geeky. Have a look at Github, a code repository where a lot of open source projects are housed by civic-minded nerds and you’ll see a long and varied list of projects related to the U.S. elections.

The NYTimes Upshot has done some great work along these lines looking at the 2016 and 2020 elections with some pretty colorful maps and very nicely done interactive websites graphics and displays. It’s also highlighted a project studying partisan segmentation within Congressional Districts. That analysis is going to crop up again as the arguments over redistricting are taken up in the fall and winter.

Spot-On has always suggested that campaigns “roll their own” data and increasingly the tools to do so are easy to find and deploy. That’s why our new Pinpoint Placement ad buying platform will let our users keep and record their activity, privately and securely. Your info won’t get dumped into a pile so other can paw through it; it’s yours and yours alone.

We’re happy to show off the new platform. Drop us a note and we’ll set you up with a demo.

It’s So Cool, It’s Private

Wanna be seen as a kewl kid in the online ad world? Use the word ‘privacy’ in a sentence when you’re talking about online advertising.

It’s getting to the point where it’s hard to tell which of the massive platforms which depend on mining of user data is now – suddenly – the most concerned about user welfare.

And that’s without questioning the sincerity of those concerns.

All this jockeying has an impact on political ad sales because – rightly or wrongly – using commercially available data to target voters rests on the privacy-violating tools that the platforms have been using for the past 15 years.

There’s also a little bit of posturing going on here in anticipation of government regulation of the tech world. Appearing to care about users – known as consumers in the antitrust world – helps big tech companies argue that they’re not all that bad.

The lead dog here is Apple which has – on many levels – gone to war with Facebook over the manipulation of user data. As New York Times columnist Andrew Ross Sorkin put it a few years ago “Apple cares about your privacy and it wants you to know it cares about your privacy. ”

With its most recent set of software upgrades on phones, tablets and desktop devices, Apple has dramatically reduced ad targeting ability. No more device ID tracking.

Then we have Google. Google’s using privacy talk to move away from the use of cookie tracking in its ad sales. But the resulting confluence of targeting techniques is, well, mind-boggling. It will be especially – maybe even impossible – if you’re running a small campaign.

There are some attempts at less confusing work-arounds, which may sound really good to political folks since they rely on email addresses and implied consent. But the privacy Gods, in this case, Google, aren’t happy.

And there are lots of people who are happy to point out that Google’s ideas about privacy may be good for Google but not so much for the users from whom it profits.

This is, as we used to say, breaking news. Lots more to come so we’ll point you to a source we like a lot: DigiDay’s privacy round-up of stories. It’s about as comprehensive as anyone can be right now and it’s being added to as things develop.

Digiday makes a good point in its stories: Platforms, not lawmakers are leading the way on privacy. But that doesn’t mean there’s no activity.

Across the country, states have teed up online privacy legislation. Oklahoma, Florida, Virginia, Washington and Connecticut all considered – or actually passed – legislation this year. That comes after California enacted and started enforcing privacy rules for its residents.

So, naturally, there’s a federal privacy bill kicking around. How that fares in the larger conversations about breaking up Big Tech, suing Big Tech, regulating Big Tech – the list goes on – is anyone’s guess. But it’s safe to say there will be something.

Okay, so what’s next. Short answer: Your guess is as good as ours.

What we do know is that starting in January 2022 – right on time for the Midterm elections – the online ad world will be in a state of flux. Whether that flux turns to turmoil remains to be seen.

Naturally, we have thoughts on all this. One: Look longer and harder at buying direct from local news publishers who are looking to capture political ad dollars and may well use these market adjustments to curtail access.

Spot-On’s new Pinpoint Persuasion ad buying platform make direct buying easy and clear. Drop us a note and we’ll show you what we can do to help navigate through the year – and beyond.

The Cookie Crumbles

Silicon Valley has a saying: Live by the platform, die by the platform.

Translation: If your business relies on anyone else to exist then your livelihood is subject to the whims of that provider, which can change at any time. Their business is more important to them then yours.

So, when Google – the Mississippi River of ad tech – dams up a major tributary saying it will no longer support online data tracking, colloquially known as “cookies” a lot of companies are going underwater.

Starting in 2022, firms used by political campaigns to find and identify voters (data brokers like LiveRamp, BlueKai) and ad exchanges which resell Google’s ad inventory (Trade Desk, A4) to the highest bidder will face dramatic changes in how they do business. Some may not survive.

Says Google:

“People shouldn’t have to accept being tracked across the web in order to get the benefits of relevant advertising. And advertisers don’t need to track individual consumers across the web to get the performance benefits of digital advertising.”

Short version: No more swapping out or selling data that monitors and analyses the behavior of Internet users. In other words, you won’t be able to buy so-called “buckets” of, say, Democrats who own guns and drive Priuses on your favorite DSP.

It gets worse. Google is flatly saying that the use of personally identifying information suggested by some of these intermediary vendors will longer be a way to cull or identify users. Here’s more:

“We realize this means other providers may offer a level of user identity for ad tracking across the web that we will not — like PII [personal identifying information] graphs based on people’s email addresses. We don’t believe these solutions will meet rising consumer expectations for privacy, nor will they stand up to rapidly evolving regulatory restrictions, and therefore aren’t a sustainable long term investment.”

Translation: Feel free to use other use tracking techniques but be aware that Google will not support that behavior to sell ads. And Google controls most ad sales.

Google is not the most politically savvy firm in the country (too many billionaires in leadership) but it knows that the 40-and counting lawsuits it’s facing in state capitols across the country, the threatened oversight by federal regulators and a general distrust and suspicion of big tech – which it embodies in a single verb – means things have to change.

What it’s offering as change is audience-based ad sales, more formally known as “Federated Learning of Cohorts.” These “FloCs” will let advertisers find groups of Google Chrome users – and, so far only Chrome users – package and sell to them as they see fit. Google will control the grouping, the cohort definition and the access. Outside data – voter files – will not be allowed.

This raises lots of questions. Privacy activists are already questioning Google’s apparently total control of data and suggesting that a closed ‘black box’ for targeting users is just as bad as the free-for-all that currently exists.

So what does this mean for political advertisers? Well, kiss voter file targeting good-bye. Voter files are composed of personally identifying information [PII] like age, name, home address and gender, which has always been questionably effective.

Secondly, be very concerned about how any “political cohort” might be constructed. Political advertising doesn’t work like brand ads. Joe Biden isn’t a budget hotel chain, Elizabeth Warren is not an organic apple grower. Political cohorts, if created, won’t be able to keep up with changing voter perceptions. They are likely to go out-of-date quickly

Political cohorts will also vary by location – they won’t scale like brand advertising. As the 2020 election demonstrated, while a San Francisco Republican and South Carolina GOP supporter may pull the same party ballots their choices, especially at the local level, will be very different.

Then, of course, there’s the question of whether or not Google will even permit these political cohorts to exist. Political ad revenue made a lot of Google’s DC sales team very happy last year. But that revenue – still less than $1 billion – was a fraction of Alphabet’s $180 billion – and a large portion of its bad PR.

It’s a safe bet that large presidential campaigns will craft cohorts for their efforts. But it’s just as safe a bet that they won’t share with other firms or other campaigns. And it’s likely those cohorts will have short shelf lives and be pretty useless on a local level.

Spot-On’s been touting the value of contextual ad buying – putting ads on known sites – for a while. We’ve even built a new ad buying platform specifically for political ad buyers. Our Pinpoint Persuasion platform is independent from Google’s technology and designed for the specific needs of political ad buyers who want to reach known established outlets in cities, counties and states where their voters live.

We’ll have more public details soon but if you’d like an early look, feel free to give us a shout and we’ll set you up with a demo.