Private Browsing, Less Targeting

Changes in election and privacy laws aren’t the only adjustments that digital ad buyers should worry about going in to 2020. The folks who make web browsers have stepped in with changes in how ad trackers can follow consumers .

These adjustments are going to affect political ad targeting – not at some future point when laws take effect and regulations have been approved – but now, as we head into the 2020 election cycle.

The big driver here is Apple, whose Safari browser no long permits the wholesale use of cookies – small pieces of html code that track users’ behavior. The Firefox browser has similar blocking. This is important because the wholesale buying and selling of this tracking information, so-called “cookie pools,” is a vital part of online voter targeting.

Some may console themselves with the fact that Google’s with its Chrome browsers hasn’t been as aggressive but that’s bound to change. Google and Apple compete head to head in the mobile market – Android v. iPhone – and Apple’s is doing a pretty good job of showing up Google in the “don’t be evil” argument to consumers. Respect – defense, even – for user privacy is part of that effort.

We’ll leave the tedious conversations about replacement technologies to the ad tech geeks. Suffice it to say that there are three big changes in the works.

  • The use of cookie-based targeting is official over. Online ads aren’t targeting individual voters. Using cookies, ads are targeting pools of people who are like those voters.
  • The effectiveness of what’s known as ‘real time bidding’ is coming to an end. RTB with cookie targeting is is the technique that most political ad resellers rely on for inexpensive remnant video and banner ad placements.
  • And the much-ballyhooed cross-device tracking is not going to get off the ground as anticipated. If a vendor suggests they’re using phone device IDs to find specific users, they may be using questionable practices to get that information.

In other words, many of the technologies that political advertisers depend on – cheap video and banner ads, targeting to voters using cookie pools – won’t work as effectively six months from now.

Within the ad tech community, there seems to be one common theme: given these changes, buying ads directly from outlets is is safer and more effective than relying on ad exchanges or networks.

This change – a spill over effect of changes in European privacy law – is something Spot-On’s prepared for. As dollars and attention flow to digital ad placements, it make more sense to buy political ad directly from known outlets – where a constant and significant number of regular readers are voters – than it does to trust a soon-to-be-obsolete technology that’s always been hit-or-miss.

Spot-On is getting ready to roll out its Pinpoint Placement buying platform which automates direct buying and provides transparency and security for buyers and sellers. We’re looking for a few good beta testers. Care to join us?

Send an email if you’d like to learn more.

Does Privacy Kill the Voter File?

Seems that the tried and true method of reaching voters online – the use of purported targeting using voter registration information – is under fire.

And it’s not just one or two little attacks; the hangover from the 2016 election is turning out to be longer than expected. So concerns about individual online privacy, national security and the need to place legal restraints on Big Tech are coming together.

California’s privacy law appears – as of today’s writing – to change the use of voter file information for targeting ads. If it’s not amended the law takes effect as is on January 1, 2020.

Interpretations of the law aren’t exactly clear on a number of fronts. But the basic ideas is that any company which uses data to target ads will be required to notify recipients that they have the right to have their personal info deleted from that company’s records.

This could cover firms (like Spot-On) that run political ad campaigns and companies that sell data derived from voter information. The law is meant to protect users in the state so anyone doing business in California is affected.

In other words, it doesn’t matter where the company using the data is based. Although, of course, the two biggest beneficiaries of political ads spends are located in Menlo Park and Mountain View, California.

Just as important: other states have similar privacy laws. And now there’s a federal effort to specially restrict the use of voter data.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein has introduced legislation that would work much like California’s privacy law. The “Voter Privacy Act” would pretty much shut down voter targeting as its currently used online. “Political candidates and campaigns shouldn’t be able to use private data to manipulate and mislead voters,” Feinstein said in her statement on the bill. “This bill would help put an end to such actions.”

The press around this announcement credited the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica scandal but Spot-On looks to the release of the heavily redacted Senate Intelligence Committee report on the 2016 elections as the motivation here.

You haven’t read that full report. We haven’t either. We can’t – it’s secret. But Sen. Feinstein is a member of the Senate’s Select Committee on Intelligence. We bet she has.

There’s no sure path for passage of her bill but there’s a lot of talk about election security. That might mean some form of Congressional action this fall.

And that’s going to mean big changes in how online campaign are run. Bigger than the ones in the works already.What’s the alternative? As long-time readers are aware Spot-On thinks that most voter targeting is a panacea that does little actual targeting. The personally identify information that makes up the bulk of a voter registration file is stripped out for most uses. Targeting often creates a universe so small that it’s ineffective or, worse, an ad buy that’s so expensive that the use of targeting is counter-productive.

We have long preferred the tried-and-true way to reach voters: Buying ads on local news sites which have an overwhelming number of voters as readers. Most TV buyers invest heavily in local news avails. The same strategy should apply for online political placements for one really good reason: It works.

Until recently, it’s been too difficult to buy directly online but Spot-On’s Pinpoint Placement platform will debut this fall, solving that problem for our customers. And providing some much-needed transparency along the way. What a demo? Send an email and we’ll hook you up.

Well Behaved Targeting

Targeting Alert: Just in time for the 2020 Election, a key buying tool in online advertising – tracking the behavior of Internet users – is coming under increasing fire.

Political folks don’t spend a lot of time thinking about targeting other than by voter registration information. But voter targeting is a sub-set of “behavioral” targeting for several reasons.

The first is the one most often overlooked: Voter registration information contains a lot of what’s known as PII – personally identifying information. It’s not acceptable to use PII to target ads online across the ‘open web’. So large buying platforms use the behaviors associated with a group of voters on a target list to send them ads.

This has a bunch of what you might call dumb results. First, consumer behavior and voting behavior are often very different. We all know Democrats who shop like a Republicans. One even ran for president. Also, most online ad targeting relies on financial data – credit cards, mortgages, buying habits – and that means some populations can’t be easily found online.

Over reliance on targeting also means that competing campaigns go after the same sets of people. Result? Increased pricing. Second result? Lower bidders – even if they’re political ad buyers – loose out to corporate brand campaigns or deeper pocketed opponents. So, if you’re looking for women in November you’re up against Target, Safeway and Wal-mart (Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas).

Also, there’s some evidence that behavior targeting does’t work as promised. And its coming under increasing scrutiny in Europe as more stringent privacy regulation takes effect.

The sorest of the sore points in Europe: Real-time bidding and use of behavior information in tandem. Translation: the process by which most political advertising – which emphasizes low cost and voter targeting – is purchased.

It’s gotten to the point where Silicon Valley companies are calling for more oversight of the data sales business. And, control of consumer data is at the front and center of a series of legislative proposals Congress is contemplating, all of which is going to change how voter lists are handled.

The conventional wisdom says no substantial legislation on privacy or any other ‘big’ topic will pass Congress this year. But this isn’t a political climate where conventional wisdom endures. Regular readers know Spot-On has always had a jaundiced view of voter and behavioral targeting for political outreach so we’re prepared for what we think are inevitable changes in the law.

Question is: Are you? As we look ahead, Spot-On sees a more complex market for online ad buying.

That’s why Spot-On’s working on a solution. Our Pinpoint Placement platform is built on a database of more than 2700 local news sites across the country. They’re divided up by Congressional and state districts, searchable by zip code. We’ll offer automated direct buying, real time campaign reporting and a host of other features.

Want a seak peek demo? Send an email.

Trump’s Tricks: Make ‘em Work For You

By reputable accounts President Donald Trump is spending more than $1 million a month on Facebook advertising in preparation for his re-election bid.

He may well be spending more on other platforms. We just don’t know since there are no legally mandated reporting structure for online ad buys for federal elections.

The spend and the mystery about spending has his potential opponents flipping out. But hand wringing isn’t really productive. Trump opponents as well as those hoping to emulate him might take a bit of a lesson here – before it gets too painful.

To start, there’s a bit of legacy thinking going on here. In the past, spending a lot on TV – or saying you’re spending a lot on TV – early means your campaign doesn’t have a money problem. And money for TV means you’re well positioned to win.

That’s not necessarily the case with online advertising, especially the kind of “lead generation” advertising that Trump Campaign Manager Brad Parscale says he’s conducting. It’s also possible that $1 million/month on Facebook means that the data collection and message validation operations aren’t working as well as they have in the past.

It’s also worth remembering that the ads running now are not persuasion or calls to specific action. They’re for fundraising and collecting information about potential supporters – regardless of party or status. Ads are being used to do message validation against specific demographics and locations, not against pre-bought list of known voters.

He’s not shy about it either. In this “Face the Nation” interview Brad Parscale spelled out – again – what he’s doing Here’s the – literal – money quote:

“We’re spending millions of dollars a month, light years ahead of any campaign in history, to build the foundation of who we need to market to, what we need to understand, what we need to say to them and how to exactly deliver to them.”

He’s exaggerating; former President Obama’s campaign did something similar when Facebook and online advertising was a political novelty (and a whole lot cheaper). But the motives were the same: Message validation is part and parcel of every digital brand advertising campaign. And it’s why message validation should be a bigger and early part of every political campaign for every candidate across several platforms – not just Facebook or Twitter.

Spot-On calls this service “incumbent protection”. It’s a good way for those in office to keep in touch with the voters who elected them AND learn more about how those voters see their elected officials.

An incumbent protection plan can provide a political campaign with information about platform preferences – not just tried and true Facebook video and YouTube but banner ads targeted to specific local outlets, on streaming video and audio targeted to demographics, all looking at performance and messaging. So when it’s crunch-time – voters are out and interested – the campaign is ready to go with strategies it knows will work. 

Do older women in Michigan respond to messages on immigration or are they more interested in health care? Do young men in Ohio engage with ads about guns owners’ rights or do they react to immigration messages? Do you really find young people in your district on Hulu? Or does YouTube work better? Facebook does well with older women but is Spotify a good investment for younger potential voters? What about voters’ general concerns. Do you know what they are and how they may change between now and November 2020? If you could find out – quickly and cheaply – would you do it?

You can. You should. And it won’t cost millions of dollars. An effective campaign can be run at any level of political engagement for costs suited to a campaign budget that breaks away from ‘silver bullet’ thinking to truly reach across the panoply of local news offerings in city, town or state.

Facebook (Finally) Exits Politics

It took more than two years, several Congressional hearings, the levying of a multi-billion dollar fine, countless PR missteps and Lord only knows how much Menlo Park navel gazing but Facebook has finally gotten out of the political ads business.

In true Facebook style of course, they aren’t saying they’re leaving. No, they’re just saying they won’t pay commission on political ads sales.

That has some naive reporters saying reaching into the archives to suggest that statements Facebook made last year still apply and that the company will continue to take political ads.

This is nonsense. Put another way: Would you ask your media buyer to do without their commission? Didn’t think so.

What’s really going on here? Well, Facebook is going back to the political business it should have stayed in, serving local campaigns on a self-service level. School board race? No problem. City council in a small or medium size city? Upload that creative!

But if you have a multi-state, multi-creative campaign with voter or demograhic targeting and need help or advice using and properly deploying the Instagram platform? You’re outta luck.

Why this move? Why now? Well, the numbers tell the story. Political ad sales were worth about $300 million for Facebook in 2018. But the fine they’re facing form the Federal Trade Commission for violating users’ privacy over the Cambridge Analytica scandal is put at $3 billion.

it’s not just Facebook that’s scaling back.

Google which is still active in the political ad arena but is operating with significant restrictions. The firm won’t take political ads for local races or ballot measures in Washington, Maryland, New Jersey and Nevada and has restricted the types of ads it will accept in New York.

Election officials in one of the states affected say that programmatic ad platforms are still running political ads so it’s not clear if Google is refusing ads directly – for YouTube and search – while allowing third-party ad platforms access to its display inventory.

If that’s the case – danger ahead – as platform buys can become subject to retroactive or late enforcement of the law. A platform buy might not be executed as ordered with only minimal or no notice at all.

Confusing? Not for Spot-On customers. We’re even rolling out a solution this fall. Our Pinpoint Placement platform is built on a database of more than 2700 local news sites across the country. They’re divided up by Congressional and state districts, searchable by zip code. We’ll offer automated direct buying, real time campaign reporting and a host of other features.

Want a seak peek demo? Send an email.

Lessons From 2018: Campaign Tactics Edition

Yes, we know, it’s 2020 for everyone in politics. But before we rise from our armchairs and really get down in the trenches, let’s take a few minutes to consider how political campaigns have changed.

The 2018 cycle was a watershed year for new online and digitally-based tactics that worked surprisingly well. We think last year will be seen one where campaigns became less hierarchical, more concentrated on field and direct outreach not on TV and, as a result, more diverse and ultimately less expensive.

Election Day Can Last A Month – or Longer

For those of us in California, this has been true for a while: You vote when you can, where you can, via the method that best suits you. Plenty of 2018 races weren’t decided until all the early ballots were counted – some weeks after the election.

Early voting in person, voting by mail and a new policy of mailing ballots to all registered voters, is making election day a process, not an event. Even New York state, long a hold-out on these matters, has changed its laws.

So last minute media spends, especially on TV, are becoming less effective. They’re talking to people who have already voted. Longer-range campaigns, over weeks and days are the new normal. That’s why we’re seeing more ‘flat’ campaigns that are less centered on paid TV and more on outreach and field. It takes time to build a digital message, especially with elections lasting for weeks, not a days.

Campaigns Became Less Hierarchical

The ultimate in flattened campaigns was certainly the Beto O’Rouke’s run against Sen. Ted Cruz. Ultimately unsuccessful – but by far less than anticipated – O’Rourke ran a campaign with several unique features.

He didn’t use seasoned campaign professionals. He didn’t rely on lists of known voters to man and support and donate to the campaign and he made person-to-person outreach – live and virtual – a cornerstone of his campaign. Oh, and he built a list of supporters in and outside of Texas that’s the envy of pretty much anyone running for president. Politico Magazine has a run-down of what O’Rourke’s folks did that’s well worth reading.

O’Rourke wasn’t the only one. The early forerunner here is New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez who in shocking upset unseated Democrat Joe Crowley from a historically safe seat in The Bronx.

Like many early 2018 primacy candidates, Ocasio-Cortez used a combination of field and social media-enabled outreach to talk to voters in her district. She didn’t spend a lot of money on TV – she didn’t have it.

Instead, she had a compelling message and she used the communication technology that she believed was popular in her district to talk to voters. That theme and those techniques were repeated in “upset” after “upset” across the country as younger candidates used what they knew, not what they were told had “always worked”.

Can this work for a national race? Not all of it, certainly. But some – oh, yes.

Women Ran as People, Not Barbie Dolls. And They Won.

One of the most striking changes in 2018 were the candidates’ approaches to media and messaging – especially women.Women campaigned with babies on hips, mussed hair and no make-up, in jeans and flats, not power suits and sensible heels.

THIS is how how social media is changing politics. The re-imaging of candidates as people you see every day – in person and online – not unreachable icons beamed into your living room in a :30 with a deep baritone voice over to give them “credibility”. Instead of one TV ad that reaches millions, many candidates relied on quick Instagram or Facebook videos and photos with brief spur-of-the-moment insights and reactions that reach a few but then are multiple by sharing. Some are still at it.

The result: Less of an emphasis on blow-dry perfection, more on the personal and flawed approach. More fun. And yeah, a lot more dancing.

What’s it All Mean? Change, That’s What. And Lots More of It

What’s this mean? First off, campaigns are going to get a lot less expensive. In a lot of markets – New York, California, pretty much any swing state – television is just too expensive for many. Using digital media is cheaper and unlike TV, you can measure its effectiveness – in real time.

Digital media IS effective. Yeah, you’re right, no one’s going to run a presidential campaign with a freeform structure of volunteers coming and going as they wish. And Instagram ain’t gonna get anyone into the White House.

But, as the Trump campaign demonstrated in 2016, no one’s going to win with a TV-only air campaign constructed by a veteran consultant basing messaging on static polling and what “always works.”

Women can run with bad hair, big hips and funky dance steps. Outreach is an iPad and a volunteer with a great attitude and a willingness to work hard and learn. Polling comes from the insights recorded from door-to-door conversations with supporters and opponents.

Which means big-dollar media consultants and their targeted approach are in for a reckoning. In a very short period of time, the diversity of elected officials that the media finds so amazing may be more commonplace – on both sides of the aisle.

Want to learn more about Spot-On sees the evolving campaign environment? Follow us on Twitter where we offer regular updates, commentary and help navigating a dynamic and changing online marketplace.

We used to offer to connect with people on Facebook but no more. For starters, they’re looking at the wrong end of a variety of charges. And, well, we got disgusted with their business practices a while ago. It will take criminal indictments to make political movers and shakers turn totally away from Facebook. But, Spot-On figures that day will be here well before the 2020 elections.

Why Facebook

Usually in this space at this time of  year, Spot-On spends a few minutes to make predictions. But this year, we’re putting that aside. This mess with Facebook and political ads is too overwhelming.

And dangerous.

Let’s begin with a clarification: Facebook is a fantastic tool for elected officials to reach their constituents, particularly in small numbers and targeted groups. But Spot-On – and our clients (that’s you) is all about elections. We’re politics – that’s policy.

There’s a difference. An important one that you, dear reader, understand but Facebook clearly does not.

How’d this happen? Facebook had an aggressive outreach program for members of Congress showing them how to use its pages, how to post, how to put up pictures of their grandkids, how to ‘like’ and ‘share’. For Congress this was a gift: Finally, someone – Facebook! – had organized the Internet into something regular people – Congress! – could understand!

So when it came time to run for office it was only natural that Congress would treat Facebook like a TV channel. Buy a lot of ads and get re-elected! It worked, too. And that’s where the trouble started.

Like every other tech company, Facebook doesn’t see a difference between political ads and soda ads. Political is just another brand silo and it’s one that doesn’t really generated that much revenue. For Facebook, the more speech, the better, the more connections the better, the more ‘popular’ the post, the better. Because Facebook was envisioned by happy, content, well-off people as a happy place were we can all just get along by sharing and liking and coming  gracefully and joyously to seeing each others’ point of view.

So Facebook doesn’t know what to do when faced with critical or harsh political speech or opinions. Or with deliberate and organized fraud. Or with targeted ads designed to influence opinion in nefarious not-so-nice – but eminently shareable – ways. And more than two years after the 2016 election – which featured all of these things – the COMPANY STILL DOESN’T KNOW WHAT TO DO.

Just look at the past six months.

When Facebook instituted its political ‘registration’ process in May, it closed down a number of small campaigns. Babbling about transparency and willingness to prevent a repeat of 2016, the company approached known political buyers – like Spot-On – but didn’t know or care to approach smaller campaigns. Result: Campaigns with lots of dough could stay on the platform, the local races (school boards, small town city councils) got booted until they could meet the company’s ‘standards’ for buying ads.

At the same time, Facebook initiated an ad disclaimer requirement that’s different from most state and federal law. It also launched a ‘transparency effort’ that, if carefully reviewed, gives insights into campaign strategy and spending. Both corporate policies are in addition – and usually beyond – what’s required state or federal laws.

But even that process was a joke. Some of these requirements could be avoided if ads were purchased through a buying platform. In Alabama in 2017, a bunch of Democrats decided to imitate the nefarious tactics of 2016 during the special election that got Doug Jones elected to the U.S. Senate. They put up fake pages with fake messages to create dissension and influence turn out.

Finally, last month, the New York Times – in what should be a coup de grace for the company’s lax and myopic leadership – demonstrated what savvy media buyers have know for a while: Political ad review is not done in the U.S. It’s done in another country by people who know very little about laws governing speech and elections.

Spot-On got out of the Facebook ad buying business in 2016. We didn’t know what they were going to do but we were pretty sure it would be inept. But even after a lifetime in politics and 20-plus years in Silicon Valley we were not prepared for this combination of sheer ineptitude and cynical, PR-oriented half-measures and deliberate “mis-truths”.

So we have a question for anyone still using Facebook ads as the centerpiece of their campaign.


Why do Facebook’s contractors in the Philippines or India get to rule on what your political speech should look or sound like? Why does Facebook get to set financial disclosure laws that are different from what you state requires? Why does Facebook’s Instagram get to go beyond what government agencies require to create a sham disclaimer system? And above all: Why is political speech being controlled by a company that cares more about its shareholders than voters or citizens?

And why are you letting your candidates play along?

The Year Ahead: Same as It Never Was

Political people all talk about how this cycle – which by Spot-On’s estimates started sometime last year – is going to be different. For everyone.

We think that’s a safe bet. But we’d like to take this opportunity to throw some gasoline on that fire.


And yes, we’re yelling.

Unlike past years, this is the only prediction we’re making this year. Why? Because – looking at Silicon Valley as both experienced insiders and as political buyers – we see fear, trepidation and concern when it comes to political advertising. All of which will encourage companies to shy away from online political placements.

Here are some of the factors we’re looking and how they may change the political ad market.

First, let’s talk about the money. Political ad revenue for online soared to about $1 billion in 2016. Yes, that’s lots of dough – anywhere but in Silicon Valley. For Google and Facebook, it’s less than 1% of their combined total revenue. But it’s 100% of their bad PR.

Bad PR for many tech companies, especially those that are what’s known as consumer-facing (Snapchat, Spotify, Facebook, Pandora), often comes down to avoiding complaints about the ‘user experience.’ This is why they have rules about ad lengths and sizing that aren’t anything like what you’re used to with TV. Old school media – TV, print, radio – relies on geography to herd users. On the web, users come and go. You want them to stay around? They have to have a good experience – they have to really like you.

This reasoning is why a lot of online outlets flatly reject ‘negative’ political ads and it’s why more will start rejecting all political ads, especially those for candidates.

It’s also why Facebook is changing the priority it gives items that appear in its users’ feeds. Last week’s announcement about creating more “meaningful” experience for Facebook is code for giving users “more pleasant” experiences. And that means a lot less political engagement.

There’s more. The U.S. Congress is not happy with the state of the online ad business. Nor is the Federal Elections Commission or the Federal Trade Commission.

Their companies are varied and long. In three separate hearings before the U.S. Congress and Senate, tech executives did not acquit themselves well. Facebook managed to frustrate Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) on the same day and almost in the same manner. As they say in Washington, that shows a rare and special talent.

What’s bugging Congress? It’s a long list. There are the fears about Russian interference and the concern that similar tactics can be deployed by U.S. campaigns agains their opponents (in the current environment, they can). There’s a general sense of unease created by the Equifax data breach which is feeding concerns about data tracking, data management and what Facebook and Google ‘know’ about users. There are concerns about the black-box nature of online ad buying.

Put another way: The folks who are represented by online advertising like what it does – reach voters – but they don’t trust the people who are selling it. So look for clients to start asking tough questions about where their ads are running and why.

Traditional news outlets see this as an opportunity. A few are thinking about taking political inventory off the automated buying exchanges, looking to use political as a way to bust what they describe as “The Duopoly” between Facebook and Google.

Oh, and then there’s the technical stuff. Safari’s new web browser doesn’t allow cookie tracking for ads. More folks use mobile – which doesn’t work with cookies – for their online interaction. And new rules in Europe are preventing the use of personal information without that users consent. So as much faith as you may have in voter file matching – well, you might want to find a new church.

What do do? Brace – really brace – for change. Don’t rely on last year’s experience and certainly don’t rely on anything that happened in 2016. In “Internet Years” that was a lifetime ago.

For more insights, have a look at Spot-On’s best practices white paper. Send us an email and we’ll send one over.

And if that’s not enough, you can follow us on Twitter or hang with us on Facebook where we offer regular updates, commentary and help navigating a dynamic and changing environment.

Why Russians Matter To Your Campaign

Let’s talk about Russians.

Let’s talk about the Russians and online ads and Facebook and what they may have done and what it means for the future of political online ad buying.. Because it’s important. And it’s going to matter to your campaign.

First, what happened? Well, start with the online ad campaign that Giles-Parscale ran for President Trump. In his public statements, Brad Parscale has been clear: He did what every brand advertiser does and took advantage of the power, reach and ubiquity of online to push ads out supporting Donald Trump’s candidacy.

When ads didn’t work – they didn’t lead people to the candidates site – they came down. When they did, they stayed up until they didn’t work. At one point, Giles-Parscale was reported to be running 60,000 different ads at one time.

That’s it. There may be some nuances in this account but they’re just that – nuances. At the end of the day the Trump online campaign boiled down to this: Use as much money as you need to buy as many ads as you can making sure those ads are performing as well as they can.

This is where the Russians come sneaking in. And this is probably why special counsel Robert Mueller is looking hard and long at ‘social’ media sites as he investigates the Trump campaigns connections to Russian attempt to influence the 2018 election.

The ad server data from the campaign described above – like ALL server data – would provide a valuable starting point for anyone wanting to use social media to boost – let’s call them nefarious ideas – about Hillary Clinton, the U.S. election process or pretty much anything else. And that data can be shared simply by giving someone a password and log-in. It’s done all the time on brand campaigns (and some political, too).

For instance, let’s say an ad touting President Trump’s support of the 2nd Amendment did really well in Nashville, TN. Someone – anyone – could use that information to start a Facebook group for Nashville residents to share their views on the 2nd Amendment. The group would get started by asking people who may have joined pro-Trump groups on Facebook to “like” or “share” news about the new 2nd Amendment group and its members.

This bad actor could join more groups as she found more people sharing her “interests” all the while pumping in links to (real or imagined) stories about Hillary Clinton’s anti-gun stance, and of course, layering on other claims as the election neared. Note, this has little to do – except for the very important data – with the online ad campaign. The two can run in parallel, not in concert.

So what does this mean? Well, in combination with a lot of bad feelings toward Facebook and Instagram on other fronts, it almost certainly means the end of self-service political ad buying. Either Congress or the FEC will put an end to automated buying.

What’s automated buying? It’s the way most political ads are bought. You have a DSP? You’re buying automatically. You have a vendor who buys Google display or search? That’s automated, too. And automated buying doesn’t have a lot of restrictions: No disclaimers, no substantiation, no standards and practices. All you need is a credit card and a web browser.

Along the way, we’re probably going to see some sort of standard setting online campaigns for disclosures – something that most local news outlets enforce and a practice Google and Facebook have been successfully putting off for years.

Why? Well, standard setting and review mean that both companies have to use humans to look at and evaluate ads. It also means both companies will need to decide what they will and won’t tolerate – and stick with it, consistently and without regard for political affiliation or message.

These are chores traditionally handled by – wait for it – media companies. And if there’s one thing Google and Facebook have sworn they are not, is media companies.

Why? Media companies employee people and Silicon Valley hates people. People are an overhead expense that breathes, not the kind that can run all night on a battery pack. People make mistakes . They’re also expensive – reducing that $450 million Facebook made on political to something like $350 million (still a fraction of a fraction of the $33 billion the company took in last year).

Automated buying can make a company money 24/7/365. But it has no sense of humor or ability to read a disclaimer and know it’s following the law. It may take a while – automated ad buying is hugely popular with a variety of political firms because it’s cheap and easy – but it’s time the political ad buying market matured. Because what the Russians can do today your opponent can do tomorrow.

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.