Key 2012 Tech Trends, Part Two: Data-Driven Politics and an Advertising Explosion

This is the second of four parts of a larger article I wrote for the Campaigns & Elections special edition on the CampaignTech conference, which is shipping with the current issue of the magazine. This piece appeared earlier in the C&E blog, and see also Part One, Retail vs. Wholesale Online Politics

Data-Driven Politics: Should Pollsters Be Nervous?

Let’s think more deeply about where data-driven politics is really catching on: Targeting and field. Not coincidentally, both areas are already havens for data nerds.

Direct mail mavens have been using voter files and consumer databases to target messaging and fundraising appeals for decades and data-targeting online ads is a natural extension of that mindset and skillset. Likewise with grassroots, since field organizers are consumed by numbers related to canvassing and its results. Walk-lists, after all, come from a database, and voter contacts yield plenty of information ripe for tabulation and analysis.

Polling is a third area of data-heavy politics. Online polling has its problems, chief among them the eternal issue of getting a representative sample of the population whose opinions you’re trying to measure. That’s where digital advertising comes in. Google and Facebook ads can help figure out what voters care about at a broad level, and campaigns can also use them to test which messages resonate with which voters in which contexts.

Three years ago I was on a panel with Eric Frenchman, John McCain’s digital ad expert in 2008. He talked about being able to see trends in the political environment days ahead of the rest of the campaign by looking at which ads were being clicked on. In 2010, my friend Soren Dayton was already combining Facebook and Twitter ads to test messages on particular slices of the electorate for the campaigns he worked on.

In 2012, these approaches won’t just be restricted to a handful of experts and early-adopters . They should become commonplace, and they should make pollsters nervous. After all, why would a campaign pay for a focus group when they can get the same information by advertising online, with those ad dollars doing double-duty by building the all-important supporter/donor list? I’m not implying that polling will go away entirely, but pollsters do need to recognize that they no longer have a monopoly on message-testing . With online advertisers breathing down their necks, the voodoo that they do is no longer theirs alone.

An advertising explosion

Data-driven targeting isn’t the only significant trend in digital advertising. We’re also seeing plenty of money moving to video “pre-roll” ads on YouTube, Hulu and individual content sites. In fact, several CampaignTech speakers mentioned a potential drought in video advertising, with full inventory-sellout predicted for the fall in battleground states.

Of course, as with the data-driven segments of digital politics discussed above, it makes sense that video advertising would sell out first. After all, we’re talking about ads sandwiched around content like TV shows streamed online, something with which political advertisers are already familiar and comfortable. Another factor is the sheer amount of money that the presidential campaigns and outside groups—Super PACs, unions, etc.—are expected to spend. With hundreds of millions of dollars at play, battleground-state TV ad inventory, both broadcast and cable, will sell out fast and the money will need somewhere to go. What’s more natural than spending it on the Internet equivalent of television?

But plenty of cash will also end up funding ads on Facebook, Google, blogs and local media sites, plus advertising on general content websites in politically important areas. Another potential winner: Pandora and other Internet radio outlets, particularly because their channels break down demographically and by interest. Trying to reach Latino voters in New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona and Nevada? Guess whose delivering Spanish-language audio in bulk.

Something else that really jumped out at me at CampaignTech: the democratization of online advertising expertise. Judging from the panels I attended, and considering both the panelists and the audience questions throughout the conference, a lot more people know a lot more about political online advertising than they did a year or two ago. It’s a good development for the field, too, since more expertise means more competition, which means higher quality and more innovation—at least in theory.

Next up, Part Three: Campaign Twitter Duels, Faster Politics and the Importance of Integration

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