Cookie-Based, Voter-File Ad Targeting: From Exotic to Expected in Six Months

[Updated below]

A big change in the world of campaign advertising: over the past six months: the practice of targeting online ads directly at voters in a particular district has gone from being exotic to being a standard part of the political toolkit, with serious implications both for the political advertising environment and for the digital ad industry itself.

Here’s how it works. First, commercial advertisers put cookies on consumers’ computers to track their online habits and target ads at them appropriately. A good example of the results is “cookie-based retargeting,” the practice of hitting someone repeatedly and on many websites with ads related to a site they’ve visited recently ( has employed cookie-based retargeting extensively).

Next, companies in the political space take all or part of a campaign’s “voter file” — the database of registered voters for their district — and match it to consumer-advertising databases linked to those cookies. Finally, the campaign and its consultants pay online advertising networks to deliver ads to the people whose identities have been matched. A campaign might target a subset of its file — only registered Democrats or Republicans who voted in the last election — or send the ad network a set of criteria it’s interested in and let the company target the ads accordingly. Women under 40? Subscribers to gun magazines? High-end car owners? All potentially fair game.

What’s impressive is how fast the this technology has has spread: my first detailed exposure to voter-file targeting was at last November’s CampaignTech conference, where the company CampaignGrid was touting its ability to deliver ads specifically to potential voters in a district. At the time, it was an exotic practice, and most people in the audience seemed to be wrapping their heads around it. Since then, it’s exploded: CampaignGrid is working with Republican campaigns across the country, and firms like DSPolitical and Precision have sprung up to deliver the same capabilities to Democratic candidates.

In fact, district matching has become an expectation. At a reception earlier this week, for example, someone from a company that HASN’T invested in this technology told me that they’d had to partner with a firm that did, because the political market absolutely demanded it if they were to remain competitive. It makes sense, too — campaigns understand the idea of targeting TV and radio ads and direct mail already, and why should they want to “waste” money by advertising outside of their districts?

Of course, no targeting is ever going to be perfect, since even the best database match is going to miss some connections or accidentally hit the wrong people. Plus, voter-file targeting risks missing voters who move to the district soon before the election or who otherwise register late. Finally, consider two fundamental issues with over-targeting: first, targeting is only as good as the model your using to slice and dice your data and match it to the right messaging. If your model is off, you might hit the wrong people with the wrong message (i.e., maybe women under 40 DON’T actually like the message you’re sending them).

Second, there are times when you may NEED to target people outside your district, for instance if you’re trying to build a statewide (or national) donor base. In that case, you might want to target people’s interests by running ads on liberal or conservative blogs, or major statewide media websites, or Facebook or Google. Speaking of those last two powerful players in the digital ad space, note that cookie-based targeting doesn’t include Facebook and Google search ads as far as I know — the companies listed above are delivering ads (traditional banners or rich-media) on content websites.

So despite its immediate appeal to cost-conscious campaigns, I suspect that cookie-based targeting will work best when it’s combined with other techniques. For instance, a campaign might run voter-file targeted ads designed to recruit and persuade local voters, plus geo-targeted Google and Facebook ads also aimed (as best as possible) at local voters. At the same time, they might run fundraising ads on state/regional political blogs and persuasion ads aimed at bloggers and journalists on the websites of the big state newspapers. Still, cookie-based voter-file targeting could well end up dominating a big chunk of online political ad spending this year — the logic of saving money with careful targeting is going to be powerful to resist.

For a more-visual overview of how all of this works, see the DSPolitical video below:

Update: Great response to the article so far, including some extra resources sent in by alert readers. First, someone who’d prefer to remain anonymous sent over this ClickZ article previewing voter-file targeting back in 2009. Also, reader Joe Beckmann pointed out that Bill Moyers’ show covered the privacy aspects of this practice last week. For more on the privacy angle and some big-think considerations about how this affects democracy in a broad sense, see Daniel Kreiss’s Stanford Law Review article, Yes We Can (Profile You) — A Brief Primer on Campaigns and Political Data.


Written by
Colin Delany
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