Obama Campaign Pro Tip: When You’re Hunting Voters, Donors and Activists Online, Sometimes Bring a Shotgun

One noteworthy point from a RootsCamp 2012 session on the Obama campaign’s digital marketing: sometimes a less-targeted approach to recruitment worked better than tight targeting. This may come as a surpise to some, since, impressed the ability of newer online advertising methods to target people demographically and even individually, digital marketers often migrate toward the tightest targeting they can manage. Why direct ads at a particular audience by zip code, for instance, when you use a voter file and a commercial advertising cookie pool to zero-in on individual voters one by one.

Well, according to two members of Obama’s online marketing team, sometimes it makes more sense to use LESS targeting, particular with ads designed to recruit volunteers and donors. A “spray and pray” approach, which would digital ads placed on a wide variety of sites, often turned out to be more cost-effective than, say, premium-priced cookie-targeted ads (though the Obama campaign certainly DID employ cookie-targeting as well). A common campaign goal was to get highest concentration of ads in front of a high concentration of targets, for instance, for which zip-code targeting was often cheaper than trying to reach voters one-on-one. One Obama staffer also specifically mentioned Pandora internet radio (also used by the Romney campaign) as often yielding a good Return on Investment, even when not particularly tightly targeted.

Remember that we discussed this trade-off a few months back in the “Winning in 2012” e-book chapter on digital outreach, though more in the context of reaching influential voices online:

Sometimes online outreach works best when it’s directed like a rifle at a particular target, but a good shotgun still has its place…. The best answer seems to be a combination of targeted and untargeted outreach: online communicators can use a sharpshooting approach when appropriate, connecting personally with chosen bloggers, Twitter enthusiasts and journalists, while still blasting information out via mass email, YouTube, Tweets, Facebook updates and blog posts. The targeted approach will often give the best results, but at other times a random and potentially overlooked channel can actually turn out to be the most productive.

Which way should you go? Well, it depends on what your goals are — and the best way to find out is to test, test, test. Just as in 2008, Obama 2012 was a data-driven machine, an approach it applied to digital advertising as much as it did to grassroots organizing. More on both of these topics in the weeks to come.


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Colin Delany
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