For those of us in the media business, the 2016 election will be remembered as the year programmatic targeting by political campaigns came of age.
The extent of programmatic marketing's role in the 2016 elections won't be known until November, but it's no secret that digital is now second only to TV in terms of advertising spend. And while not all of those dollars will be spent programmatically, campaign marketers across the political spectrum now agree that data-driven targeting is an increasingly significant part of a winning digital strategy.
As political strategists embrace this type of targeting, they're no longer following brand marketers—they're taking the lead. "Because political campaigns have a deadline—meaning Election Day doesn't move, win or lose—political marketers must rapidly experiment and iterate in order to beat the competition," says Michael Palmer, president of i360, a data firm that works on political campaigns.
The power of political data
So how, exactly, are political campaigns using data today? And what can brands learn from their experiences? As with all things programmatic, the process is powered by both first-party data that's gathered directly (or is readily available via voter registration information) and third-party data that's purchased from vendors and might include everything from a voter's online browsing behavior to offline shopping patterns.
"People are realizing that data is critical and that it is important to invest early in data if you want to have a serious [political] campaign," says Santiago Martinez, SVP for data and analytics at 270 Strategies, a campaign consulting firm founded by veterans of Obama's election teams.
A political marketer might decide, based on internal research, to target voters who live in one specific neighborhood, shop at Walmart and visit websites related to healthcare. Or to target registered voters over the age of 40 who have searched online for information about "global warming" and have purchased a hybrid vehicle. This level of granular data on voters has a big impact on political campaigns, as communications can be customized and delivered to increasingly specific audience groups.
Brands, to be sure, have different goals. But just as campaigns can now zero in on specific voters, brands can use first- and third-party data to target consumers with a similarly unprecedented degree of specificity. A premium coffee brand, for example, might target only wealthy consumers in specific areas (using location-based targeting) who shop at specific retailers (according to offline data) and have also searched for brewing tips (via search retargeting).
And just as the tactics used by brands and political campaigns are largely the same, so too are the benefits. "The rise in programmatic advertising takes away from inefficient and expensive run of site and TV channel buys and allows us to target specific audiences. This maximizes both reach and efficiency," says Zac Moffatt, a co-founder of Targeted Victory, a technology company that focuses on programmatic media buying.
Precise targeting, in other words, means reaching the right people while avoiding the costs of reaching the wrong people. "For congressional campaigns, 75 cents out of every broadcast dollar is wasted on delivering ads to voters in the wrong districts," says Moffatt. "The same concept can be applied to many local or regional brands and businesses."
Cross-device joins the party
The most significant change in the past four years is the emergence of cross-device targeting, which makes it possible for marketers to follow a voter or consumer from one screen to the next. "Cross-device targeting allows you to deliver true sequential messaging across devices," Moffatt says. "Over 50 percent of traffic is on a mobile device, and the highly personal nature of smartphones and tablets means political audiences can be reached in a more engaged mindset than in many traditional channels."
For brands, cross-device marketing is the digital advertiser's Promised Land. It allows them to both engage with a consumer throughout the day and to match their messaging to the screen that's most appropriate. Messages designed for desktops, for example, can be delivered during the workday. A different creative can be delivered at night when the same consumer, now sitting on the sofa reading a tablet, is likely in a very different state of mind.
Voting for programmatic TV
The emergence of programmatic TV might be the best example of how political campaigns are leading the way for brand marketers. Political advertisers are increasingly turning to addressable TV, which makes it possible for neighbors watching the same show to see two different ads. In political terms, this means a campaign can choose to show TV ads only to registered voters or to voters registered with a specific party.
According to Palmer of i360, addressable TV saves a lot of resources when you don't have to show ads to millions of people you don't need to reach. "It definitely stands out [among programmatic tactics] because it takes the same concept of individual or household cookie-device targeting that is done in the digital space and applies it to on-demand television," he notes.
What's clear, for now, is that both brands and political campaigns have made a firm commitment to programmatic. "The best [political]campaigns are learning from best practices from their favorite brands and the best companies are learning from the innovations that come from each [election] cycle," says Betsy Hoover, founding partner at 270 Strategies. "You see more and more talent moving from the corporate world to campaigns and vice versa to practice this shared learning."
It's thanks to this shared learning that 2016 will likely be remembered as a landmark year for programmatic targeting. And, considering how tumultuous presidential elections tend to be, it may turn out to be one of the happier memories of the election.
Illustrations by Mario Wagner