Like a lot of things in Washington, policy doesn't always match up with practice. On the one hand, lawmakers and regulators ponder what policies should be adopted around privacy and targeted advertising. At the same time, they're busy adopting online behavioral targeted advertising strategies for political campaigns.
The ability to target individual voters online, whether to raise funds or communicate with interested and prospective voters about specific issues, is hard to resist—especially in what most predict will be a very close election.
"Online, real-time targeting is a very big deal in this election," said John Aristotle Phillips, CEO of Aristotle, during a Politico panel this morning.
Panelists spoke about coming to grips with manipulating more data than ever before, both online and offline, to increase donations and engagement. "Data is the bedrock," said Sean Spicer, communications director for the Republican National Committee. "There is a constant struggle to get the right message out."
Campaigns start with the voter registration lists and other public lists. Those are then linked to publicly available databases and online activities. "When a consumer goes online, if the cookies line up, you can hit the user with a targeted ad," Phillips said.
The targetability of online has led many campaign strategists to begin questioning the cost-effectiveness of TV ads, which this year will still get north of 65 percent of all political ad spending. Campaigns are particularly smitten with what they can do with YouTube to generate air time fast without paying for it. "For literally no dollars, we can make a YouTube ad. You can track it, push it off to [Politico's] Morning Score and sometimes the cable networks pick it up," said Spicer. "That aspect of digital has changed the concept of what you do from an ad basis."
But unlike the commercial online advertising industry, the pols aren't worried about whether new regulations could restrict the use of data. "I don't know where the line is," said Nathan Daschle, the CEO of Ruck.us. "People aren't upset about the publicly available information. What might be uncomfortable are the conclusions we draw about online activities. If that becomes publicly known to other people, then it crosses the line," he said.
"Do I lose sleep about whether or not there will be restrictions? No. Political speech is protected," Phillips said.