Rising Tide of Digital Political Campaigning

Digital outreach, both in the form of targeted ads and social media engagement, can be a less expensive way to reach critical segments of voters.

Digital outreach, both in the form of targeted ads and social media engagement, can be a less expensive way to reach critical segments of voters.

Just as companies are discovering how to capitalize on their databases, digital strategists are using similar techniques to zero in on voters with targeted online advertising and engagement.

A recent Reuters article predicted political candidates could spend as much as $1 billion for online advertising and engagement in the 2016 election, using more sophisticated techniques than the Obama campaign employed in 2012.

While Obama's team lapped the field in 2012, Republican and Democratic operatives are playing on a more level field heading into next year's election in scouring publicly available data to find hooks for directed appeals. The Reuters story noted that targeting has reached the point where a campaign seeking to reach environmentalists could identify registered voters who had typed Toyota Prius into a Google search.

No one says digital outreach will outstrip television advertising, which remains the surest way to deliver a message to a wide audience. But broadcast media is increasingly segmented. Few ads run during major sporting events because they are expensive and there are too many eyeballs watching that belong to people who aren't registered voters. You can waste a wad of money without a smart, targeted media buy plan.

However, when the airwaves are clogged with political ads – the $1 billion digital estimate is less than 10 percent of total projected political advertising in 2016 – you need other options. Digital outreach, both in the form of targeted ads and social media engagement, can be a less expensive way to reach critical segments of voters.

The handful of boutique firms that specialize in digital political advertising aren't eager to share their special sauce. But it isn't rocket science. They are leveraging mounds of information contained in databases to laser in on target voters. This allows campaign message managers to use customized messaging for various voter groups.

Targeting has reached the point where families in a neighborhood may be watching the same TV show, but see totally different political ads based on their demographic and voting characteristics. That is greatly more refined and granular than having Republican candidates advertise on Fox and Democrats on MSNBC.

Digital outreach also affords opportunities for interactions, which can be a key to converting a contact into a contributor. Both political parties have learned the ropes of competing for PAC, SuperPac and dark money contributions and will need a swatch of online contributors to demonstrate they have broad support, not just a few rich patrons.

While digital campaigning has come out of the shadows, its practitioners aren't sharing all their newly developed tricks. Those won't become apparent until the campaigns are more fully underway. Other than Hillary Clinton, most of the presidential candidates who have thrown their hats into the ring are fighting to gain name familiarity ratings in double digits. They are trying to reach anybody they can.