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How Online Ad Targeting Became a Campaign Staple (And Why There Could Be a Downside)

The Digital Campagin

While online advertising is still a relative newcomer to the political space, it has managed to become a staple of political outreach. In four short years, online spending has doubled as a percentage of total political campaign spending.

Online advertising is a broad and rapidly changing field, and while consumer brands are often quick to try out the next thing in ad tech, political campaigns are historically more risk averse, as one wrong move could result in a failed campaign (and in the case of businesses, may only result in a slow quarter). And so it would follow that campaigns would end up sticking to the basics, and we’d see campaigns using techniques that the ad tech industry thinks of as old standbys.

Surprisingly, this has not been the case. Campaigns are turning toward ever more sophisticated digital offerings, and simple direct ad buys are decreasing in popularity. Political campaign spending on targeted display advertising has increased by 4157% since 2008, while run of network display buys have decreased from 23% of online political spending to a mere 3% of online political spending. In just a short time, there has been a seachange in the way campaigns spend online.

As Colin Delaney of epolitcs noted recently, while it seems are though many in the political space were only just introduced to online advertising, sophisticated online targeting has already become de rigueur.   But as he also notes, this could be a double-edged sword.

The Curse of Over-Targeting

As a rule, online ad targeting is an effective way to reach only the people who are interested in your message. Unlike many traditional forms of media, you need not cast the net too wide and pay for impressions wasted on people for whom your message is not relevant.

However, recognizing the value of online targeting, many campaigns become too eager to serve ads only to the right audience, without having a good sense of what the right audience looks like. Without a solid knowledge of what your ideal audience looks like, you could be targeting messages to the wrong people, based on false assumptions of what resonates.

It’s important to test your messaging to see what is and isn’t working with different demographic or interest groups, and vary your message accordingly. While a targeted approach is often the most effective, you don’t want to run the risk of missing out on an effective strategy because it was deemed off-target.

The Many Faces of Online Ad Targeting

Online ad targeting can be based on interests, political affiliation, demographics, the context of the site where the ad appears, geography and even people’s recent browsing activity.

While it’s often attractive to go after a certain demographic, or interest group, this type of targeting requires more from the campaign. In order for it to be effective, you must already know what messaging is attractive to which group, and that’s harder than it may seem at first blush.

In contrast, targeting based on people’s past browsing activity is often highly effective, because you’re only targeting the people who expressed interest. Retargeting, one relatively simple form of activity-based targeting, allows you to serve ads to people who have visited your site. Another form of targeting, search retargeting, allows you to serve ads to users based on keywords they’ve searched for online. These techniques are effective because the people being targeted have raised a hand expressing interest.

 

In the end, the most successful strategies will combine a mix of hyper-targeted messaging to the ideal audience, with a wider-net strategy. It’s key to remember that there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all digital strategy.

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