Politicians Use Social Media Data to Target Voters

Political campaigns are targeting voters based on information collected by social media companies and big data firms. And soon, campaigns will be able to steer ads, based on your data profile, to your Internet-connected TV.

(TNS) -- Political campaigns of old needed just four pieces of data about you: name, address, party registration and voting history.

Last year, though, when a political committee called Vision for a Better Community spent $200 on a list of 3,500 voters from the Cranberry area, it got much more.

The spreadsheet from a Washington, D.C.-based political data firm called Aristotle purported to describe where those voters stand on gay rights, gun rights and animal rights; what type of job and level of earnings they have; which magazines and religions they subscribe to; whether they have kids, own homes, do their own remodeling, garden or fish.

Why would campaigns need that?

“I can see how people with a fishing license might be more interested in clean water and park space,” mused Aristotle’s CEO, John Aristotle Phillips. “The more information you have that allows you to message to voters with particular interests, the more likely your message is to be well-received.”

Campaigns down to the state House level are targeting voters based on information collected by social media companies and Big Data firms. Soon campaigns will be able to steer ads, based on your data profile, to your Internet-connected TV.

“There’s such a degree of information on social media sites that candidates can target much more precisely than they ever have before,” said Darrell M. West of the Brookings Institution, author of the book “Air Wars: Television Advertising in Election Campaigns, 1952–2012.” “People are willing to share information with their friends, but they don’t realize they are also sharing it with politicians.”

Small budget, big data

John Neurohr of Valencia and like-minded residents of the North Hills area created Vision for a Better Community and tapped social media and data in a bid to upend state Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, R-Cranberry.

His committee spent less than $5,000 — around half of it promoting Facebook posts, running ads on YouTube and buying voter data.

They used Facebook’s tools to put their messages on the pages of mothers ages 25 to 55 in Mars, Seven Fields, Valencia and Cranberry who had “liked” posts related to environmentalism, the Democratic Party, sustainability, baby products or women’s health. They also paid Google to steer YouTube ads to people who searched for local news, politics, education and parenting.

The Aristotle database’s information on party registration and voter history guided their mailings and robocalls to voters they thought could be persuaded against Mr. Metcalfe.

Mr. Metcalfe won with 61.7 percent of the vote, but that was well below the 75.4 percent he garnered the last time he was challenged.

Mr. Neurohr felt like the committee made a difference.

“If you are hitting the right people through a number of different mediums,” he said, “they will feel as though you have a lot more might, a lot more money, and you’re somebody they should pay attention to.”

Data is taking the guesswork out of get-out-the-vote efforts.

“The holy grail would be to be able to come up and tell someone, ‘I know exactly whether you’re going to vote and how you’re going to vote,’ ” said Matt Merriman-Preston, who heads Lawrenceville-based Ampersand Consulting. He maintains his own database of local voters and buys data from NGP VAN, a Washington, D.C., company that serves Democrats.

The campaign of Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto, run by Mr. Preston, last year spent $4,800 on NGP VAN’s data. This year, the campaigns of Allegheny County Controller Chelsa Wagner and challenger Mark Patrick Flaherty have both purchased the company’s data.

Mr. Peduto and his 2013 rival, Jack Wagner, both used a Washington, D.C., consultancy called Campaign Grid to target online ads.

Jordan Lieberman, the president of Campaign Grid, said his firm has stripped names and addresses from voter lists — to protect privacy, he said — and replaced them with computer scripts called cookies. They match unique code already planted on your computer, tablet or phone.

Campaign Grid adds data on what you’ve bought online and how you’ve responded to surveys, then sends tailored banner ads and pop-ups to the screen of your phone or computer.

“I know everything but your name and your street address,” he said.

Campaigns no longer need to shoehorn one or two broadly palatable messages into a 30-second TV spot.

Now, using data, campaigns “identify and communicate with supporters and potential supporters at a lower cost than they could ever do before” and approach them on their pet issues, said Michael Beach, co-founder of Targeted Victory, a Republican technology firm based in Alexandria, Va.

“That’s a very good thing for democracy.”

The Facebook poll

State Sen. Camera Bartolotta, R-Monongahela, last year spent around $12,000 in campaign funds on social media consulting and to boost posts on Facebook, on her way to beating longtime state Sen. Tim Solobay.

Her media consultant, Amanda Gillooly, started with the candidate’s 750 Facebook likes and tripled it through relentless outreach and “boosting” posts for $60 a pop. Ms. Bartolotta surpassed, by 500, Mr. Solobay’s tally of around 1,750 Facebook likes, and then beat him by 4,460 votes.

Early last year, Gov. Tom Wolf’s campaign built a Facebook network and tested several approaches through the site, hoping that tens of thousands of fans would amplify and sharpen the coming TV pitch.

Facebook allows campaigns to gauge the responses to various messages of different “audience buckets” — groups ranging into the tens of thousands identified as having shared interests, said Ryan Alexander, who was Mr. Wolf’s digital director and is now a consultant with GPS Impact, which is based in Des Moines, Iowa.

The bulk of the Wolf campaign’s six-figure online ad budget went to Facebook, he said, because that’s “still kind of where your family members and friends are, the real influencers in your life.”

Even statewide judicial races — which to date have not been noted for cutting-edge campaigns — have begun adopting the technology. The campaign of Christine Donohue, a state Superior Court judge running as a Democrat for Supreme Court, has spent $3,750 with Mr. Alexander’s firm. That’s a fraction of the nearly $290,000 the campaign has spent so far — but it’s $3,750 more than it has spent on television to date.

In an off-year primary where only committed voters will turn out, using social media “is a very effective way to reach insiders and opinion leaders because they are active online,” said Marty Marks, a veteran political consultant working on the Donohue campaign. “We can match 60 or 65 percent of our targeted voters right off the bat. Facebook ads can get really specific, like by targeting women in the counties around Philadelphia.”

Political use of social media can prompt backlash — though usually not against the candidates.

“Something around 18 percent of social media users has either blocked or unfriended someone for political reasons,” said Aaron Smith, a senior researcher with the Pew Research Center. “People do get annoyed when their friends post excessive political content.”

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