The news this week that the Conservatives are spending more than £100,000 a month on Facebook shows that political parties are waking up to the huge potential benefits of adtech to their campaigning.
With the polls on a knife edge ahead of May’s general election, the prospect of targeting individual voters via programmatic must be an enticing one for campaign strategists. In some marginal constituencies, it could conceivably be decisive. A doorstep campaigner for Labour last week told me that in 2005 in my constituency (Reading East), the gap between the two main parties was just 500 votes (in an electorate of 70,000). With such wafer-thin margins in play, a well-targeted online campaign could be the difference between winning and losing.
It’s not hard to see how adtech techniques could be useful to campaigners. The basic premise of programmatic is that it enables you to advertise only to those people who are most likely to buy your product, thus cutting out wasted ad spend. This easily translates to the political sphere, with a particular party’s advert only being shown to voters whose online habits suggest they are inclined to vote for it (or indeed targeting: an approach pioneered by the Democrats in Barack Obama’s 2012 presidential campaign.
The potential refinements and variations are enormous. Online adverts can be pushed to marginal constituencies only. Cookies and real-time bidding mean the emphasis of a campaign can be shifted almost instantaneously, in the space of a few voter clicks. If, two days before election day, you type “David Cameron” into a search engine, don’t be surprised to see Tory banner ads for the next 48 hours. It won’t always be that crude either. The way we shop, consume our news and interact online all helps build a profile of our interests and views, for example on the economy or green issues.
The more sophisticated adtech firms aim to create a full picture of individuals’ customer journeys, both across different websites and devices (from PC to mobile, for instance) and between the digital and physical worlds. Where you spend your time physically could be just as useful a piece of information to a brand as where you spend it virtually. Again, the possibility of such enhanced targeting is potentially of huge value to political parties.
The use of adtech in politics will be influenced by a number of legal factors. Political advertising is banned on UK TV other than limited party political broadcasts, but non-broadcast advertising is permitted. Campaign spending is also limited by law in the “restricted period” of around a year prior to an election. Adtech is therefore potentially a key part of the campaigning mix, as it offers parties more bang for their buck. However, there may be data protection issues around the targeting of individuals, since a person’s political affiliation is considered by law to be sensitive personal data, and is thus subject to extra protections.
The next few months, then, could be boom time for those adtech firms who can market themselves to politicians and it will be interesting to see how the various parties harness this powerful new campaigning technology. With ad-spend capped by law in the run-up to the election, the party with the best-directed campaign may prove to be the one with the winning campaign.