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10/22/2012
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Big Data Chases Election 2012 Undecided Voters

Here's a look inside how campaigns use online advertising agencies that apply advanced analytics to reach undecided voters.

Social Studies: Obama vs. Romney
Social Studies: Obama vs. Romney
(click image for larger view and for slideshow)

Political campaigns are turning to big data to help them reach potential supporters, and candidates are using online advertising agencies that apply advanced analytics to reach undecided voters. One such agency is Resonate, a Reston, Va.-based firm that's working with both Democrats and Republicans on the 2012 presidential campaign, according to company CEO Bryan Gernert.

In a phone interview with InformationWeek, Gernert declined to provide more details on the agency's political clients, saying there's "a huge amount of sensitivity in this space." He did, however, provide an interesting overview of how Resonate uses big data analytics to target potential voters.

Traditional methods of online tracking, such as studying click-through rates and search results, often deliver data that's easy to misinterpret, according to Gernert. For instance, a rival campaign's volunteers and supporters may click a candidate's ad simply to see what the opposition is up to.

"Click-through rate is a metric that's distracting for the industry. What we focus on is polling and survey-based information to see if we're actually moving sentiment and likelihood to vote," Gernert said. "We do look at click-through rates, but we spend a lot more time using surveys within our campaigns to understand if we're moving people to vote for those candidates."

He added: "What the politicians really want to know is, 'Am I moving the needle when it comes to ... likelihood to vote?'"

[ Learn more about why analytics are playing a bigger role in political campaigns. See Big Data Sites Filter Election Noise For Facts. ]

Founded about four years ago, Resonate's mission is to deliver online advertising to consumers based on their attitudes and beliefs. If marketers--and a presidential campaign certainly qualifies as a gigantic marketing effort--understand the rationale behind consumers' actions, they can tailor messages to reach people more effectively, the theory goes.

"The political campaigns, especially the larger ones, have invested a huge amount of money in analytics in the past, but were limited in how they reach people, said Gernert.

Undecided voters--"the people in the middle"--are typically the ones who decide political races. "They vote primarily on issue positions they identify with, and candidates they identify with," Gernert said.

The challenge for political campaigns--and their hired-gun ad agencies--is how to deliver a message to these voters, one that explains why they should choose a specific candidate.

To accomplish this, Resonate incorporates a wide variety of information sources, including online behavioral data and third-party data sets.

"We deliver advertising, but we do that based on over 6,000 different criteria that we can target against," Gernert said.

Say, for instance, a politician is running on a job growth plan and support of the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (the right to bear arms). "We can reach people with that message," said Gernert. "We can target independent voters, Republicans, and swing voters on those two issue positions."

Survey data may show that 80% of people interested in the Second Amendment are also interested in better schools. "So there's an ability to align those two messages to get to people," he said.

Political campaigns continue to fine-tune their online ad strategies, and Gernert sees two major differences between the 2012 and 2010 races: the "micro-targeting" of voters, and a wider use of online video. Being able to target to a very distinct audience, or micro-target, is one thing that campaigners are doing better this year.

"We're seeing a high use of video that didn't really exist in 2010. Video was available, but it wasn't very targeted or widely available," said Gernert. Campaigns in 2012 are also doing a better job of integrating the TV and online portions of their marketing efforts.

"Before, Internet was kind of a standalone thought process, but now it's part of the strategy that's included with their entire (strategy)," Gernert said.

In the Getting Started With Big Data webcast, InformationWeek Government will help government IT professionals understand the steps required to support large data volumes and find out how to apply that data to improve government operations and offer new public services. It happens Oct. 25.

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