Political Campaigns Chart A Course For Online Geo-Targeting

Political campaign press coverage often focuses on how candidates tailor messages to appeal to senior citizens, Hispanics, labor unions, and other constituencies. However, even more than demographic targeting, geographic targeting is critical to election campaigns. Geo-targeting goes beyond bombarding battleground state residents with presidential campaign TV ads.

Today, candidates in local, statewide--and yes, presidential elections--are using the Web to target right down to the precinct.

"In politics, frequently geo-targeting is at the heart of the battle that is going on," explains Cliff Sloan, VP-business development at the Washington Post Co.'s washingtonpost.com. The site ran ads for Andy Rosenberg, Democratic candidate for U.S. Congress, for one week in April. By geo-targeting exclusively to ZIP codes in Virginia's 8th District, the campaign was able to reach potential voters without wasting impressions on residents of the broader, more typically targeted Washington, D.C. metro region.

"Political advertisers don't want to spend money in a space they're almost certain to win, and they don't want to spend money in a space they're almost certain to lose," emphasizes Mark McLaughlin, category development officer at Yahoo! The Bush/Cheney and John Kerry presidential campaigns are currently running "small efforts" on Yahoo! that employ geographic and demographic targeting, according to McLaughlin, who oversees the Internet giant's politics category. Yahoo! enables targeting at the state and designated metro area (DMA) levels, and can target specific zip codes if given advanced notice.

Last month's closely watched Republican primary for U.S. Senate in Pennsylvania resulted in a slim victory for incumbent Arlen Specter. The Senator's Web campaign--organized by political consultancy Campaign Solutions--employed a variety of tactics, including geo-targeting. Banner and tower ads were served for three weeks leading up to the primary to AOL users in Pennsylvania; ads also ran in the Pittsburgh and Philadelphia sections of America Online's AOL City Guide. According to Campaign Solutions chairman Becki Donatelli, the campaign also bought ads on the Field & Stream Web site through Time Warner's Time Inc. unit that targeted outdoor enthusiasts in Pennsylvania only. "The site with the greatest return was Field & Stream," Donatelli says.

The Specter campaign also sent email communications customized by geography and issue-related content to 300,000 Republican voters in Pennsylvania. "We emailed the heck out of them, but in a very targeted way," Donatelli notes.

Congressman Chris John is using a similar email strategy in his race to grab the U.S. Senate seat of retiring Louisiana Senator John Breaux. According to Rand Ragusa, president of Internet campaign management company Voter Interactive, the John campaign sent emails to opt-in registrants in New Orleans-area zip codes to rally support before the Blue Dog Democrat visited the city. "It really shows from a strategic standpoint how candidates are using ZIP code targeting to boost attendance at events," Ragusa suggests.

The Bush/Cheney campaign took email geo-targeting to a literal level to get out the vote in this year's Iowa Caucuses, New Hampshire primary, and other state primaries. According to Bush/Cheney e-campaign manager Chuck DeFeo, emails were "geo-targeted down to the individual" by featuring maps and directions from recipients' homes to polling locations. "We're focused on empowering grassroots supporters," DeFeo asserts.

Many sites, whether large portals or local newspaper sites, are able to target ads geographically because of their registration requirements. To enable more relevancy, Knight Ridder's MercuryNews.com and other Knight Ridder Web sites have begun requiring users to submit personal data including name, address, and date of birth before accessing certain site pages. To Hugh McGoran, VP national advertising at Knight Ridder's Real Cities Network, being served a locally relevant ad makes sense to users if they're viewing locally relevant content. However, he believes site visitors are "a little shaken" when such ads are served to them alongside site content that's not geographically specific. "If you go to a big search engine and you're receiving a local ad," McGoran opines, "there's still a little bit of the big brother factor."

Despite the risk of user unease, combining geo-targeting with the broad reach of large portals and networks could prove critical for online presidential campaigns that are often in a state of flux when it comes to geographic focus. Contends Yahoo!'s McLaughlin: "This is the first presidential election year where major online networks ... can offer geographic specificity with scale and still get very big numbers."

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