As some Minnesota State Fair-goers stood in line for a Pronto Pup last year, an advertisement came across their smartphones accusing then-DFL 6th Congressional District candidate Tarryl Clark of voting to raise taxes on fried foods.
The ads were coordinated by Congresswoman Michele Bachmann’s U.S. House campaign, which worked with Google to track smartphones in and around the Minnesota State Fair last year. Phones with Internet capabilities started showing the attack ad against Clark. “People would be standing in line for a corn dog, looking at their smartphones and see this,” said Google political account strategist and Minnesota native Rob Saliterman. “That’s the definition of direct messaging.”
Targeting voters according to where they live has been a strategy employed in political campaigns for years, from area-specific cable buys to direct mailings that go only to addresses in certain neighborhoods. But modern day “geo-targeting” has taken on a new level of sophistication thanks to the Internet, where advertisements can be set up to land on smartphones at events or in specific cities, even particular precincts; advertisers can also target a viewer’s political loyalties on popular sites like Facebook and YouTube. With newly developed targeting and cost-saving measures, sources say online geo-targeting is going to play a major role in local legislative races in 2012, where vote margins are tight and budgets are even tighter.
“Anyone who is serious about winning in Minnesota is looking at geo-targeting,” said longtime GOP operative Gregg Peppin, who helped orchestrate a slew of Republican House upsets last fall.
“It seemed silly to me to assume that television was the only way to do this,” said Denise Cardinal, head of the DFL-aligned interest group Alliance for a Better Minnesota (ABM), which used the Web most prominently last fall to attack GOP gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer.
“There are so many ways people consume media: YouTube, Hulu, Facebook. People can actually design their entire day so that they never have to look at a television screen.”
‘Can’t afford to ignore’
Google political strategists Saliterman and Evan Rowe both got their start in Minnesota politics.
Rowe, a Minneapolis native who studied political science at Carleton College, was U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison’s driver during his inaugural campaign in 2006 and later worked in his congressional office. In the summer and fall of 2008, Rowe worked as campaign manager for DFLer Paul Rosenthal’s successful bid in House District 41B. Saliterman hails from Minnetonka and got his start in politics volunteering for Minnesota Republican Congressman Jim Ramstad. From there, Saliterman went on to work as a communications staffer for the Republican National Committee and the Bush campaign and administration before starting at Google.
Now the former political operatives split up Democratic and Republican accounts across the nation at Google as they work to get out candidates’ messages online.
“One of the advantages to online advertising, and the most compelling part for campaigns, is it’s the most targetable and trackable form of ad spending,” Saliterman said. Google offers a variety of ways for candidates to target and pay for eyeballs on the Web, from selecting certain cities or precincts to focusing on voters in an area who click on a candidate’s campaign website. Google can then follow the user around the Web with campaign advertisements, a strategy called “retargeting.”
Sites like YouTube and Hulu, which serve as a substitute for television for many Internet users, are the main place local candidates are looking to concentrate targeted ads, Rowe said. That can include short spots that appear before videos or even banner ads that display at the bottom of a video. Facebook also recently rolled out a new ZIP code targeting program that allows advertisers to make their ads and sponsored stories appear only for users in specified ZIP codes. Until now, ads could only be targeted by city. Twitter, whose marketing tools are still in their infancy, is also starting to use geo-targeting to advertise and promote certain Twitter feeds.
“As more and more people spend more and more time online,” Rowe said, “it just becomes a medium you can’t afford to ignore.”
Online messaging in Minnesota
The Alliance for a Better Minnesota has hit the Web harder than any other Minnesota interest group, from websites and YouTube videos to Internet banner ads. Last fall, the group put out a particularly damaging television ad against Emmer, showing a mother who lost her son in a drunken driving accident and tying that to Emmer’s two past DUI charges. They also aired the ad online, targeting it at independent voters in swing districts that “needed to hear about Tom Emmer’s record,” Cardinal said.
Since the campaign, the group has also put out ads attacking specific Republican legislators in their districts during the shutdown, and they plan to use a similar method via geo-targeting during the campaign season next year.
Next fall the group is also hoping to target some of its ads by school district, as certain schools in the state go to the voters to increase funding. “We are looking forward to telling Minnesotans the story of what’s happening with budget cuts, and what we are trying to do is target the areas that are most affected,” Joe Davis, the deputy director for ABM, said. “We plan to target ads in districts that have to keep going to the school board for levies.”
Ben Golnik, a GOP consultant who worked on elections with the Senate GOP caucus last fall as they swept into a majority, said Republicans plan to use online targeting in the next election cycle. “I think both sides are looking for advantages to touch as many as people as they can,” he said, noting that Republicans will likely use geo-targeting to reach conservative voters in a district before endorsement conventions or primaries, and then broaden their reach online to include cities or precincts when looking at the general election. “It’s something that’s developing quickly.”
Mike Kennedy, the Senate DFL caucus campaign strategist, is looking to use geo-targeting as he works to win back the Democrats’ longtime majority in the chamber. DFLers used targeted ads in a number of Senate races last fall — as did Republicans — but Kennedy imagines they will look to narrow in on online voters even more this time around.
“There is a greater reliance on the Internet for information over other more traditional sources of news,” he said. “It’s a critical way to reach that youngest demographic of people.”
DFL Party Chairman Ken Martin agrees, calling geo-targeting and online advertising the “wave of the future.”
But he notes that many rural and outstate voters still tend to get their information in the printed edition of the paper or through commercials. “You’re not quite at that threshold yet where it makes sense to pull down television ads to do it all online,” Martin said. “You will still get more eyeballs on TV than online, but we are certainly moving in that direction,” he said. “I think you will see the balance of money switch from traditional broadcast to online and other forms of new media soon.”