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photograph by Michael Edwards

Fast Company

All Politics Is Microtargeting

Six political strategists who study what you eat, what you drive, and where you shop.

Ken Strasma
President
Strategic Telemetry
Washington, D.C.

The Messenger's Helper

Ken Strasma, 42, focused on microtargeting as research director of the National Committee for an Effective Congress, a progressive lobbying group. He now heads targeting efforts for Barack Obama's campaign.

"Microtargeting has evolved from an interesting buzzword to a must-have technology for any serious campaign. Campaigns are all about getting messages out to the people who are most likely to be on the fence. We ask 10,000 voters their opinions on the race and key issues and combine the results with marketing data about them. We can predict how other people with similar demographic profiles would have answered those same questions, and we start to see trends. Gin drinkers may be more likely to be Democrats. Driving an SUV may make someone more likely to be Republican or more sensitive to changes in gas prices. Those correlations tell us what kinds of messages voters may be receptive to. In 2000, we found that one of the worst groups in Florida for Gore was young white men, but also that they could be moved by a message about protecting the Everglades."

Blaise Hazelwood
President
Grassroots Targeting
Alexandria, Virginia

The Self-Help Guru

Blaise Hazelwood, 37, spearheaded the construction of Voter Vault, the Republican National Committee's gargantuan database, and now creates microtargeting software.

"With Bush, our targeting efforts focused on turning out the base. Now with McCain, it's about convincing the swing voters. It's a different audience we're going after, and we're able to find those swing universes much better than we would have in the past.

But sometimes microtargeting isn't user-friendly enough -- a lot of campaigns get a book that explains it, and then that book goes on the shelf. I've built software that allows campaigns to understand their microtargeting data more easily. They can pull their own email and phone universes. The software will tell you, 'These are the swing groups, these are the people who are most likely to turn out.' All the end users have to do is pick what groups they want to target. If you have the budget to mail to only 40,000 people, you can decide which group you want and enter into the calculator exactly what you want your numbers to be."

Michael Meyers
President
Target Point Consulting
Alexandria, Virginia

The Mousetrap Maker

In addition to consulting for dozens of GOP candidates, Michael Meyers, 35, has helped shape marketing campaigns at Pfizer, SBC, and Wal-Mart.

"We're always looking for a better mousetrap. We've come up with about 30 major DNA strands within the electorate, such as soccer moms, Nascar dads, evangelical earth stewards, country-club Republicans, married-to-their-mortgage families. Then we say, 'These people need war-on-terror messages, these people need education messages, these people need tax messages.'

Like political America, corporate America realizes that trying to get people's attention in this fragmented world is a very tough thing. We're just starting to get our heels into the commercial world; businesses represent 15% to 20% of our clients. Businesses do a great job of marketing to their own customers. General Motors knows a lot about how to get people to buy another GM car, but we can show them strategies to attract a Ford buyer or a Toyota buyer."

Vijay Ravindran and Laura Quinn
CEO and CTO
Catalist
Washington, D.C.

The Information Architects

Before joining Catalist -- a progressive, private data-collecting organization cofounded by Laura Quinn, 48, a former Gore aide -- Vijay Ravindran, 34, worked at Amazon.

Ravindran: "At Amazon, I led the group that delivered the Amazon Prime feature. We found that if the wrong people subscribed to it, it was a huge loss leader, but if you found the right set, it could be great for business. We used microtargeting to find the people who wouldn't break the bank. In the political space, I felt it was very important to build a computing architecture that would take in real-time data, get them into a standardized format, and then load them into a place where they could be snapshotted out for particular purposes. That didn't exist before. Now we have an architecture that scales more than 15 terabytes of data while providing an interface for users to work with. We expect to leave this election cycle with a piece of permanent infrastructure that enables groups to do microtargeting more efficiently than ever before. It all boils down to one principle: Leave no data behind."

Brian Stults
Senior Vice President of Operations
YouGov/Polimetrix
Washington, D.C.

The Data Hunter

Brian Stults, 29, helped mastermind one of the largest get-out-the-vote drives in U.S. history for America Coming Together. In 2005, he joined the nonpartisan polling firm Polimetrix, which was bought last year by London-based YouGov.

"Four years ago, including household data in a model wasn't commonplace. Now you might include variables such as the party composition of people in a household -- not just how many Democrats and Republicans live there, but what the structure is. Is the woman the Democrat and the man the Republican? If you know that Volvo owners are predisposed to one candidate or another, you can try to identify people who have purchased that particular car. What's typically done is to go to a large clearinghouse to get your data, and the variable there might be 'luxury car.' But some of the subtler distinctions are much more relevant and significant, so we interview 5,000 people every single day and ask them about specific brands. We're aware that buying a package of 200 generic consumer variables doesn't work, so we're looking for those dead ringers that make models more predictive."

Sara Taylor
Cofounder
Resonate Networks
Alexandria, Virginia

The Web Sleuth

Sara Taylor, 34, a former Bush White House senior strategist, is developing online-microtargeting tools and strategies for corporate clients.

"Building a successful presidential campaign is like building a Fortune 500 company in a matter of months, so even though businesses have been doing microtargeting for a long time, they can learn a lot from how political professionals use data. In 2004, we used a microtargeting model that proved incredibly important to the president's reelection, and we looked at variables that businesses don't. The average company might think it is crazy to ask what a person's religion or ideology is, for instance, but the reality is that that says something about a consumer.

Real microtargeting has not yet been done on the Internet, but my new company, Resonate Networks, is really close. We study people's Web-site behavior and marry it with survey data in ways that show their attitudes, values, and how active they are in their communities. Let's say Huggies has a product that decomposes much more quickly than other diapers. There's a section of the population that would like to know that."

photograph by Michael Edwards

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3 Comments

  • Jeff French

    @Beth - The point of microtargeting is actually to make sure that people like you (those who fall outside stereotypical categories) don't fall to the fringes of (politically or otherwise) targeted campaigns. By selecting and appealing to individual values and politics rather than a more generalized pool, these groups have better success with making their messages identifiable. Instead of blanketing ten thousand people with the same message, they can send ten unique messages to a thousand people.

    That said, there's still plenty of reason to resent microtargeting. Even more than before, you're being targeted as a statistic rather than a person, so your value is summed up and utilized by your polled data. Perhaps not a huge leap from how things were before, but one could definitely argue that it's a continued shift away from relating to people on a more personal level. On the other hand, this is something that can also potentially help people rally together with those they can identify with on issues of importance. It's easy for me to be cynical about this stuff, but I still have quite mixed feelings about the whole approach.

  • Ujwal Watgule

    As Beth said, I beleive there are numerous people with variaty of interests and lifestyle. And to microtarget such people in the expectation of generalised data useful to form or draw opinions would be (I think)a riskier move.But in the context of Microtargeting, opinions are always driven by people and then the inferences drawn can certainly be a valuable sources of information in measuring the people's potential moves in the consumer markets.

  • Beth Smits

    i realize i'm naive, but i totally resent political microtargeting. i feel like i personally defy micro-targets (but as i said, i'm naive). Here are some facts about me: I drive an SUV (it's an imported hybrid that gets 26 MPG), i fall into the highest income categoy (although i think it's fair to pay more in taxes if they are used to better society), my husband and i are members of a country club and don't have children (not for lack of trying), i recycle regularly and am careful about my energy consumption, i get irritated when my ability to leverage saving programs are limited (ie, 401K and company match), i am a pro-choice Christian who believes that any conversations about gay marriage distact us from topics like the status of the global economy and the changing face of Russia. So who am I, and what message will you target to me?