World and Nation

Data-driven campaigns lack messages

WASHINGTON — Modern political campaigns home in on their key voters with drone-like precision, down to the smallest niche — like Prius-driving single women in Northern Virginia who care about energy issues. They compile hundreds of pieces of data on individuals, from party registration to pet ownership to favorite TV shows. And they can reach people through Facebook, Pandora, Twitter, YouTube or cable television.

The only problem: They do not have enough messages for them all.

The Big Data era of politics has left some campaigns drowning in their own sophisticated advances. They simply cannot produce enough new, effective messages to keep up with the surgical targeting that the data and analytics now allow.

“Our ability to target has far outstripped our ability to create,” said Alex Lundry, co-founder of Deep Root Analytics, a Republican media analytics company. “We do have too many options and not enough time, and I do think it’s a problem.”

Or, as Joe Rospars, founder of the Democratic digital agency and technology firm Blue State Digital, put it, “The science is ahead of the art.”

An analytics team can help a campaign make “a much more targeted buy,” he explained, but that alone will not offer a particularly efficient return on investment if the ad is still “just a white guy in a suit.”

Some platforms are tailoring their offerings to meet the campaigns wherever they are. Facebook, for instance, at its most basic level allows campaigns to focus their message on a particular ZIP code or gender, or even a group of voters that “likes” a certain set of Facebook pages.

At a more sophisticated level, a campaign can upload its entire voter file to Facebook, and work with one of the site’s data partners to reach only its targets with messages designed specifically for them.

“The approach here from Facebook’s perspective is to offer a menu of options, and campaigns can determine what makes the most sense for them, based on their resources,” said Andy Stone, Facebook’s policy communications manager.

Yet campaigns also must guard against producing dozens of different messages for dozens of different demographic groups, simply because they can.

“We always say have that umbrella message, but then supplement it with as many highly targeted messages as you think you can stand, both from a budget standpoint and a philosophical standpoint,” said Lundry, the co-founder of Deep Root Analytics.