Digital advertising is winning the war for hearts and minds
Targeted campaigns are proving effective in selling products – and political messages
Big influence: If Mark Zuckerberg was planning a run at the next US presidential campaign, he would have a powerful strategic tool in Facebook. Photograph: Brian Snyder/Reuters
Digital advertising is now proficient at targeting individual consumers with tailored messages for specific products. If you want to sell skin cream to certain millennials, then promote the organic ingredients in the cream. However, if you want to sell essentially the same cream to women of an older age, instead show a pretty millennial using it. Consumer groups of varying demographics or social grades respond to different messages.
Digital advertising succeeds for two main reasons. Firstly, it is possible to identify specific consumers – not just by their demographic and social grade, but also by physical location, interests, political leanings, sports activities, hobbies and purchasing behaviour.
The second reason is that it is costs very little to efficiently test whether or not a crafted advertising message resonates. Did that specific consumer respond to that message, for instance, by clicking a web link for further information, or did she ignore it? So-called “A/B” testing verifies which of two alternative messages elicit the better response across a carefully selected group of similar consumers, thus allowing advertising to be fine-tuned for improved responses from specific targets.
Social networks, especially Facebook, have an extraordinary amount of personal information on each consumer. Name, age, home address, place of work, reading interests, film interests, sports interests, interest in social causes, sports and politics are frequently willingly declared by users.
Furthermore, the circle of friends and relations, and in turn their respective interests, are all known too. A restaurant owner might purchase a Facebook campaign that specifically targets only local vegans with herbivorous offerings, just neighbourhood millennials with delicate quadrefiori, and solely the middle-aged heterosexual males in the area with seared dry-aged Irish piemontese.
Targeting consumers from the wealth of digital data known has value beyond consumer advertising
A smartphone closes the link between online browsing and real-world shop visits. After a digital advertising campaign, your phone then knows if you subsequently visited a particular shop. If you use a digital credit card wallet such as Apple Pay or Google Wallet, then the data collected shows not only did an advert lead to a shop visit, but you purchased the product.
Targeting consumers from the wealth of digital data known has value beyond consumer advertising. The Guardian confirmed that Facebook has hired new staff in the UK to help political parties and governments make good use of Facebook. The new staff include a former adviser to David Cameron, a former aide to ex-shadow chancellor Ed Balls, and a social media expert who has worked with the Tories’ election strategist. Their job is to advise how to best use Facebook to influence voters.
Recently, the Observer published a series of Facebook advertisements sent by the UK Conservative party to individual voters in the key marginal constituency of Delyn in North Wales, attacking the Labour Party. Such “dark adverts” are only visible to the limited audience to whom they are targeted. Electoral watchdogs and regulatory authorities are highly unlikely to be aware of the adverts. The Guardian has reported how political parties are using dozens of different Facebook messages for voters, altering the wording or visual treatment depending on the recipient. The UK Electoral Commission has now launched a formal investigation into how the Vote Leave and Leave.eu campaigns used highly targeted social media during the Brexit referendum.
The next US presidential election will likely be an even larger battle fought using voter big data
Political parties can correlate their voter databases against data accumulated by social networks. Both the Republicans and Democrats in the US are widely reported to micro-target particular voters and communities with crafted messages, by a combination of Facebook posts, scripted phone calls and even home visits by volunteers. The Trump election was arguably even more successful than the Obama campaign in effective digital advertising, by using relatively low-cost advertising budgets away from traditional media spend.
Different communities in swing states were targeted with pointed messages which had already been successfully refined and optimised. In a particular community, a millennial might well be swung by the candidates’ respective positions on human rights, whilst a middle-aged hairdresser might be strongly concerned by undocumented immigrants in her community, and a retired military veteran by poor health cover. The next US presidential election will likely be an even larger battle fought using voter big data.
This year the Facebook founder and CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, has been increasingly visible to the US public in interesting ways. The constitution of Facebook has been recently altered to allow Zuckerberg to retain control of Facebook if he were ever to simultaneously assume a government position. He has started a national “listening tour”.
He has eaten meals with gruff union members in the heartland, met members of an Indiana fire department, and spent a shift at a Michigan Ford plant. Many observers have concluded that in fact Mr Zuckerberg is planning a run at the next US presidential campaign, an analysis which he vehemently denies. However, the strategic use of Facebook in a political campaign clearly has been sufficiently persuasive to swing marginal voters and electoral areas. Who knows more about how best to use Facebook than its own founder?