Type in a Google search for the words “immigration reform,” and in the split second it takes for your results to pop up, the president’s reelection campaign may begin courting you. Up comes an ad for barackobama.com, next to the search results.
And if you take the next step and click through to the campaign’s Web site, ads for the president’s reelection may start following you around the Web.
The Obama campaign, and to a lesser extent its GOP rivals, has embraced the potential of the Internet age to reach possible supporters this election season.
The president’s campaign has bought Google advertising space next to all sorts of searches, including “Warren Buffett,” “Obama singing,” “Obama birthday” and, for basketball fans, “Obama bracket.”
The assumption is that people interested in those topics may also fit the profile of potential Obama backers, making them perfect targets for a strategically placed ad.
The president is not alone in this. Mitt Romney has bought advertising space next to his father’s name, for example, and Rick Santorum has gone for the term “Rush Limbaugh,” according to Hitwise, a company that samples Internet traffic. The ads are rotated on and off the search pages, and campaigns often purchase the ad space for short periods.
Spending for online ads
The Obama campaign is by far the most aggressive in trying to reach voters online, so far spending more on Internet advertising than on television, radio and telemarketing combined. And the president’s campaign has spent five times more on online ads — jumping from $2.3 million to $12.3 million — than at this point four years ago, when he was running against Hillary Rodham Clinton for the Democratic nomination, federal disclosure records show.
The president’s campaign, which would not discuss its Internet strategy, also is more aggressive in using technology that can track and target people based on the Web sites they’ve been browsing, a practice commonly used in corporate advertising.
The candidates are far from abandoning television, direct mail and other marketing strategies, but the competition to find supporters online has rewritten the book on campaigning.
“If you’re not advertising online, you’re missing out on a huge chunk of people and an ability to influence them,” said Tim Lim, a former field organizer for Clinton who runs Precision, an ad firm working with Democratic campaigns.
Still, the practice of tracking and targeting people by their characteristics and their behavior on the Web raises the spectre of intrusion.
“Your browsing and your purchase habits and even the activity of your friends on social networks will influence what a candidate says to you,” said Ashkan Soltani, an Internet privacy researcher who has consulted for the Federal Trade Commission. “It’s great to talk to folks about what they want to hear, but the problem is most people don’t know how deeply personalized it is.”
Consumer advocates for years have raised objections to the sharing of personal data among companies online. And the Obama administration has called for an online “privacy bill of rights” that would mean many of the techniques used by the campaign could soon require more transparency and opt-out provisions.
The Obama Web site explains that data submitted by users in response to surveys will be saved and that the campaign will glean and save other information, such as their locations, computer systems and how they came to the site. The data will be used to personalize messages and might be shared with consultants or other campaigns.
But campaign officials say the list of supporters has not been sold or given away except to Organizing for America, a part of the Democratic National Committee created from Obama’s 2008 campaign.
“As is true with other presidential campaigns, we seek to reach voters with a message that is relevant to them using industry standards of online advertising,” campaign spokeswoman Katie Hogan said. “This campaign has and always will be an organization that takes care to protect information that people share with us.”
More ways to find targets
Since 2008, advertisers have widely adopted technology that permits targeting commercials to specific segments of users as they move through the Internet.
Four years ago, campaigns typically bought ads from a given Web site based on the demographics of its audience. It also was possible to target audiences by their geographic location, for example, or the text visible on Web pages. So if a campaign wanted to target mothers, it might advertise on a site that suggested baby names or on a page with text about parenting.
That strategy remains, with the Obama campaign blanketing national news sites and those that tend to draw left-leaning viewers, including the New Republic magazine’s and the discussion forum DailyKos, according to ad tracking firm Moat.com.