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Microtargeting Research: The Hype, the Reality and What Your Campaign Should Get

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“Microtargeting” has been a buzzword seemingly since Republican campaign wiz Alex Gage coined it in 2002.  As with other campaign tools (standard survey research, opposition research, automated field ops, etc.), the promise of microtargeting has always been to give campaigns that extra edge they need in order to win.

Because it is grounded in the arcane world of statistics and polling, microtargeting has a sort of “dark arts” quality to it.  This “secret sauce” aspect may give rise to even bigger hype. “Knowing the voter intimately” is one marketing line. To be fair, most microtargeting practitioners typically relate that the tool is not a silver bullet. However, news headlines blaring “How campaigns know you better than you know yourself” and “Microtargeting Lets Pols Turn Data Into Votes” give the impression that microtargeting is a turnkey solution to any campaign problem.

The reality is that some microtargeting research programs deliver on the promise and some do not. The acid test for whether microtargeting works or not is not necessarily whether the candidate wins.  A win is good but, as they say, “victory has many fathers, but defeat is an orphan.” Just because a candidate wins and use microtargeting program does not mean that it was responsible for the win. Conversely, losing despite employing a microtargeting program does not necessarily mean it was deficient.

The real test is whether the key voter segments identified by the microtargeting research and who then received appropriate campaign communication actually moved in favor of the candidate in question. Anything less than statistically significant movement in the right direction among the target population either means the program did not work or we do not know whether it worked.

At its core, microtargeting research is what I would call a giant (n typically = 1,500 to 3,000) campaign poll that contains fairly basic questions about vote choice, messaging and where voters get their information.  Variables taken from consumer databases are married to this big poll. These are the raw materials, if you will, that go into microtargeting research.

As with any raw material, the data from microtargeting research must be refined into useful material.  Competitive Edge’s stance on microtargeting, as with all our services, is that nothing is left on the table in the pursuit of helping our clients win.

What do I mean? It’s not enough to do standard message-testing.  We employ our patent-pending MPower™ system to discern the true persuasive power of arguments (endorsements too) within the make-or-break segments we have identified using Chi-squared Automatic Interaction Detection (CHAID).  CHAID is a standard market segmentation technique, but it takes skill and experience to apply it correctly to political campaigns.  Other predictive analytics are used to assign persuasion and turnout scores to individual voters.

Microtargeting programs that neglect to answer to a campaign’s most expensive question– where should I spend my TV advertising dollars — leave a lot on the table.  Competitive Edge conquers this problem by providing clients with a Media Map showing exactly what programs campaigns needs to be on and which it can avoid.

Another thing we feel strongly about is that a good microtargeting program should leverage what I call “the progressive campaign.”  Different groups of voters make decisions at different points in the campaign.  A good microtargeting program identifies those groups to “progressively” remove them from the communications mix.

The right microtargeting research program should save your campaign money by making voter contact and all paid communication far more efficient.  More importantly, it should help the campaign move the electorate in the right direction by telling the campaign who to target, when to touch them, what messages to communicate, what messengers to employ, and what media channels to use.

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