Microtargeting (also micro-targeting or micro-niche targeting) is one of the methods that is used by the marketing sector to analyze consumer data collected from various sources to detect interests of specific individuals. This collection of data is ordered and classified and later provides the information that is used to influence the thoughts of specific like-minded groups of people. That said, one of the major aims of microtargeting initiatives is to simply identify their target audience to as granular level as possible and also identify target’s preferred communication channel.
Microtargeting Use Case – Elections
Analytic Methods Used in Microtargeting
One of the most common uses of microtargeting is the election process. One of the first users who used Big Data and Microtargeting was Obama’s election team in the 2012 United States Presidential campaign, who used Microtargeting to interact and appeal to voters individually. “To realize this type of personalization on a colossal scale, political campaign managers collected (and continually updated) detailed information about individual voters and later used predictive analytics to model voter sentiment. (Aggarwal, N., 2017). Moreover, that seems to be the whole idea behind Microtargeting in the context of elections. Its main purpose is to achieve a high overall comprehension of the voting electorate on an individual basis, which then allows campaign managers to connect with voters in such way as to influence their final voting decision.
So how is it done?
I have researched numerous papers and articles on the topic of elections and microtargeting, and it comes down somewhere around the line of the following four points:
- Track voters and all other residents closely
- Gather all data about each individual’s location, consumer habits, preferences, articles they read, books they like, browsing history, etc. For example, Google is tracking so many data points that it’s estimated that each of our browser fingerprints is unique and personally identifiable among over 4 million that were tested.
- Build an Analytical Model to find specific user preferences and views. It allows to eventually lay the groups of individuals into buckets based on particular personality traits. This way we can create groups of potential voters such as democrats and republicans, and even predict their favorite candidate and do so with a high degree of confidence.
- Turn the gathered insight into personally created communications that is served to end users.
One of the recent great examples of using microtargeting is the behavioral microtargeting case from The Trump’s election team. Trump’s team was able to leverage Big Data to such point, that using the microtargeting methods they could pinpoint a specific type of person, anywhere in the country. Moreover, then they could proceed with a very accurate digital content in the form of paid advertising (audio, video, news articles, etc.) that triggered the emotions and behavior that were desired by the people running Trump’s campaign. This way they could dramatically influence the voter’s behavior. “As an example, we have heard of the case where someone located in rural parts, an unlikely voter who always felt excluded, would suddenly show up in polls as a likely voter” (Chester, J., 2017).
So, as we can see, nowadays it is rather obvious that microtargeting techniques are becoming an essential tool for the politicians and parties they represent. Trying to rationalize a difficult election campaign without having a good understanding of the fundamental economic, social as well as political intricacies of a specific electoral district is considered to be a recipe for an election failure.
Some firms found the business section. Of the good examples is a company from U.K. SCL Group Elections, which specializes in all Microtargeting election services, such as the following:
Media Monitoring – Constant real-time monitoring of social media, digital, printed and broadcasted media for politically related messages.
Target Audience Analysis or ‘Targeting the Electorate’– Provides other insights into political opinions, which enhances targeted voter engagement. That is what is referred to as ‘Targeting the Electorate.’ There are various techniques to do that, but using social networks is one of the most popular. Target Audience Analysis can provide details about each of the personal traits, such as openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, neuroticism, etc. (Figure 1), that is then used in communication management to draft the most influencing message. As a matter of fact, it is one of the most important steps. Companies such as ‘Cambridge Analytica’ claim that they can guess the target person’s character from their likes on social networks and from the text in their communications on social media (note: this was eventually the company that got involved in microtargeting for Trump’s election team).
Image Copyright Vogels, R. (2016)
Behavioral Microtargeting – One the electorate is targeted; advanced data analytics are used to identify voter with the similar political beliefs and lifestyle.
Communication Management – Gather comprehensive data about voter groups hierarchies to generate the top-down and bottom-up message delivery system. Alternatively, in other words, we could say that behavioral microtargeting is used to create messages that resonate with the potential voter.
SCL Elections says “We use advanced data analytics to identify groups of voters who share demographics, political beliefs, and lifestyle, and use this insight to create unique messages designed to resonate with them.” (SCL Elections, 2016).
Technical considerations are a critical topic when it comes to the handling of all microtargeting services. SCL Group uses high-quality laboratories, progressive supercomputing, physio-lingual analysis tools and AI techniques to extract the intelligence from organic and other data sources which can help them to expose valuable information that can be used to micro-target the specific audience.
In the specific case of elections outlined above, we can see that Big Data analytics can organize people based on the opinions they express online and also on their interactions with the digital world. These people can be split into separate relatively easy to identified groups, that can later be manipulated by targetted messaging and advertising to do something that they would otherwise not likely consider on their own.
It is this ease of stimulating a specific behavior and end user’s blindness to the fact that they are manipulated, that is a scary part of microtargeting. This is where microtargeting needs to be considered not only for its benefits but also for its possible negative impact.
Why negative consequences? Well, it is not such a far-fetched proposition to say, that there are totalitarian regimes that could use above techniques to proliferate their propaganda. So, while the microtargeting technology has a tremendous potential, there aren’t many services that scan the messages delivered to a microtargeted individual for their validity.
I don’t want to go to details on the adverse effect, but there is a publication that explores this topic. Written by S. Barocas and released under the title: “The price of precision: Voter microtargeting and its potential harms to the democratic process”. The paper goes into detail about possible ”perverse effects of voter microtargeting and effects of voter microtargeting, delineating how the very same techniques that empower political candidates to be more efficient and effective in their campaigning may also undermine the political and social fabric” (Barocas, S., 2012)
“Campaigns now have needle-in-the-haystack capabilities, provided by commercial marketing and media companies, to find and motivate an individual voter” Chester, J. (2017), it just needs to be done right and end user should, in my opinion, be aware of the fact where the messages and targeted advertising is coming from.
To conclude, I believe the microtargeting is a Big Data problem. At the end of the day, we need to realize that the same way we may take the full advantage of the Big Data to bring a valuable information to a specific person (such as targeted advertising), microtargeting will likely also be used to spread the false news and disinformation and twist the truth in ways that could create social turbulences with unforeseen results.
Murray, G. R., & Scime, A. (2010). Microtargeting and electorate segmentation: data mining the American National Election Studies. Journal of Political Marketing, 9(3), 143-166. (Accessed: 24 January 2017).
Schipper, B. C., & Woo, H. Y. (2014). Political awareness, microtargeting of voters, and negative electoral campaigning. (Accessed: 24 January 2017).
Barocas, S. (2012, November). The price of precision: Voter microtargeting and its potential harms to the democratic process. In Proceedings of the first edition workshop on Politics, elections and data (pp. 31-36). ACM. (Accessed: 24 January 2017).
Chester, J. (2017) Our next president: Also brought to you by big data and digital advertising. Available at: http://billmoyers.com/story/our-next-president-also-brought-to-you-by-big-data-and-digital-advertising/ (Accessed: 24 January 2017).
SCL elections (2016) Available at: https://sclgroup.cc/elections/services/analysis (Accessed: 24 January 2017).
Aggarwal, N. (2017) DBE’s Guide to New Age Marketing. Available at: http://www.academia.edu/22077025/Marketantra (Accessed: 26 January 2017).
Cawley, C. (2014) How much does Google really know about you?. Available at: http://www.makeuseof.com/tag/how-much-google-know-about-you/ (Accessed: 26 January 2017). Cawley, C. (2014) How much does Google really know about you?. Available at: http://www.makeuseof.com/tag/how-much-google-know-about-you/ (Accessed: 26 January 2017).
Vogels, R. (2016) Trump, micro targeting and the mechanisms of data capitalism. Available at: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/trump-micro-targeting-and-the-mechanisms-of-data_us_585433c0e4b0d5f48e164efc (Accessed: 26 January 2017).