January 2, 2006 By Chad Vander Veen
Who are these people and how do they know so much about you? Is it some shadowy government operative exploiting your personal information? Nope. Instead, it is most likely a campaign manager for one of your district's congressional candidates. And he didn't get all your information through some sinister network of spy satellites and black helicopters -- he took advantage of something called microtargeting.
The term microtargeting sounds straightforward enough, and in many ways it is. It is both brand-new and decades old. Its effectiveness in campaigns is almost impossible to measure, but it is widely regarded as the only way future campaigns will survive.
Soon, your city council candidates may deliver text messages with information specific to you directly to your mobile phone. Some are even attempting to create a way to deliver TV commercials produced for individual viewers. Such tools would dramatically alter the way political campaigns are organized.
The vision among politicos is a subtle yet significant change in the way future campaigns are run. For example, with microtargeting, one campaign might focus on spurring higher turnouts while another campaign might try to embolden its stalwart base. But for all its seeming complexity, the singular goal of microtargeting is to modify voter behavior to a candidate's benefit.
Will the strategy boost voter engagement in the election process by personalizing campaign issues? Or will it leave them feeling as if candidates are merely calculated, distant salespeople? Only time will tell.
In general terms, microtargeting is sending a message to a highly specific portion of an audience based on particular information. In most cases, this method is used to target people as precisely as possible by creating messages tailored to individuals. Though it may sound impossible, political campaigns are currently devising ways to bring their message directly to you -- and only you -- by correlating consumer microtargeting data with voting behavior.
Of course, like many practices in government, microtargeting is an extension of what's occurred in the private sector for years. In fact, microtargeting's origins date back to the late 1970s and early 1980s.
"Commercial direct marketing has been using microtargeting for 25 years," said Hal Malchow, president of MSHC Partners, a Democratic consulting firm. "It's been out there a long time, and [direct marketing companies] have built enormous databases about people."
Prior to that time, microtargeting was irrelevant because of the limited number of available media outlets -- broadcast television, telephone, radio, print and mail. Back then, all that was needed to reach the intended audience was a commercial on the broadcast television networks -- viewers had little choice but to watch it.
Now, to get a message to consumers, companies can no longer count on running their ads only on NBC. Broadcast networks, and in turn advertisers, fight for an ever-smaller viewing audience that has been wooed by an expansive number of cable channels, video games, mobile phones and billions of Web sites.
These emerging technologies forced advertisers to be more creative and get far more specific. Commercial microtargeting is the result of consumers having so many media through which to receive advertisements -- and an equal number of new ways to avoid those ads.