Republican Startup Hopes to Use FCC Database to Predict Ad Future

The Goal: Pair Spending Figures With Social Data to Make Campaigns Less Reactive

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At this particular moment in the Denver media market, Republicans are winning the ad war more -- in terms of dollars spent at any rate. Fifty-eight percent of spending on political ads currently running are from Republicans and Republican-associated groups.

It's a key detail in a heated race as Republicans try to unseat Democratic incumbent Mark Udall.

Despite the Republican advantage at the moment, the same data show Democrats will dominate the airwaves as the November midterm election nears in Colorado.

That data comes from Echelon Insights, an analytics startup serving Republicans and groups on the right and which aims to bring political ad-spending reporting into the 21st century. The goal is to make the political ad game at least a little more proactive rather than reactive.

Corporate brands and their agencies sift through a wide array of information such as social-media posts and purchase-transaction data to make decisions about how to allocate media budgets to fight the competition.

But the approaches to media spending and opposition research have been less sophisticated in the political world. Political advertisers are accustomed to getting data on what opponents are doing right now, when they have little choice other than to be in rapid-response mode.

Echelon Insights, formed by a GOP pollster and a former digital head for the Republican National Committee, is introducing a reporting service that it expects to build an archive of data showing how much campaigns have spent in which TV markets -- even on ads that have yet to run. The young company is also layering in digital data about social-media posts and search keywords.

Echelon intends for its media-buying archive to help bring predictive analytics -- a common practice for media-mix modeling in the corporate ad realm -- and some prescience to political campaigns.

"We want to be able to really collect all relevant sources of information about what the campaigns are doing…to essentially conduct an audit," said Patrick Ruffini, co-founder of Echelon and former RNC digital strategy director.

Game changer

Federal Communications Commission rules that went into effect on July 1 require all TV stations affiliated with the top four national broadcast networks -- ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox -- to post information to the FCC's online database detailing media buys from political advertisers. For instance, a report would state an advocacy group spent a certain amount to run spots during the nightly news on particular dates. Only stations serving the top 50 DMAs were required to provide such information before July.

Echelon will intercept the FCC data through the Commission's API, an Application Programming Interface that serves as a pipeline for data from one system to another.

"Clients can use this data to see into the future, not only who's advertising, but which types of races are advertising, and how crowded the market will be," said Mr. Ruffini. "This may spur them to jump in to fill a void or to turn to digital or more targeted forms of advertising if the market is saturated."

He co-founded the company with Kristen Soltis Anderson, a Republican pollster and former VP at The Winston Group, a DC-based polling firm. The tiny company expects to double in size to six staffers in a few weeks.

In addition to the TV ad data, Echelon is integrating data from Twitter and Facebook posts and online searches that signal ad impact on voters. Social data can also tip off political campaigns when a swell of opponent volunteers is poised to hit a voting district or region.

"Is there a lot of activity? Everyone now is sort of broadcasting what they're doing to recruit volunteers," said Mr. Ruffini. Social data also helps determine whether "a certain piece of creative was discussed more," he said.

Detective work required
Tracking political TV ad spending has always required some sleuthing. Historically the data has been buried in relatively opaque Federal Election Commission reports, or among reams of paper at TV stations, where only paid research firms working for candidate campaigns and the most dogged transparency advocates have surfaced them. Although the FCC now demands that stations provide the same information for viewing on the agency's website, it is not standardized, nor is it searchable in a way that enables easy aggregation for analysis.

Indeed, the data typically comes in the form of individual .pdf documents. Stations "might just publish a check," said Mr. Ruffini.

Organizations such as Center for Responsive Politics and Sunlight Foundation expose information to the news media and curious voters about political ad spending, and political media-research firms like Kantar Media CMAG provide research reports to political campaigns. Some have already upgraded their tracking systems to include digital data. For example, Republican digital ad company Targeted Victory combines CMAG's media-tracking data with online voter segment data so the consultancy's clients can respond to rival campaign media moves with their own targeted ads.

Gaps in spending data still abound. Political ad buys in direct mail, radio, digital advertising and cable TV are obscure at best. The FCC doesn't require that cable stations provide political media spending information online, for example, though that may change soon. The agency has a call out for comments regarding whether it should extend the online reporting requirements to broadcast radio stations, cable systems, and other multichannel video distributors.