Can Marketers Apply Obama's TV-Data Play?

TV Targeting Holds Promise, But Would Be Used Differently to Sell Products vs. Rack up Votes

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Targeted TV advertising ostensibly helped President Barack Obama solidify his re-election. But can it provide the same efficiency for consumer marketers?

The industry is slowly adopting set-top box and third-party data to make TV buys based on criteria other than Nielsen demographics. But President Obama's successful use of "the optimizer," and an unorthodox decision to choose airtime only by time of day and channel, could advance the strategy.

His camp matched its extensive voter data with data purchased from Rentrak and FourthWall to determine what potential voters were watching. This allowed the campaign to buy advertising based on model voters as opposed to traditional age- and gender-based ratings , said Carol Davidsen, director of integration and media targeting for the Obama campaign.

As a result, the campaign bought networks and time slots it might not have previously considered, including daytime and overnight, and national buys on TV Land and Syfy. Traditionally, political campaigns make buys based on content relevancy, with a huge dependence on news programs.

This model worked so well for President Obama, who was trying to target specific voter groups to tip the margins in his favor, it's expected to become the norm for major elections, Ms. Davidsen said. But it might not be the most-effective strategy for some consumer marketers.

"It makes sense for an election since you are buying so much local media," she said. "But for ... something like Tide or Coke, you want to reach everyone."

Major consumer-packaged-goods brands may instead want to use targeting to make supplemental buys to gain incremental reach, said Todd Gordon, exec VP-U.S. director at Magna Global.

Set-top box data can drill down to ZIP codes, households and DMAs (designated market areas). Coupled with third-party research or client data, it gives brands a full picture of where their messages are falling short or not reaching the right people.

Targeting provides an opportunity for smaller networks, which may be cheaper, to snag a bigger chunk of ad dollars. During the election, Hallmark Channel distinguished itself this way.

"We delivered the message that our audience is more efficient and effective than [what the Obama campaign] was getting at the local level," said Bill Abbott, president-CEO of Hallmark Channels. "We made the case that in Ohio, Florida, Wisconsin and New Hampshire, we overindexed and delivered a higher audience than the East and West Coast, where the vote was [already] decided."

TV targeting is being tested by media buyers, but represents less than one-tenth of a percent of the $227 billion global market, according to 2012 estimates from Deloitte. And Magna's Mr. Gordon more generously estimates that less than 5% of consumer marketers' TV buys are being bought this way. "It's a change ... caring less about where a spot runs and more about getting the right message to the right people," he said.

Sam Armando, senior VP -- director at SMGx Strategic Intelligence, said lack of history and comfort with data also hold it back. Not to mention the production expense of creating many targeted spots, said Tim Kay, director of political strategy at NCC Media.

Even President Obama's campaign used "the optimizer" on only about 20% of the buys," Ms. Davidsen noted.

"Right now targeting is being used as a supplement," Mr. Gordon said.

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