Another election year is upon us, and this year (like every election year) we will be looking at record spending (an estimate of $10 billion in the US) as politicians jockey to grab your attention and your votes. After a 2016 presidential election fraught with controversy, there is one particular controversy that has become a heated topic of debate—the microtargeting of political messaging through social media. Whether good or bad, there are a lot of lessons advertisers can learn from political microtargeting.

How Microtargeting Was Used: Microtargeting allows politicians to target extremely narrow groups of voters with tailored messaging. Similarly to personalized advertising, candidates use personal data about potential voters and craft messages that are meant to deeply resonate with that person. Politicians crave information about whether a person is registered to vote, voting history, party affiliation, their contact information, and any other personal information they can gather. Then, they can then upload this database of information to Google and Facebook to find those people, and then advertise specifically to them. So, a candidate will send evangelical farmers in Iowa vastly different advertising than a blue-collar factory worker in Michigan.

The Good: The first thing to note is that microtargeting works. And, if used ethically, microtargeting can encourage voting, highlighting platforms and issues that each individual person cares about the most, increasing voter enthusiasm—and getting more people to vote can only be a good thing. The same holds true for microtargeting in advertising. Personalized messages can increase brand loyalty and excitement, focusing on the products and services that each customer cares about most.

Furthermore, campaigns can use their money wiser, using targeted ads instead of spending major dough on traditional media. Tara McGowan, the founder of the progressive strategy nonprofit Acronym, believes microtargeting allows smart up-and-coming campaigns the ability to compete with well-funded political behemoths. Again, the same is true for advertisers. Microtargeting can level the playing field for smaller companies, and allow all advertisers to use their money wiser.

The Bad: But there are plenty of worrisome details about microtargeting that bubbled up during the 2016 campaign. Unlike traditional marketing platforms, such as TV and radio, which has strict federal election regulations on what messages can be said and how they can say them, marketing on social media was totally unregulated. Anything could be said, and those producing the messages did not have to say who they were, or how they were financed. This was well utilized by the Trump campaign, circulating false information on Clinton’s declining health and the Pope endorsing him (among many others). And, the more scandalous the lie, the more likely it was to be widely disseminated across the internet. For marketers, it’s important to be truthful in your advertising. Politicians can survive misleading voters—businesses may not be so lucky lying to their customers.

And while microtargeting can be used to increase voter turnout, it can also be used to create voter suppression. According to Vox, “the Trump campaign targeted infrequent black voters with ads showing Hillary Clinton in 1996 calling some young black males ‘super predators.’ It was a voter suppression effort aimed at getting those voters to stay home, and limiting microtargeting would make such an effort more difficult to execute in such a precise way.” I’m not sure what marketers can learn from this, but it’s gross.

Then there is how some of the information was collected. Trump’s campaign utilized Cambridge Analytica in their microtargeting efforts. Cambridge Analytica was essentially a shell company for SCL, a business whose very literature states that it specializes in “psychological warfare” and “influence operations.” After the election, it was revealed that the personal data of up to 87 million Facebook users was acquired “via the 270,000 Facebook users who used a Facebook app called "This Is Your Digital Life." By giving this third-party app permission to acquire their data, back in 2015, this also gave the app access to information on the user's friends network… whom had not explicitly given Cambridge Analytica permission to access their data.” This type of covert action erodes public trust in corporations, social media companies like Facebook, and in the government itself. In an era where customers are demanding to know how their data is being used, a breach of trust like this can be catastrophic to businesses that engage in underhanded data collection like this.

No matter your political leanings, it’s safe to say that lying to voters, disenfranchising voters, and stealing information from voters are not healthy for democracy, and the 2016 campaign showed that microtargeting makes it easier for politicians to perform these ethically unctuous deeds.

What Advertisers Can Learn: So, what can advertisers learn from political microtargeting? A lot. Companies already know that microtargeting works amazingly well, but that if not used carefully, it can backfire. Cambridge Analytica may have gotten what they wanted with the 2016 elections, but when they were exposed, they were forced to close operations, and Facebook’s reputation suffered near irreparable harm.

In 2020 and beyond, customer and business relationships will be built on trust. Most customers want companies to personalize to them. A CSA study reports that 55% of US shoppers say they often sign up for personalization programs. But customers do not want to feel used. Be transparent with your audience. Let them know how you are collecting information and how you will use it. Always come from a place of ethical fairness and be truthful in your practices. If you want a consultation in ethical microtargeting strategies Lineate is here for you. Reach out today to see how our AI team can help build what you need to connect with the right people safely.