Your Facebook profile doesn’t have boxes to check which political party you belong to or whether you voted in the last election. But political organizations who already know that can now deliver Facebook ads to fit your political preferences. At least two statewide campaigns during the past year have used the new tool, “Custom Managed Audiences,” to reach Facebook users who are registered voters or political supporters. Facebook says Terry McAuliffe’s election as Virginia governor in 2013 and this year’s re-election effort of John Cornyn, a Texas Republican senator, are examples of successful user targeting via voter lists. The company first introduced the tool in February 2013 and recently upgraded its capabilities. Linking the two isolated sets of data and teasing out information on voter preferences and opinions is a new front in microtargeting. Even smaller campaigns could use the technique to sway small but crucial sets of voters with very specific messages. Facebook’s most notable achievement may be that it makes some of the sophisticated approaches used during the 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns affordable to other kinds of political contests.
The campaign of Senator John Cornyn, a Texas Republican, relied on a Facebook tool in a successful primary campaign. Credit Doug Mills/The New York Times
“I think it’s revolutionary and important to track,” said Michael Franz, an associate professor of government at Bowdoin College who has studied campaign advertising and voter turnout.
The ability to make these connections will become only more important as campaigns seek ways to reach and influence voters where they increasingly spend time: on mobile devices connected to the Internet. Because online advertising can cost much less than other forms, such efforts can be more efficient with a campaign’s money, too.
The “Custom Managed Audiences” tool works like this: A campaign or group uses its own list of potential voters (or buys one from a state authority or private vendor) and uploads it to Facebook. The company then matches the names to its user base through databases managed by companies, such as Acxiom, that specialize in collecting information about individuals. This process effectively combines the electoral information it already knows about voters with their Facebook profiles: likes, group memberships, issues or even favorites. The process anonymizes the users’ personal identifiers but retains enough information to enable campaigns to target well-defined groups.
While it targets advertising more precisely, the campaigns can also use it to raise money. For Facebook users, this new tool most likely means more political advertisements, but those ads could be directed to very specific interests or concerns.