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Is ‘Micro-targeting’ the Key to Success in Politics and PR?

In this week’s The New Yorker, financial columnist James Surowiecki has a fascinating piece (thankfully available online for non-subscribers) about the science of political campaigning and, particularly, the revolutionizing of the political “ground game” through micro-targeting.

His central premise is this: until the late 90’s, political PR men had only one very blunt weapon–mass media communications. Flyers/mailers, TV attack ads and scripted phone calls were the only way to go. Now, however, technology has turned micro-targeting into an art. Campaign representatives use data drawn from “shopping habits, leisure activities, voting histories, charity donations, and so on” to identify and target two very specific groups of voters: Those who truly haven’t made up their minds and those who may need an extra push to make sure they get to the polls.  It is a never-ending process that is constantly being reviewed and refined.

Surowiecki’s most important point (and one we’ve noted before) is that TV ads are growing less and less effective—and that fact puts an even higher premium on micro-targeting and the simple act of knocking on doors and engaging potential voters in real-world conversations. Repeated surveys have found that the most personal messages are also the most effective. For example, “Just thanking people for having voted in the past significantly increases the chance that they’ll vote again.”

In this way, the evolution of campaigning mirrors changes in general PR practices.

The TV ad, for example, is like a press release: While its message is carefully tailored, its content (potentially) goes out to everyone within a very wide market. Niche blogs (like this one!) and similar venues, on the other hand, allow for publicists and others to message very specific groups delineated by profession, taste, etc. And then there are the targeted ads of Zappos, Google and Facebook. Most PR professionals don’t quite have the leverage of Zuckerberg and Co. in the form of endless piles of demographic data to help us aim our promotional messages with mathematic precision–or do we?

Micro-targeting is not a new idea in the PR world. PR professionals may not be able to literally knock on doors, but they can certainly take steps to better identify members of their target audience, personalize their appeals and gauge the effectiveness of each message in turn. Sometimes, in PR as in politics, the toughest job is discovering just who your targets are.

PR pros: How does the art/science of micro-targeting apply to your job? What sorts of tools does your firm use to identify its targets and improve its messaging precision?

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