President Obama’s campaign strategists made a strategic decision with the $300 million television advertising budget: They didn't worry about which particular shows aired their ads on. While campaigns tend to buy airtime based on television ratings for different demographic groups the Obama campaign chose to focus on time of day and channel rather than particular shows.
Stats from phone banking and canvasing was taken into account “The optimizer doesn’t take into account the program at all,” said Carol Davidsen, who designed the system as the campaign’s director of media analytics. “But there’s a sanity check at the end to make sure that you’re not advertising on Girls Gone Wild.”
TV ads are priced based on audience, with prime-time network shows being the most expensive because of their large audiences. The disadvantage is that those audiences had likely made up their minds, so they focused instead on targeted campaigns for less waste.
Using data on cable subscribers collected by Rentrak shows what shows were being watched. Combining a third-party company to match viewing data to its own internal list of voters and poll responses produced the optimization plan.
Davidsen indicates that they mainly targeted undecided voters and Obama supporters who were sporadic voters. On cable, they went for the Family Channel, the Food Network and the Hallmark Channel while on broadcast television, the went for daytime programs and late-night entertainment shows.
Towards the end of the campaign, the Obama campaign was on 60 channels compared with 18 for the Romney operation during the same period, according to cable advertising data. According to Tim Kay, political sales director for NCC Media, the Obama campaign ran a more sophisticated targeting operation.
“With Romney, they went after pure tonnage,” Kay said. “With Obama, you see them capturing those niche audiences. They bought a lot of networks that we would consider second or third tier.”
Obama’s campaign also targeted cable operators serving small towns, while Romney tended to focus on media markets spanning several counties. “I would agree they have done something new and interesting,” said Will Feltus, a Republican media buyer who worked for George W. Bush’s reelection campaign in 2004. “They didn’t invent the wheel, but they put some better ball bearings on it, that’s for sure.”
This targeting didn't come cheap, spending $359,000 for Rentrak data and $70,500 to the Buckeye CableSystem, which serves part of Ohio. Using set-top boxes also allowed for much more data and also higher accuracy and Obama officials estimate they were able to get about 10 percent to 20 percent more efficient use of their money using the optimizer by piecing together small audiences.
“In the past we might have said, ‘Gee, there’s not enough people watching there — it’s not worth the money,’” said Jim Margolis, one of Obama’s top media consultants. “There’s a certain group that we want to speak to and you can reach them lots of different ways.”