Nanotargeting: How Big Data Is Used on the Campaign Trail

Political campaigns have a long history of borrowing tools and practices from marketers (and vice versa). But as election season really heats up this fall, politicians are using a new technique born out of “big data” analysis: Nanotargeting.

Successful marketers already leverage big data from myriad social media, mobile and other channels to gain insights about their clients and prospects. These findings have enabled a customer experience revolution: Consumers now expect—and increasingly receive—offers and information custom-tailored to their preferences. Now the same marketing automation tools that analyze consumer behavior are being used to learn more about voters. This new political industry, called nanotargeting, has the potential to help politicians and their campaigns identify and communicate with highly specific segments of voters.

Columbia University’s Thomas B. Edsall wrote about the phenomenon in The New York Times earlier this year: Political campaigns, interest groups and a network of private companies are now using sophisticated tools to comb through big data, looking for ways to target specific fractions of the electorate. Just as in marketing, this data analysis has yielded insights that are transforming the way campaigns are run.

Among his findings, Edsall reveals that while viewers of, CNN and VH1 tend to be Democrats, viewers of and CNN turn out to vote in higher numbers. In the restaurant industry, only Republican-skewed restaurants—such as Cracker Barrel and Chick-fil-A—have a customer base that heads to the polls in large numbers. Devotees of democratic-leaning chains like Church’s Chicken and Chuck E. Cheese tend to see lower turnout. Such analyses, which Edsall also conducts to measure Internet use, auto ownership, alcohol consumption and more, are enormous for politicians. How much more efficiently can a campaign allocate its crucial resources if it knows exactly when and where to find its target audience?

As marketers have learned, big data is only valuable when it produces actionable insights, and so far politicians and their campaigns haven’t perfected the best use of nanotargeting information. Is it better to run campaign ads targeted to supporters, in hopes of strengthening (and motivating) the base? Or would it be more effective to try to attract voters from the opposing camp? Maybe the greatest spend should be directed towards the middle-ground, where voters are not as polarized?

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