Colin Hanna, who runs the national conservative advocacy and fund-raising network Let Freedom Ring in West Chester, used to buy millions in ads on TV and news and political websites.
But not this year. "We're doing it the opposite way: We're buying the audience," Hanna said.
Hanna and his group are following voters from dozens of targeted social groups and tracking them by their online habits. Then they send the voters targeted ads, not visible to others, at hundreds of popular sites - Comcast's Infinity, MTV.com, Pandora, Yahoo, and magazine and game websites - says Hanna, a former Chester County commissioner.
Hanna's fund, founded in 2004 with backing from mutual fund mogul John Templeton and allied religious and political activists, is funding a $7.8 million campaign for what Hanna describes as micro-targeted online video ads in competitive states such as Pennsylvania, Ohio, Virginia, Iowa, Colorado, and Wisconsin.
"This is the single largest online video buy ever executed by an advocacy group," says Jeff Dittus, a partner in Fort Washington-based CampaignGrid, which organizes online media campaigns for Republicans.
The firm buys cookie programs created when users register at news and magazine sites, social media such as Facebook and Twitter, and iPhone apps, and combines this information with voter-registration data to target persuadable voters in every congressional district.
This campaign tactic is not limited to Republicans. DSPolitical in Washington matches "web-based cookie targeting" with Democratic voter registrations to find likely supporters for Democratic clients, chief operating officer Chris Massicotte, a Villanova and Penn grad, said. "We are working with several Pennsylvania races."
Let Freedom Ring is running more than 40 ads promoting Mitt Romney's cause and is custom-tailoring them to 16 million swing voters in 24 groups, such as independent young women, Hispanic business owners, Israel supporters, and affluent seniors. People who fall into these different categories can open the same Web page and see different pro-Romney ads - or none, if they don't vote, or are considered too diehard to be worth persuading.
"As of today we have served 150 million 30-second videos," Hanna said on Friday. Two-thirds of viewers have watched these ads all the way through, often because they have been installed at the start of popular videos such as ESPN NFL replays.
How's that work? Say you go to ESPN.com for a football replay. Maybe there's a Chevy ad slated to run right before each replay. But when one of CampaignGrid's 16 million target voters clicks that same video, "You don't see the Chevy ad. You see one of ours," Hanna said.
Advertisers pay only for ads that are viewed.
It could be, ironically, a pro-Romney ad suggesting that Chevy's maker, General Motors, was bailed out by President Obama so it can "support Communism," as the ad says, by making cars in Communist China. Other Let Freedom Ring ads include a spot focused on perceived threats to affluent retirees' health care, or for visitors to cruise-ship sites and NationalGeographic.com. An ad tying Obama to the Egyptian government and its potential arming of Islamic radicals targets both Jewish voters and gun fans. Another ad intends to appeal to Catholic pro-life Democrats by featuring the late Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta.
In a survey, 1,500 Americans told Joseph Turow and his colleagues at Penn's Annenberg School for Communication they opposed the use of personal online data for political targeting. But, Turow said: "I have not seen any data that says whether this strategy is effective." Turow also said it was not clear voters were even aware when they are targeted.
A survey of 1,000 voters by the ad agency Toluna Group Ltd. showed more than 50 percent of supposed voters who saw political ads online took some sort of action, such as clicking a candidate's site or sending a campaign money, Ad Age reported in September.
"They're gaining growing acceptance," Temple University business professor Steven N. Pyser said. "The ethics professor in me says, 'You're data-mining in ways people aren't accepting.' But a lot of people don't know an Internet cookie from a Dunkin' Donut. I think this is just the start. Soon they'll be tracking you so closely on your smartphone, they'll know instantly if you just voted."
Big business is also marrying website cookie data to customer data, says Dittus. CampaignGrid has an affiliate, AudienceGrid, that is dedicated to commercial exploitation of online customer data. The affiliates form a holding company, Audience Partners L.L.C.
Backers include CampaignGrid cofounder Rich Masterson and credit-card giant Capital One Corp. founder Nigel Morris.
"Data is a commodity. Ad inventory is a commodity. We put them together and it's not a commodity, it's something special," Dittus concluded. "And it's still cheaper than mass media. There are more people watching these ads online than are watching TV ads."