Downballot Candidates Will Drive Hyperlocal Political Advertising in 2012

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As president of Engage, Patrick Ruffini spends his days helping politicians and causes bring their messages to their constituents. The digital agency is a leader in local political advertising and targeting, combining a knowledge gained from working on presidential campaigns and in the Republican National Committee with a state-of-the-art technological platform.

Street Fight caught up with Ruffini over email recently to ask about the future of local election advertising, the massive waste that campaigns spend on TV ads, and why Obama keeps on winning.

What are some local advertising trends you’re seeing during this election cycle that you haven’t seen before?
Campaigns are using mobile targeting to target people within a geographic radius with great precision to deliver messages. This is especially big if a campaign has an event, or is trying to reach college students.

Who are the players pushing innovation in the local election advertising space? The local politicians? National politicians? PACs? Democrats? Republicans? The youth?
The way most local politicians advertise is massively inefficient because TV and radio advertising usually bleeds out beyond the borders of their district. A Congressional race in suburban district we worked on saw 93% of TV ad dollars wasted on voters who lived in other districts. Though presidential candidates tend to run the most sophisticated digital ad strategies, it’s really the candidates running for Congress or even the state legislature who need this targeting the most. Don’t be surprised to see downballot candidates experimenting with hyperlocal more and more, as an end run against the high cost and inefficiency of broadcast TV.

The Obama campaign has consistently run laps around all the Republican campaigns digitally. Their targeting of early Republican primary states was very smart. For the campaign to date, they’ve spent twice as much on digital advertising as have all the Republicans combined.

Earlier this year, I interviewed CampaignGrid CEO Jeff Dittus, who said that the tipping point in hyperlocal campaign advertising will be when it’s possible to target ads through televisions. Do you agree? Why hasn’t that happened yet?
Individualized targeting through the set-top box is in a race with the rise of digital entertainment — including Netflix, Hulu, and YouTube — to see who can deliver on the promise of personalized advertising first.

We’ve been talking about individually targeted TV ads for years, and they haven’t taken off because of the slow pace of innovation in the cable industry compared to the Internet, and privacy concerns. We’re finally seeing some experiments with it in New York, but will it be too little too late?

As TV-based entertainment goes digital, we’ll see individuals targeted through their user profiles on popular online services. The most successful examples won’t look like advertising, but “promoted content” or offers that are embedded in the content stream.

Interest-based targeting also has its limits. The big brand advertisers who drive TV only want so much targeting. The biggest thing in their minds is reach and scaling fast. We may see a sorting out of the industry where the big brands stay on TV (or video) and value advertisers, including politicians, who want targeted audiences go online.

What are some campaigns (that you haven’t worked on) that have impressed you in terms of their local focus? Any that you have worked on?
I may be a Republican, but have to say that the Obama campaign has consistently run laps around all the Republican campaigns digitally. Their targeting of early Republican primary states was very smart. For the campaign to date, they’ve spent twice as much on digital advertising as have all the Republicans combined, and the Republicans are the ones actively campaigning for votes right now.

Beyond campaigns, we see tremendous potential for hyperlocal ads in the advocacy realm in Washington, DC. We worked on the campaign against SOPA and PIPA, and targeted Capitol Hill staff with mobile hyperlocal advertising. As this mobile advertising becomes more precise, it will be possible to target House and Senate staff separately, or even different Congressional office buildings, Federal agencies, the White House, and K Street.

What leap are we going to see in local political advertising during the next few campaign cycles?
Politics is always frustratingly slow to evolve, but we can expect to see a continued trend toward mobile, as well as a push to pinpoint PCs with GPS-like accuracy. This will start to make block-by-block, precinct-by-precinct ad targeting a reality.

It will also be interesting to see ambient location apps like Highlight evolving to serve advertisers, and being able to target nearby users based on their interests and Facebook likes. Just as merchants can use it to pull in customers, you may be able to use a location-based advertising service to pull nearby supporters to a campaign headquarters or voter registration table.

Noah Davis is senior editor at Street Fight. He previously covered media at and Business Insider as well as during multiple stints of full-time freelancing. He has written for The Wall Street Journal,,,, and many other publications.