This Election Season, Candidates Should Take Voter Data Privacy Concerns into Account

President Trump’s surprise 2016 victory was thanks, in part, to digital advertising. His win illuminated the power of strong creative messages and sophisticated targeting strategies. Or, to put it another way, his win illuminated the power of serving ads to the people most likely to believe them, in the areas where votes mattered most … regardless of whether they are factual or not. 

In the wake of Cambridge Analytica and privacy regulations like GDPR and CCPA, the advertising landscape has changed, as have consumers’ perceptions about data collection and privacy. Candidates still need ways to reach their target audience effectively, and they should do so while being mindful of compliance issues and Americans’ privacy concerns. 

The 2019-2020 advertising cycle will generate an estimated $6 billion in political media spending, $1.6 billion of which will be spent on digital video, according to Politico’s spending projections. This is up from $0.74 billion on digital video in 2018, so we are talking exponential growth. Many candidates will wash their hands of marketing decisions, entrusting their staff and partners to decide how to best use their campaign dollars. But candidates should use their advertising strategies to make a political statement—to show voters they care about ethical data practices.

Voters care about privacy

In a recent survey by Pew Research Center, 81% of survey respondents said data collection by companies poses more potential risks than benefits. Pew Research Center also found the majority of Americans feel like they have no control over how their data is used, and they are concerned about the way companies and/or the government use their personal information. 

Data privacy may not be as important as climate change, health care, immigration, or the economy, but it still matters to voters. In fact, a 2018 survey found that Americans overwhelmingly backed Congress enacting new rules on companies’ use of their personal data, and increased data protection had support across all parties. Newfound understanding of Russian interference in the 2016 election has likely intensified voter interest in privacy and security issues.

Security Baron has a comprehensive breakdown of candidates’ stance on privacy, cybersecurity, and tech monopolies. Some candidates are declaring a formal stance on data regulation, but doing something to demonstrate this stance is way more important than simply making a statement. If candidates are going to position themselves as pro-data protection, they need to choose marketing strategies that respect data privacy and communicate that decision to the public.

Candidates, don’t let publishers dictate your policy

Some advertising decisions are out of candidates’ control. Obviously, they can’t advertise on Twitter. (That the platform can’t find an ethical and effective political advertising solution says something about its effectiveness as a marketing channel, in my opinion.) But let’s be real, no one was spending much on Twitter anyway.

On Google, they will have to play by new rules. Google will no longer allow candidates to direct ads to audiences based on their public voter records or political affiliations categorized as “left-leaning,” “right-leaning” or “independent.” Meanwhile, it is business as usual on Facebook, as executive Andrew Bosworth vows the platform won’t be pressured into making sweeping policy changes. 

But rather than letting publishers dictate their approach to consumer privacy, what if politicians took a stance themselves? Why not pledge to be forthright about data practices and to avoid untrue claims in advertising? Why not consider what campaign strategy says about a candidate’s personal ethics? 

“Ethical” and “effective” are not mutually exclusive. There are strategies for reaching relevant consumers, online and off, without using personally identifiable information. The bulk of political advertising is still spent on traditional media, but the most effective campaigners will use measurable, multichannel approaches that combine tried-and-true tactics like print and out-of-home (OOH) with digital, and nascent mediums, such as CTV. In fact, addressable TV is expected to increase 44% from 2019, fueled in part by political advertising, as well as the Summer Olympics.

Americans are concerned about their privacy, but they are willing to share data in exchange for something of merit, whether that is a customized promo or a television recommendation. For example, Accenture research found 60% of consumers would share location data and lifestyle information with financial service providers in exchange for discounts and better services. People call it a “privacy paradox,” but I think it really comes down to transparency. People want to know how their data is being used and what they are getting in return.

Like Trump’s team, the Obama campaign used Facebook advertising to rally voters. It created a Facebook app that leveraged user data, but the app asked permission to scan photos, friends list, and news feeds, whereas the people who downloaded the app created by Cambridge Analytica did not know their data would be used in political advertising, explains The Poynter Institute.

I reason voters would prefer to see political marketing that speaks to the causes and candidates they care about most. And candidates can deliver that with above-the-board targeting strategies and honest creative. Many might not even mind sharing their data, as long as the candidates are upfront about why.

To influence voters, you need to reach them. But consumers’ growing awareness about how their data is used—and often misused—should cause more political candidates to be mindful of how they run their marketing campaigns.

James Heller is CEO and co-founder of Wrapify.

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