When big data met analytics

November 22, 2013

Jim Margolis was the senior media consultant and media buyer for President Obama's 2012 campaign.  Dan Wagner was the chief analytics officer in that campaign. The two men recently joined forces in hopes of bringing big data and and targeted media buying -- the key to President Obama's remarkable voter targeting effort -- to downballot candidates and other causes.  We chatted with Margolis and Parker about what they are doing and why it matters.  Our conversation is below, edited only for grammar and flow purposes. (Also, check out this amazing map broken out by media market.)

FIX: What did the Obama campaign teach you about how data and ads can work together?

Jim: If in 2008 the big innovation was the use of social networks, today it is the use of big data and analytics to be relevant. We have flipped things on their head. We are trying to get from the individual up. From the one to the small groups.  Who watches "TV Land" at 3 am -- and then a creative [effort] that follows them there.

Dan: That the challenges are daunting. People have so many options to see stuff. There is more skepticism and higher expectations among consumers, voters, buyers.


This undated photo made available by Google shows the campus-network room at a data center in Council Bluffs, Iowa. Routers and switches allow Google's data centers to talk to each other. The fiber cables run along the yellow cable trays near the ceiling. (AP Photo/Google, Connie Zhou)

 FIX: What differentiates what you guys are doing from traditional microtargeting?

Dan: Number one, we are building from individual up. Number two, a lot of the way we are identifying individuals is through causal relationships rather than correlation. We run 1000 points of TV in a set of markets, zero points in other markets and see how many votes we moved and the total cost of moving those votes.

Jim: We test thousands of different messages that could be email "a" and "b" and "c" and "d" and "f" and "g". This is not just for political races, it's applicable to other kind of causes. How you sign people for healthcare. It has applicability for party committees. In the past, the only people who could afford to do this stuff happened to be the Obama for President campaign.

FIX: Given the ability to merge big data, microtargeting and ad buying, what does the 2016 media-buying landscape look like?

Jim: We are looking less and less at what's happening at a media market basis. This [technology] increasingly allows us to take all of these inputs —donor file, door knocks, consumer information.  We are going to look at what's motivating this group of target voters in this district or in  this state. We are going to look at those people — look through their set top box. We can see what these people are watching and combine that with the data that Dan and his team have put together. We can watch what Chris Cillizza is watching. We can find groups of people like me and exactly what they are paying attention to.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.
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Sean Sullivan · November 22, 2013