What Civis Media Optimizer Is Not

Reminder: some of these new products represent a big change. But it often isn’t the change we were expecting or fearing.

Yesterday Civis Analytics unveiled Civis Media Optimizer, which promises to drag TV advertising into the digital age. This is based on a product with the same name that the Obama ’12 campaign used to improve its ad targeting. Television advertising is the biggest expenditure line in political campaigns, and that isn’t going to change anytime soon. Optimizer lets campaigns, nonprofits, and companies spend those advertising dollars more efficiently.

The logic of the Media Optimizer is pretty simple, actually. (It’s the math and the data behind it that are really frickin’ hard.): Better audience data + better pricing data = more impressions at lower costs. Optimizer tracks rich audience data (who watches what shows and when?) and pricing data (how much does it cost to advertise on each channel at each time slot?) to determine the highest return-on-investment for each ad slot. So if your target audience watches Monday Night Football and then tunes in for reruns of Seinfeld, Optimizer will tell you to buy Seinfeld rerun advertisements. They’re cheaper. (Watch Carol Davidsen talk about Obama’s Optimizer at PDF ’15)

That being said, the rollout of Civis’s Media Optimizer provides a nice opportunity to reflect on exactly how data is changing politics. The most interesting thing about Optimizer might be what it doesn’t try to do.

Here are two things that Optimizer won’t change:

  1. It doesn’t change the long-term drift away from live television viewership. We are a less captive audience today than we were a decade or two ago. The trend in TV viewership is toward time-delayed viewing (recording on your DVR and then skipping past commercials), and cord-cutting/unbundling (getting rid of the cable subscription entirely in favor of HBO GO, Netflix, Hulu, Apple TV, Amazon Prime, etc). In the 2014 election, the “Off The Grid” survey conducted by Google, Targeted Victory, and Well & Lighthouse found that 29 percent of likely voters do not watch live television in a given week. That trend is going to continue in 2016 and beyond. Optimizer doesn’t bring the live television audience back. It just gives campaigns and companies better data so they can adapt.
  2. It doesn’t change the content of the ads themselves. Most debates about the internet and elections revolve around microtargeting. As campaigns learn more and more about the citizens they’re trying to persuade, the big worry is that we will enter into a new golden age of hyper-targeted propaganda, with campaigns representing themselves one way to Citizen A and a different way to Citizen B, all aided by heaps of analytics. Optimizer is a much more common-sense application of analytics. It doesn’t change which advertisements a campaign or company produces. It just helps campaigns and companies find the audience that it was intending to target already.

One could argue that the Media Optimizer will eventually affect the content of advertisements. Maybe, if companies and campaigns have more ad dollars to spend (because of the savings from Optimizer) and see better results from those advertisements, them they might invest that money in producing a wider range of advertisements and start targeting narrower segments of the public. But that’s a long ways down the road, if it ever happens at all. Optimizer isn’t actually a tool for campaign microtargeting. It’s a tool for improving campaign targeting.

Civis’s product is potentially a big step forward for campaigns and companies. It’s bad for traditional ad consultants, whose cushy gig now faces some legit competition. For citizens/consumers, it’s pretty neutral. We’ll see more ads targeted at people like us on the shows we watch live. We’ll still skip past those ads when we watch online or on DVR. And the cord-cutting/time-delaying trend is only going to get stronger over time.

And that’s a nice reminder about analytics/algorithms/the internet and the “disruption” of politics: yeah, some of these new products represent a big change. But it often isn’t the change we were expecting or fearing.