Big Data

The advertising tech powering the 2016 election

How data firm Targeted Victory uses automation, machine learning, and Apache Spark to microtarget voters online, on TV screens, and on smartphones to raise big money for political campaigns.

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If you're a voter, you are a target market.

The ability to model and transform big data into useful tools has emerged as one of the most ubiquitous technology trends of the 2016 election. To get out the vote, behind the scenes in campaigns up and down each ticket, workers and volunteers deploy sophisticated tools to reach voters with relevant messages and advertisements.

Large scale automation is at the core of online audience acquisition. Targeted Victory is a technology platform that makes big data useable by campaign workers in the office and on the ground. Launched in 2009 as a political fundraising and donation tool, the company now develops a suite of tools—including a programmatic advertising system, an email marketing engine, and a traffic exchange market—that help big brands and political clients target-market messages at digital audiences.

Targeted Victory has a deep history of fusing tech and politics, and the company's CTO Pete Sheridan knows how to find markets online. Big data has come a long way since the last election. "Heading into the [2012] election," Sheridan said, "the Romney campaign had a handful of national audiences. This year, while we were working with the Cruz campaign, they were targeting over 160 audiences in Iowa alone. This impacts every level of the stack, from integration to execution to [data] reporting."

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With the 2016 presidential election only weeks away, the stakes are high for Targeted Victory. The company internalized lessons from the 2012 and 2014 campaigns and built a

media-buying technology called Victory Engine. "[The tool] is a cross-screen media planning, data management, execution, and analytics [platform]," Sheridan said.

From TVs to smartphones, the goal is to deliver the right message to the right user on the right screen at the right time, then to convert that user to become a donor, customer, voter, and brand evangelist. Targeting customers is a complex problem to solve and requires a tight but talented tech team. Targeted Victory has 30 people developing more than 20 applications on 200 machines running on Amazon Web Services, Sheridan said.

The platform performs a number of diverse and discrete actions. Sheridan enumerated, "we crunch data on demographic viewership behavior, television markets and pricing, and cable zones to define the most efficient television [advertising] buy. We automate data ... with one of our clients' political CRMs to ensure there's no manual work needed to target custom audience segments. We analyze millions of cookie-level impressions to determine audience reach across campaigns. We prototype data-driven approaches using [Apache] Spark in the Databricks environment and operationalize those approaches either with Spark or ad hoc code ... and use the end result data to power our user-facing applications."

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The technology is powered by Hadoop and streams data with Storm. On the front end, Sheridan said, the company uses Ruby-based frameworks. "All of the data sets core to our applications, whether batch or streaming, are now processed with Spark. Our data engineering team has happily adopted Scala as part of this transition."

Spark is crucial for allowing the company's core technology to be used in a number of different ways. By using a common platform, Sheridan said, Spark also helps Targeted Victory's engineers to work more efficiently. The end result is "a platform that makes this technology very accessible to users of varying skill and experience levels."

The core tech automates actions like email sends and ad buying at high scale. Machine learning is a critical part of the tech's success, Sheridan said, because "it allows us to build better solutions, or simply solve problems we couldn't before. The availability of [machine learning] through the platform is its ability to scale with Spark."

In future election cycles Sheridan predicts a convergence of advertising across screens, large and small. "Campaigns will have to incorporate a targeted rating impression system across all screens," he said. "The single most important thing a future [political] campaign can do is optimize linear television buying. By optimizing a television ad buy, a political campaign could find 10 to 20 percent budget savings, which could power their voter turnout programs, their digital programs, their fundraising, and everything in between. That 10 to 20 percent can mean the difference between winning and losing."

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The automated cross-screen advertising tech has clear utility for non-political big brands, NGOs, and grassroots organizations after the 2016 election. "Our customers are traditionally political campaigns and issue advocacy groups," Sheridan said. "But they are increasingly agencies and companies who want to take advantage of our [technology] platform. Digital agencies will continue to be forced to either build or adopt technology platforms to keep up with their clients' targeting and creative demands."

Targeted Victory's co-founder Zac Moffatt was Digital Director for Mitt Romney for President. In a June interview with TechRepublic Moffatt explained, "we're rooted in politics, but we serve corporate, international, and issue advocacy clients and also offer a host of technology products available to any right of center candidate or cause."

Through the election and after, Sheridan noted, "we are trying to make sure our clients get the best bang for their advertising dollar."

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Dan is a Senior Writer for TechRepublic. He covers cybersecurity and the intersection of technology, politics and government.

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