Updated 3/18/2018: On March 17, 2018, Facebook announced that Cambridge Analytica was suspended for violating the company's standards and practices. TechRepublic's Dan Patterson spoke with CBS News about how Cambridge Analytica could have harvested so many Facebook profiles. The interview has been added to this article.
Forget microtargeting. Enter: you-targeting. "We use nearly 5 thousand different data points about you to craft and target a message," said Alexander Nix, CEO of data mining firm Cambridge Analytica in a recent interview. "The data points are not just a representative model of you. The data points are about you, specifically."
The turnkey "global election management agency" provides data-driven communications and messaging strategy for political clients. In late 2015, a half dozen or so weeks before the Iowa Caucus, the Ted Cruz campaign dropped $3 million on Cambridge's data enrichment and messaging tools. Cambridge worked with the campaign through the primary season to generate actionable results from big data. The company crafted emotionally charged copy and images used in advertising, direct mail, and robocall and in-person canvass scripts. The language varied dramatically depending on the voter, the issues, and a number of external factors like religion, the role of government, and the local economy. "Data worked well for us in Iowa," said Chris Wilson, former head of analytics for the Cruz campaign. "It helped us communicate with and mobilize voters."
SEE: Seven ways to build brand awareness into your digital strategy (Tech Pro Research report)
Cambridge buys, cleans, and normalizes consumer and corporate data from large vendors, then amalgamates the external sets with their own massive in-house data stack, "enriched," as Nix explained, with social media information and various "acquired" data sets. The final result is an uber-list of over 220 million North American consumer records.
The log is segmented based on client needs, as well as standards established by the OCEAN V personality model. Cambridge's methodology, approved by the US State Department, NATO, and the UK Ministry of Defense, uses the standard to define and quantify unique traits and characteristics about individuals, at massive scale. OCEAN V—an acronym for openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism—is the foundation of "a quantitative instrument to probe these traits," he said. The product is "psychographic, not just demographic."
The Predictive Analytics and Audience Insight tools in particular, Nix said, have been key to understanding what incentivises consumers and voters. Predictive Analytics is a pattern-recognition application that identifies behavior and unique behavioral connections. The Audience Insight app reveals, Nix said, "core personality traits" and motivating triggers.
This worked in Iowa by hyper-targeted messages. In previous elections, two rural voters in Western Iowa would likely see the same or a similar piece of direct mail. Using Cambridge's data and messaging strategies the Cruz campaign was able to send diverse messages to similar—but not the same—voters. For example, one rural neighbor might be targeted thirty percent religious-tinted messages, twenty percent gun rights messages, and thirty percent with economic ads. "Our targeted methods change depending on who you are as an individual," said Nix, "not a model representation of an individual."
READ: 2016 by the numbers: Should Donald Trump be winning? (CBS News)
According to Nix, politics is merely an entry point to the US market. "We are fundamentally politically agnostic and an apolitical organization," he said. "The high volume of Republican primary candidates this cycle allowed us to enter a competitive market."
Cambridge's method of targeting and converting an individual is perfectly tuned for advertising and other forms of automated, behavioral marketing. The company hopes to pivot from politics to the brand space after the election. "Starting with politics, we'd like to replace blanket advertising with individualised targeted and engagement ads," Nix said.
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Dan Patterson has nothing to disclose. He does not hold investments in the technology companies he covers.
Dan is a Senior Writer for TechRepublic. He covers cybersecurity and the intersection of technology, politics and government.