Operation Manatee: Lib Dems launch unique digital advertising campaign, and it’s big

People using computers and driining coffee
To add to the targeting of website content based on where people are (see The front page of the Lib Dem website isn’t all it seems), the Liberal Democrats are now rolling out a unique digital advertising campaign targeting swing voters and those not certain to vote.

With letterboxes often crowded with pizza leaflets and it becoming increasing difficult to find people in when out doorstep canvassing, online advertising offers the opportunity to reach voters where they actually are spending their time – as long as you can reach real people, living in marginal seats and who aren’t die-hard opponents.

It’s why properly integrating data gathered by local campaigners with national marketing activities is also so important – and the perils of getting it wrong has been nicely illustrated by the Conservatives sending out a target letter from David Cameron to… Liberal Democrat MP Norman Lamb.

To get it right, you need to call on all the data available to a party to work out who to target and with what message.

Called Operation Manatee (an aquatic herbivore that is large and, ahem, cuddly rather than deadly*), this Lib Dem advertising approach aims to achieve just that:

[Manatee] will see more than two million targeted messages delivered to voters through Facebook and YouTube in the final hours of the general election campaign. Based on technology developed exclusively by the Liberal Democrats, no other party is able to target voters online in this way.

Unlike the digital campaigns typically run by political parties, the Lib Dem project is fully integrated with the party’s canvassing database. That means voters are targeted with messages that are tailored to them based on conversations with Lib Dem activists on the doorstep as well as demographic information.

The party’s canvassing database, Connect, is the same system used by Barack Obama for his two election victories and used exclusively by the Lib Dems in the UK. The party have extended this system to match electoral roll data to Facebook and YouTube profiles for millions of voters across the country. This match is then used to deliver targeted Facebook posts and YouTube adverts.

The privacy of individual voters is protected through the process. The matching takes place via a secure third party and no information on the political views of any voters is sent to Facebook or YouTube.

Experiments conducted by the Liberal Democrats during the 2014 local elections convinced them of the power of digital advertising to influence voters. The party ran a large scale trial in London which demonstrated that voters who saw targeted digital adverts during the final few hours of the election became significantly more likely to vote Liberal Democrat.

Commenting, Liberal Democrat’s Digital Director Steve Pitman said “This is the first time any political party has been able to target digital communications in this way. Typically, voters would be targeted simply by geography but that means you’re sending an awful lot of people the wrong message. This is different. For example if you tell one of our activists that the NHS is a key issue for you in the election then we could present you with a video on YouTube or Facebook which reflects that.”

That trial last year (in which I was involved in a small, tangential way) was impressively successful at securing extra voters per pound spent, so no surprise the party is using this launch as a push for extra last minute donations – which in a world of online adverts really can be used for extra last minute campaigning.

Here’s the party’s video explaining the operation:

There’s also more on the privacy protection built into Manatee here.

* Trivial fact: the plan was previously briefly called Operation Big Bird.

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