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Max Fleishman

For Pandora, political ads are a growing business.

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BY SAM ROUDMAN

How much can you guess about someone from their musical tastes? Does a metal aficionado differ ideologically from a devout listener of Christian rock? The streaming service Pandora thinks so, and increasingly, political campaigns do too. 

Given your listening habits and a couple other dots of information, the streaming radio giant can target potential voters in races at the local, state, and national level.

To do this, Pandora relies on a massive base of over 80 million monthly users of voting age. Users are then categorized into specific segments, broken down by state and legislative district, and groupings as varied as Latinos, hybrid owners, moms, and tech enthusiasts. In the never-ending race to win the narrow slice of voters who might change their minds, Pandora shows how a macro scale helps for microtargeting, and traces the development of digital campaigns over the last decade.

For Pandora, political ads are a growing business. “In 2012 we had one dedicated seller on political ads, and now we have a team of 12,” says Sean Duggan, who leads the company’s political advertising efforts. The company says demand for ads from both Republican and Democratic candidates has increased 500 percent since 2014. In 2012, there were only 30 categories used to microtarget users; now there are 1,000. 

The company is taking advantage of a long-running trend. Since the postwar invention of a consumer category called "teenager," popular music has not just been about the music. Our tastes reveal hints about our age, ethnicity, geography, class, gender, and of course, our politics. And if our musical choices can tell us who we are, they can tell advertisers too. And on the internet where every click can be cataloged, and every listening session measured, advertisers can learn more than ever before.

Only sometimes are Pandora’s political ads bought primarily based on users’ musical preferences. “We can give you the targeting of evangelical Christian music in this state, and [a campaign can] make the inference of where those people lie in the political spectrum,” says Duggan. It only takes a couple bits of identifying information to target people with much greater precision, and Pandora requires your age, gender, zipcode, and email address to sign in. “We don’t just rely on a cell tower and an IP address to kind of guess where you’re potentially going to vote,” says Duggan. Sometimes their political ads are sold without reference to users’ musical taste at all—they have enough users to inundate a congressional district if requested. 

Digital campaigning and targeting is still a relatively new frontier. “2008 proved that digital could produce a return on investment,” says Mark Skidmore, a partner at Bully Pulpit Interactive, a marketing firm founded by the digital marketers from Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential run, and which places ads with Pandora. By 2012, he says, campaigners were able to target voters across sites, from Google to Facebook. For this cycle he says, “Everybody realizes if they have an ad platform you better have the ability to target a specific set of customers or voters.”

According to Skidmore, Pandora is now a better option for placing political ads than even Spotify, which he says is “not as granular” and “not as targeted.”

Another major trend for online advertisers this decade is the migration of users to mobile. According to the company, 80 percent of Pandora’s listening now takes place on a mobile device. “What campaigns are realizing is [they] have to be on mobile,” says Duggan. Typically, he says, radio has been a last resort for campaigns, that “when television sells out, that’s when campaigns go to radio.” On mobile, campaigns can target voters all the way up until election day. “It’s a huge advantage to be that last conversation,” says Duggan.

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