Type in a Google search for the words immigration reform, and in the split second it takes for your results to pop up, the presidents re-election campaign may begin courting you. Up comes an ad for barackobama.com, next to the search results.
And if you take the next step and click through to the campaigns website, ads for the presidents re-election may start following you around the Web.
The Obama campaign, and to a lesser extent its GOP rivals, have fully embraced the potential of the Internet age to reach possible supporters this campaign season.
The presidents campaign has bought Google advertising space next to all sorts of searches, including Warren Buffett, Obama singing, Obama birthday and, for basketball fans, Obama bracket.
The assumption is that people interested in those topics may also fit the profile of potential Obama backers, making them perfect targets for a strategically placed ad.
The president is not alone on this. Mitt Romney has bought advertising space next to his fathers name, for example, and Rick Santorum has gone for the term Rush Limbaugh, according to Hitwise, a company that samples Internet traffic.
But the Obama campaign is by far the most aggressive in trying to reach voters online, so far spending more on Internet advertising than on television, radio and telemarketing combined.
And his campaign has spent five times more on online ads – jumping from $2.3 million to $12.3 million – than at this point four years ago, when he was running against Hillary Rodham Clinton, federal disclosure records show.
The presidents campaign, which would not discuss its Internet strategy, also is more aggressive in using technology that can track and target people based on the websites theyve been browsing, a practice commonly used in corporate advertising.
The candidates are far from abandoning television, direct mail and other marketing strategies, but the competition to find supporters online has rewritten the book on campaigning.
If youre not advertising online, youre missing out on a huge chunk of people and an ability to influence them, said Tim Lim, a former field organizer for Clinton who runs Precision, an ad firm working with Democratic campaigns.
Still, the practice of tracking and targeting people by their characteristics and their behavior on the Web also raises the specter of intrusion.
Your browsing and your purchase habits and even the activity of your friends on social networks will influence what a candidate says to you, said Ashkan Soltani, an Internet privacy researcher who has consulted for the Federal Trade Commission.
Its great to talk to folks about what they want to hear, but the problem is most people dont know how deeply personalized it is.
Consumer advocates for years have raised objections to the sharing of personal data among companies online. And the Obama administration has called for an online privacy bill of rights that would mean many of the techniques used by the campaign could soon require more transparency and opt-out provisions.
The Obama website explains that data submitted by users in response to surveys will be saved and that the campaign will glean and save other information, such as their locations, computer systems and how they came to the site. The data will be used to personalize messages and might be shared with consultants or other campaigns.
But campaign officials say the list of supporters has not been sold or given away except to Organizing for America, a part of the Democratic National Committee created from the Obamas 2008 campaign.
As is true with other presidential campaigns, we seek to reach voters with a message that is relevant to them using industry standards of online advertising, campaign spokeswoman Katie Hogan said.
This campaign has and always will be an organization that takes care to protect information that people share with us.
Technologies developed since the 2008 campaign allow a new approach, with ads targeting specific segments of users as they move through the Internet.
In 2008, campaigns typically bought ads from a given website based on the demographics of its audience. It was also possible to target audiences by their geographic location, for example, or the text visible on Web pages. So if a campaign wanted to target mothers, it might advertise on a site that suggested baby names or on a page with text about parenting.
That strategy remains, with the Obama campaign blanketing national news sites and those that tend to draw left-leaning viewers, including the New Republic magazine and the discussion forum DailyKos, according to ad tracking firm Moat.com.
But new technologies allow the campaign to target specific segments of the electorate no matter where they are browsing. That is possible because companies tag and track most Internet users as they move around the Web.
When users visit Obamas campaign site, their browsers submit information to more than a dozen outside advertising companies. Then, as they move on to other sites, their browsers notify some of the same advertising companies, who then place Obama campaign ads on the new site.
By comparison, a visit to the Romney campaign site triggered communication with five ad companies, and just four for Santorums site, according to a recent sampling using publicly available software.
The contacts to outside advertisers also allow behavioral marketing, through which ad companies use browsing patterns and online surveys to create rich profiles of users, flagging their likely interests, demographic information and in some cases, their political ideologies.
The companies can then place users into categories and offer campaigns the ability to shape their messages for each category.