It’s the hot new term of art. But what does ‘programmatic’ mean?

In the nascent years of the Internet, advertisers had to work directly with sales representatives from publishers in order to buy display and video advertisements. It was a time-intensive process, and ad impressions were much more expensive.

But the biggest problem for political marketers was achieving any degree of scale among the targets that really mattered. Unlike e-commerce companies that can afford to spend digital ad dollars anywhere in the country – because anyone with a computer and access to the Internet is a potential customer – political campaigns need to focus on very specific people. They need to reach very specific geographic areas – like a Congressional District – so that they’re only communicating with people who are eligible to vote in a specific election. And beyond just geography, campaigns only care about reaching specific people who are both likely to actually cast a ballot in an upcoming election, and are likely to be persuadable.

While marketers can spend lots of money and serve enormous number of impressions on premium websites like if they are willing to spend nationally, the available impressions on any given website within a small geography are never going to be enough to move poll numbers in a political campaign. Assembling an Internet advertising buy with large enough reach to make a real difference in an election when you are buying media from individual publishers is an overwhelming task. So it’s no surprise that, for years, political campaigns lagged behind other industries in terms of the percentage of marketing budgets that went to digital compared to more traditional forms of advertising like TV and radio. Those mediums allowed political campaigns to broadcast their message with enough frequency that voters could gain recall of campaign messages; digital advertising did not.

And that’s precisely why the advent of programmatic advertising has been so revolutionary for political marketers. In recent years, the number of companies working in the ad tech space has proliferated. Instead of just buyers and publishers, supply-side platforms have emerged that aggregate content from thousands of publishers, data companies now allow us to find and target very precise targets across a host of different websites, and sophisticated ad servers make reporting much easier.

Those of us in the digital buying space now bid on impressions in a similar fashion to how Wall Street traders bid on stocks. The proximity of the buyer to the publisher has diminished, but the power of advertisers to reach the right targets has increased by an order of magnitude.

Now it’s not only possible to deliver enough impressions in tiny geographies to ensure campaigns get their message out, they can also focus like a laser on exactly the right targets. For example, campaigns can target just registered independents who have a history of voting in presidential elections – and they can serve enough impressions to these small audiences that they can move poll numbers. These innovations, combined with the fact that voters are spending more and more time online, mean that digital marketers will demand a much larger share of media dollars in the years to come.