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Tech / Politics

Union Targets Video Ads to Members on Smartphones

October 5, 2012

A labor union with a young-skewing membership is using a mobile video ad campaign that targets members based on their location to influence and mobilize workers in five states.

"Nearly all of our young members are on smartphones," explains Tim Schlittner, assistant communications director for the United Food and Commercial Workers, which represents 1 million grocery store employees, meatpackers, and food processing plant workers in the U.S. About 30 percent of its membership is under 30 years old. "We thought that doing mobile advertising would be the best way to connect with them."

The union is thinking about targeted video ads as a kind of direct solicitation, like mailers. Schlittner wouldn't disclose the overall spend, but said that "in this cycle, we are spending about as much on mobile advertising as we are on traditional mail, putting forth a significant amount of our member communication budget toward this new technology."

The ads follow UFCW workers on popular bus and train routes, in neighborhoods where they live, and in the plants and factories where they work, using a targeting strategy called "geo-fencing" that uses GPS data and other signals to create a virtual perimeter and serve advertising on mobile websites and apps inside it. Clicking on banner ads on mobile sites launch short videos and connect visitors with ways to support UFCW causes.

In Colorado, the union is looking to boost support for President Obama among Latino workers with an ad centered on immigration. The ads can target Spanish speakers by picking up on a smartphone's internal language setting or whether a user frequently visits Spanish-language sites. The union is also trying to reach college students on Colorado campuses with a message about education funding.

In Ohio and Virginia, the union is backing Democratic candidates in Senate races. The Virginia ads use humor to advance the "war on women" narrative that has come in to play in Democratic campaigns. In a parody of well-known commercials for erectile dysfunction drug Cialis, the web videos depict Republican George Allen wearing a cowboy hat in a bathtub with a female narrator warning about the candidate's position on reproductive health issues.

Michigan ads ask workers to support Proposition 2, which would guarantee public and private employees the right to collective bargaining in the state constitution. In California, the union is looking to stop Proposition 32--called "paycheck protection" by supporters--which would eliminate the use of automatic payroll deductions by unions in politics.

"What makes these ads effective is that they do have a little bit of an edge to them," Schlittner said.

Scott Goodstein of Revolution Messaging, which did the creative work and placement of the ads, said the mobile ads are being clicked on at double the rate of similar desktop ads, although he wouldn't disclose the raw numbers. He said the campaign is also seeing high click rates on sites that don't feature political or news content.

The use of geo-targeted mobile video is still very much in the experimental stages. But Schlittner said he valued its ability to reach members on a device they use "not only every day, but throughout the day," while on breaks or commuting. "Traditional methods of communication, direct mail, even e-mail, tend to get cluttered in with so many other things, while ads on mobile can break through that clutter and get directly to the member," Schlittner said. "As a union, we're focused on not letting the technology pass us by."

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