Expert Commentary

Targeted internet ads may improve millennial voter turnout

Targeted internet ads may encourage more millennials to vote in municipal elections, according to a new study published in Political Communication.

Young man using tablet.

If you want to get more millennials to vote in municipal races, targeted internet ads may help, according to a new study published in Political Communication.

The study, done in partnership with The Dallas Morning News, finds that Dallas voters between the ages of 23 and 35 were more likely to participate in certain local races if they had been targeted by internet ads promoting election news coverage and election reminders.

The effect was small — turnout was less than 1 percentage point higher among these millennials compared with those in the control group, which did not receive any ads. But the ads were shown to be more effective than direct mail and automated phone calls, the study’s lead author, Katherine Haenschen, told Journalist’s Resource.

Reaching millennials is of particular interest to community leaders, political party officials and campaign organizers because people born between 1981 and 1996 are projected to become America’s largest voting bloc. Millennials made up 27 percent of the voting-age population in the United States in November 2016, just under Baby Boomers, who comprised 31 percent, a 2018 report from the Pew Research Center shows. Boomers were born between 1946 and 1964.

While the number of millennials continues to grow – largely through immigration and naturalization, according to Pew – millennials are much less likely to vote than earlier generations. For example, 51 percent of eligible millennials nationwide voted in the 2016 presidential election, compared with 69 percent of Boomers.

This study claims to present the first evidence that online ads can boost voter participation. Haenschen, a communication professor at Virginia Tech, said they can be especially useful in reaching millennials and other hard-to-reach voters, including those who live in remote locations or do not have landline telephones.

A digital advertising agency was hired to deliver these ads using cookie targeting.

“It’s just like with any campaign – use it strategically,” Haenschen said. “Young people are shown to have a higher rate of moving and are harder to canvass and harder to contact. While your physical address changes, your IP address … may be a more accurate way to get to someone.”

The researchers find that millennial turnout increased in more competitive political races after millennials were targeted with two different kinds of internet ads over a four-week period. The ads, designed by The Dallas Morning News, either promoted the newspaper’s election coverage or encouraged people to vote and directed them to election-related information on the newspaper’s website.

How the study was conducted

During the study, the ads, a combination of banner ads and videos, displayed a total of 3.4 million times. They appeared a maximum of four times daily anywhere members of the targeted group looked online, except for social media platforms such as Facebook.

The study does suggest digital ads could backfire in some situations. Dallas millennials targeted by ads were slightly less likely to vote in “uncompetitive” races – uncontested races and races where one candidate was expected to win by a substantial margin. But the difference in voting behavior in these races was not found to be statistically significant, Haenschen explained.

For the study, Haenschen and Jay Jennings, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Texas at Austin, obtained a list of all voters who met three criteria: They were registered in one of Dallas’ 14 single-member districts, were between the ages of 23 to 35 and had voted in 2014 or 2016. The resulting sample comprised a total of 74,102 voters, who were randomly assigned to one of four conditions within the experiment.

One group was targeted to receive ads promoting The Dallas Morning News’ election coverage while another was targeted to receive election reminders. The fourth group received both types of ad. The control group, used for comparison purposes, received no ads.

Ads promoting local election coverage ran from April 9-23, 2017. Voting reminder ads ran from April 24 through May 6 — the day municipal elections were held that year in Dallas.

Here are some other takeaways from the study:

  • Only 1.63 percent of millennial voters in Dallas participated in municipal elections in either 2013 or 2015. The average age of voters in the group was 29 and at least 58 percent were female.
  • Turnout among millennial voters who were targeted by both types of ads was 0.52 percentage points higher in competitive districts as compared to the control group. However, researchers believe the effect is actually larger because not all voters could be targeted by ads. The digital advertising agency was only able to match 57.7 percent of voters in the sample to the cookie database. The researchers estimate that the actual effect of being exposed to the ads is an increase in turnout of 0.91 percentage points. That would make digital ads as effective as phone banking, a popular but labor-intensive strategy for mobilizing voters that requires a person or group of people to call voters individually.
  • “The success of this experiment demonstrates that individually targeted Internet ads are a worthwhile avenue for future research into the effects of digital media on voter mobilization.”

Looking for more research on millennials? Check out our write-ups on how social media affects millennials’ political views and how a provision of the Affordable Care Act benefits millennials.


Story ideas from Katherine Haenschen:

  • Millennial voters: Pursue stories that look at whether young people are more involved in local politics when a millennial is running for office. Also, look at how elected officials who are millennials are engaging millennial voters, in terms of their messaging and digital media outreach as well as their policy ideas.
  • Digital ads: Ask political candidates what they think about using these ads considering how controversial they were during the 2016 presidential election. How do their attitudes compare to political consultants’ views on targeted ads?


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