Can You Really Target a Twitter Ad at Just the President?

White House with geofence lines drawn around it
Can you really target President Donald Trump’s Twitter feed like this?
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo from the National Archives/United States Library of Congress

The Washingtonian reported Sunday that tenacious D.C. lobbyists have been increasingly trying to target social media ads directly at high-ranking figures in the Trump administration, including the Twitter-obsessed president himself. Some firms claim that they’ve used a technique called geofencing to target ads at people in the White House, Mar-a-Lago, and the Trump Hotel based on the president’s traveling schedule. “We’re following [Trump] where he goes,” said a partner at one lobbying firm. Consultants also claimed to have geofenced Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump’s home, restaurants frequented by administration officials, and a school attended by the child of an influential figure in the president’s orbit. Can you really target Twitter ads at the president by geofencing a building that he’s occupying?

Not quite. Geofencing is a real technique, but it wouldn’t work this effectively with social media platforms like Twitter.

If you wanted to target people in the Trump Hotel or Mar-a-Lago at a given time, you could do so. You would provide the location of the building to a tech vendor, which would pinpoint the mobile devices inside and allow you to serve banner and video ads as those phones browse the web. This technique is typically used to target groups of people, such as those attending a festival who may be receptive to ads about tickets for upcoming events. There are also reports that political campaigns are using geofencing to funnel messaging to people who attend a party meeting. These uses allow a higher margin of error than trying to capture one person’s attention would. Geofencing isn’t perfect. For one, there are ways to dodge it by opting out of certain settings and using blocking tools, but given that Trump reportedly refuses to take basic security precautions for his cellphones, it’s plausible that he has not tried to counteract this ad tactic himself.

Twitter and other social media platforms usually do not let advertisers target people based on IP addresses, cellphones, or buildings, though. The narrowest area you can target on Twitter is a zip code. Mar-a-Lago’s zip code, 33480, encompasses almost all of Palm Beach, Florida. If you were trying to target the president on Twitter during one of his vacations there, you’d essentially have to serve ads to everyone in that town and hope that the president happens to spot it while scrolling through his feed. The zip code of the Trump International Hotel in D.C. covers a swath of the downtown area inhabited by dozens of other businesses. Similar problems would stop you from targeting the Kushner-Trump household or other spots too precisely. Even if you layered further targeting based on things like gender and interests, you’d reach many people without executive power.

If lobbyists also want to serve ads to senior officials who work alongside Trump, geofarming might be the better option. Geofencing allows you to serve ads to devices while they are in a particular location. Geofarming, on the other hand, lets you follow those devices even after they leave the vicinity, so senior aides might see an ad at home even if they didn’t catch it during their workday in the White House. As the Washingtonian noted, these campaigns are often trying to catch the eyes of other people who could influence the president, too.

These targeting techniques may seem like an inefficient way to reach a single individual—because they are. But for someone as influential as Trump, firms often decide that it is worth wasting lots of money and targeting thousands of people in hopes the commander in chief stumbles across their ad. After all, not everyone has the budget for an ad on Fox & Friends.

Explainer thanks Amy Kelleher, a director at Bully Pulpit Interactive, and Mark Jablonowski, CTO and managing partner at DSPolitical.