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Trump starts tracking, targeting fans with web ad software

Donald Trump is finally acknowledging that his online activity has to go beyond just posting on Twitter and Facebook.

The Republican Party's presumptive nominee for president has started using online advertising software from ad-tech company Rocket Fuel that can help the campaign track user behavior, send targeted messages to prospective supporters and engage with fans.

CNBC.com learned of the addition by using Ghostery, a browser plug-in that shows all the data tracking tools running on a website.

Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders turned to ad-tech software early on in the Democratic primary cycle, as did Ted Cruz and others on the Republican side. Trump, by contrast, has boasted of the leanness of his media effort, counting on messages to his many millions of Twitter and Facebook followers, plus all the free attention he gets from non-stop news coverage.

That strategy wasn't going to work in a general election against the well-capitalized and data-heavy Clinton machine. According to reports last week filed with the Federal Election Commission, Trump had $1.3 million in the bank at the end of May, compared with $42 million in the Clinton coffers.

Trump sent his first fundraising email last week asking for support. He also fired campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, elevating long-time Republican operative Paul Manafort, who's expected to quickly beef up hiring and spending.

According to Ghostery, Trump's website is running software from Rocket Fuel and [x+1], a provider of automated ad-buying tools that Rocket Fuel acquired in 2014.

JC Medici, Rocket Fuel's national director of politics and advocacy, said the company can't comment on specific customers.

"We do work with a variety of political clients, from presidential candidates to small down-ballot races and super PACs of all sizes on both sides of the aisle," he said in an email. "As campaigns have become more sophisticated, they're adopting more advanced digital tools and reaching voters in more sophisticated ways."

Hope Hicks, Trump's spokeswoman, didn't respond to a request for comment.

Rocket Fuel's programmatic marketing platform helps customers target relevant users and engage with them at the right time. In April, the Redwood City, California-based company said that National Media Research Planning and Placement, a Republican communications agency, would be utilizing Rocket Fuel's technology for its 2016 campaigns.

"Using Rocket Fuel's marketing platform, we can quickly reach out and engage voters, both for candidates and on important conservative issues, in real-time at the moment when they can best be influenced," the agency said at the time.

Hillary Clinton, Democratic Presidential Candidate
Justin Sullivan | Getty Images
Hillary Clinton, Democratic Presidential Candidate

National Media hasn't announced if it's working with the Trump campaign, and the firm didn't respond to a request for comment.

President Barack Obama relied heavily on ad-tech in his 2012 re-election bid, targeting voters down to the ZIP code and reaching them with messages specific to their age group. Clinton, understanding the importance of data in the campaign, hired former Google executive Stephanie Hannon last year to be her chief technology officer.

Clinton's website runs software from Optimizely to connect with supporters, according to Ghostery. She also uses tools from Adconion, Advertising.com and Underdog Media as well as analytics from Heap and Yahoo.

In addition to RocketFuel, Trump is using predictive marketing software from TellApart, which was acquired by Twitter last year. Both campaigns use standard social and analytics tools from Google and Facebook.