A Golden Opportunity: Politics and SEM

Search engine marketing (SEM) may well be the new frontier for political parties, candidates, political action committees (PACs), and lobbyists. Even during a non-presidential election year, candidates hoping to sway the electorate spend millions on advertising. A presidential election means several hundred million media dollars will be spent. Online political advertising hasn’t grown at the same rate as e-commerce, and search is no exception.

This year, things may change. A recent comScore study illustrates just how powerfully the Web shapes voter attitudes:

  • 40 percent of visitors say the Internet has made them more interested in politics.

  • 30 percent say the Internet has made them more involved in politics (volunteer, donate, etc.).
  • 20 percent say Web sites have actually changed their opinions regarding candidates or issues.

Additional evidence includes the surging popularity of candidate and political discussion groups, even organization facilitation such as Meetup (renowned for Dean’s grassroots campaign, but there are topical Meetups for all candidates). Even the “miserable failure” Google bombing of the president was an organic search engine optimization (SEO) tactic that got huge media buzz.

The momentum is undeniable. Internet users can be passionate about a cause. They’re also interested in learning about issues, policies, and candidates. For the month of December, the Overture Search Term Suggestion Tool provides a peek into searchers’ psyches. The following keyword counts are likely to significantly under-represent true inventory as they don’t include Google and they lag by a month:

  • “George W. Bush” searches (assorted phrases): over 140,000

  • “Howard Dean” searches (assorted phrases): over 195,000
  • “John Kerry” searches (assorted phrases): over 30,000
  • “Iraq war” searches: over 44,000
  • “Election 2004” (various permutations): over 25,000
  • “Candidate” (various permutations): over 30,000
  • “Economy” (various permutations): over 100,000

It’s a goldmine for candidates. They could take a fraction of a TV campaign’s cost and have an SEM budget. SEM would allow them to quickly tune campaigns based on breaking issues and news, and other candidates currently in play. Google campaigns can go up in minutes, Overture campaigns within a day or two.

This could be huge. Will it be?

Imagine:

  • Issues-based SEM campaigns by parties, candidates, or PACs. Searchers click an ad to learn more about the issue (with the spin of the organization paying for the ad, of course).

  • Candidate ads on searches for their names, as Howard Dean has done with his.
  • Candidate ads on the competition’s name. John Edwards has a Google AdWords ad on “Joe Lieberman” as a search term. At press time, no candidate had bid on “John Kerry” as a Google keyword.
  • Party ads on a candidate’s name. The political party (instead of the candidate) could advertise on its candidate’s name.
  • PACs could advertise on the name of the candidate they endorse. The landing page would outline the platform or reason for the endorsement.
  • Negative name advertising. Any party, candidate, or PAC could negatively advertise by sending searchers to a site that’s mildly negative or a down-and-dirty attack on the opposition.
  • Candidates can comment on their sites about hot news stories. The associated advertising would allow candidates to appear extremely topical and current.
  • Geotargeted political advertising can use the ever-improving targeting in AdWords and from other search vendors to pinpoint messages to the correct Zip Codes.

This year, we’ll see paid search ads for keywords we never imagined, by groups we didn’t expect. The only thing holding back the explosion is marketers’ ignorance. Campaign managers may expect ad agencies to take the lead. But political agencies tend to be judged on splashy TV, radio, print, and outdoor advertising. That must change.

Perhaps campaign managers will conduct SEM themselves. My guess is they’ll use combinations of visibility and return-on-investment (ROI) metrics. After all, campaign sites are fundraising vehicles, as well where voters can sign up for newsletters or to volunteer.

These post-click activities are valuable. Candidates could use a multivariable success metric to tune campaigns given a particular spend. If they have larger resources, they might try a position-based strategy on critically important keywords and run a very broad campaign based on post-click metrics.

According to the major search engines, no special rules exist in respect to political advertising and paid placement (the largest inventory opportunity). The editorial policies for all other advertising apply.

This year, the best political advertising could be a text search ad leading to a highly engaging Flash site or to a Web site that goes beyond sound bites to delve into the platforms and issues.

That would be refreshing.

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