BlueLithium Joins in Push for Political Dollars, but Is It Worth It?

ClickZ_Campaign08_katefinal.jpgIn the past few election cycles, more and more online ad services and tech firms have crawled from the woodwork to pitch notoriously TV-centric political ad clients. The latest to test the political campaign waters is ad network BlueLithium, which spent the past few months networking with political consultants and issue organizations to develop new political-oriented offerings. In essence, the company has repackaged its pre-existing ad network as a Voter Network. But is the still nascent and relatively tiny online political ad market worth devoting staff and resources to? And is changing terms like “branding” to “name recognition” enough to attract attention from campaign consultants?

Hoping to woo presidential, congressional and gubernatorial candidate campaigns and advocacy groups, BlueLithium is presenting its ad network as a Voter Network, and pushing use of behavioral, geographic and demographic targeting as a means of fundraising and even persuasion and driving get-out-the-vote efforts. The network includes about 1,000 Web sites and reaches 119 million Americans, according to the company.

Already a small number of presidential campaigns has experimented with advertising through the network, according to BlueLithium CMO Dakota Sullivan, who told ClickZ News that liberal activist group MoveOn.org is running a campaign using a widget-like ad format to recruit new members. According to Sullivan, the format can be distributed to other sites by users, which is where the widget element comes in.

The network will run video and standard units, targeting ads using demographic, geographic and behavioral data, or a combination of the three. Still, using behavioral data for political campaigns might seem too intrusive to some who take their political beliefs especially personally. Sullivan said he thinks such hyper-targeted Web ads will be acceptable to younger voters who are more comfortable with this sort of targeting. “I think this is how you reach kids,” he said.

Sullivan acknowledges that in unveiling its Voter Network, BlueLithium is repackaging what it already offers to commercial advertisers, but the political products are a work in progress. “We’re trying to get out there and see what sticks,” he said. The company is also offering site development and fundraising transaction services.

It makes sense companies want to move into the world of politics because it’s sexy, said Michael Bassik, VP Internet advertising at political consulting firm MSHC Partners. What BlueLithium is doing is “part of a larger movement by the networks,” said Bassik.

Ad tech firms have also dabbled in the political sphere in recent years. Last year, Gannett’s PointRoll launched its Voter Impact suite of ad formats, renaming and slightly altering already available products in an attempt to appeal to political campaigns. Klipmart, Viewpoint’s Unicast and video technology firm Rovion also worked with political campaigns and groups leading up the ’06 congressional election.

The question remains whether simply renaming a network or product is enough to get the attention of political advertisers, or if it risks being perceived as patronizing. It takes more than repackaging pre-existing offerings, said Eric Frenchman, chief Internet strategist at political consulting agency Connell Donatelli Inc., which has done interactive work for John McCain’s presidential campaign this year. The larger campaigns, he said, “are a little more sophisticated to see that somebody’s packaging or repackaging.” To him, “It’s still about the network, it’s still about the results, it’s still about the pricing.”

Video ad network Tremor Media is running expandable video banners and pre-roll spots for three current presidential campaigns. According to Tremor COO Andrew Reis, there’s no need to repackage Tremor’s network. “We’re also focusing on the Olympics, and we’re not necessarily going to create a separate network for the Olympics,” he said. “We already have the technologies to reach the target [political advertisers] want.” Still, he thinks BlueLithium’s approach makes sense from a merchandising perspective.

The alterations that would be ideal for political campaigns, said MSHC’s Bassik, have to do with contractual terms and conditions. In this risk-averse world, politicians require immediate out clauses, allowing for a campaign to stop on a dime in the wake of a news event affecting the candidate. “Online publishers need to follow the terms and conditions that the TV and radio industry have created to accommodate the political realities of campaigns,” he said.

Flexible pricing models along with additional case studies proving the value of Web advertising for things like favorability, as opposed to purchase intent, would also help get politicos on board, said Bassik.

During the last presidential campaign season in 2004, campaigns spent $2.66 million on online ads between January and August, compared to the $330 million they dropped on TV ads, according to the Pew Internet and American Life Project. When political campaigns continue to spend so little on online advertising, why bother catering to them yet? After all, candidate campaigns are renowned for not paying their bills and canceling a media buy at a moment’s notice; plus, many smaller campaigns have yet to buy into the notion of running online ads.

Gaining experience is one good reason, said Connell Donatelli’s Frenchman. “The money has to be there eventually,” he said. “Getting involved earlier to get experience with it is better.”

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