Libertarian Think Tank Takes Digital to Lunch

Just as Facebook and YouTube are forums for President Obama and the Republicans to push their budget and federal debt agendas, groups like Cato Institute also aim to influence the conversation through digital channels. The libertarian think tank has a lot to learn when it comes to incorporating social media, online ads, and microsites into its more traditional media-focused marketing efforts. So, Cato has been inviting digital media experts to a series of lunchtime educational sessions in the hopes of honing the organization’s new media marketing knowledge and skills.

Recently, Facebook’s associate manager of policy communications, Brooke Oberwetter, along with consultants from New Media Strategies, have swung by Cato’s Washington, D.C. offices, according to George Scoville, manager of new media at Cato, who is arranging the lunch meetings. YouTube content and marketing people have also stopped by for a midday dine and learn session. A consultant from Republican shop Craft is also set to speak at Cato about blogger outreach, said Scoville. Cato, a non-profit public policy research organization has been hosting the lunches since the start of the year.

“I try to bring interesting people to talk about topics,” said Scoville, who believes, “There are a lot of great lessons that organizations in the space we’re in can learn from what commercial brands are doing. Coca-Cola and Dominos are probably two of the best in terms of how they engage their fans online.”

The organization often promotes its books, events, or policy analysis work using Google AdWords; for instance, Cato has been targeting against U.S. Constitution-related keywords to market its “Pocket Constitution.” Yet, as the think tank has extended its presence online, ensuring that its copious archives of research and opinion on topics from free trade to the Arab Spring are well-organized and easily accessible is an increasingly important goal.

“We’re a think tank; we’re sitting on piles of info,” said Scoville. Sometimes surfacing that information is as simple as a tweet with a witty hook. Another way Cato is harnessing its reams of research is through microsites. features a department-by-department look at how the federal government spends taxpayer dollars. A recent @CatoInstitute tweet suggested, “As special interests line up at the trough, remember: the deck is stacked against taxpayers,” and linked to an article on the DownsizingGovernment site.

Exposing and distributing its ideas and research – Cato’s main product line, so to speak – has become so demanding that the organization aims to hire a new staff member to assist in making “sure all that we do is formatted and offered in the widest range possible – for Droids, iPhones, Kindles, Nooks, laptops, among many others,” noted Robert Garber, Cato’s director of marketing.

The site is part of the group’s efforts to insert libertarian ideas into discussions about the federal budget and debt. Though Cato ran full-page print ads promoting the DownsizingGovernment site in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Roll Call, and elsewhere, it hasn’t done much if any paid advertising online to support the site, which is still somewhat in development. The organization expects to do more online marketing of the site in the coming months.

Cato spends around $1,000 per month on Google AdWords ads, and has increased its online ad budget over the years rather than reallocating money from other channels. The group also places ads in political email newsletters, often to promote a book or event, but at this stage, Cato does little online advertising for fundraising efforts.

“When it comes to paid advertising, we generally focus on a specific entity,” Garber told ClickZ. “That’s frequently a book or event or new report, but at times it is a major policy issue,” such as shrinking the federal government, he said.

Continued Garber, “It has been really fascinating and challenging for us to use this particular area as a way of braiding all of our outreach resources together. In addition to the site itself, we conduct informational outreach via Facebook and Twitter, post related podcasts and videos, offer free e-books, place banner ads on related sites, create related Google AdWords campaigns, post items on our YouTube channel, and more. The challenge is to also keep people coming back.”

Related reading

Website landing page vector graphic