Microsoft Takes Aim at Google’s Growing Political Business

ClickZ News - Politics & AdvocacyWashington, D.C.– As November’s midterm elections creep closer, Microsoft hopes to win political campaign clients for its new cloud-based tools, including a community management platform.

At an annual conference in Washington D.C. for political consultants, media firms, and tech vendors, Microsoft unveiled its Campaign Ready tool set for election and advocacy campaigns and government clients. The company held a press conference Monday morning for bloggers attending the Politics Online Conference hosted by George Washington University.

With the move, Microsoft puts itself in direct competition with Google in a new arena by creating Web tools for political campaigns and government operations.

“Microsoft is seeing two things,” suggested Michael Panetta, partner at Beekeeper Group, a social media consulting firm serving advocacy and nonprofit groups. “[Number one], the heaps of money spent on political television advertising is moving online at a rapid pace, and [number two], Google has been aggressively courting this market for several years.”

However, while the new Microsoft offering could help the company compete with Google on the political software front, it won’t necessarily help when it comes to an increasingly lucrative arena: online political advertising. Google has become the dominant player, often snatching up as much as half of the money election and advocacy campaigns spend on Web advertising. Many such campaigns use Google AdWords as a starting point for online list-building and fundraising efforts. Whether Microsoft’s political push will encourage election or advocacy campaigns to spend more on Bing or Microsoft’s display advertising is anyone’s guess.

Google has ad sales staff dedicated to bringing in new elections and advocacy clients, and often sponsors political sector events such as the American Association of Political Consultants conference held in Arizona this March. Google also recently held separate educational events in its D.C. offices for Republican and Democratic campaign and legislative staffers.

“Campaigns and politics provide huge, and predictable, business cycles, and Microsoft would be crazy not to want to play in that sandbox,” said Panetta.

Still, today even the most savvy political campaigns spend only around 5 percent or less of their overall advertising budgets online, and there’s little indication of that increasing drastically anytime soon.

One way Microsoft hopes to gain traction is through the launch of community tools. Its TownHall platform will likely be compared to Ning, a system for creating private or specialized social networks. Scott Brown’s 2010 Senate campaign, for instance, used Ning as an inexpensive way to communicate with volunteers, and help them organize campaign activities. Microsoft’s cloud-based system allows supporters to interact, contribute media, and vote on ideas. Campaigns can also monitor discussions to determine which concepts resonate with the community.

Microsoft said the community platform also includes a reputation system that collects data associated with a profile, and can be used to track interactions and award points to active members. Such information could be valuable for election campaigns seeking to identify what they might refer to as super volunteers, willing to run events or enlist other supporters. Perhaps more important to data-hungry political campaigns, the system lets organizations own the interaction data and run reports based on it.

The tool set appears to be a work in progress. According to a Monday blog post from Pamela Passman, Microsoft’s corporate VP, Global Corporate Affairs, and Curt Kolcun, VP, U.S. Public Sector, the company plans to expand Campaign Ready to encompass more tools in the future.

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