Political Campaigns Discover Online Advertising

Despite the fact that Al Gore invented the Internet, and that would-be politicians are accustomed to spending gobs of money on TV and radio advertising every couple of years, political campaigns are only beginning to put two and two together and recognize the power of advertising online.

Undoubtedly, though, they are “getting it,” as events in this year’s presidential race indicate. And those in the know suggest this is only the beginning of a lucrative, albeit seasonal, revenue stream for ad industry types.

“This will be seen as the year the revolution hit electoral politics,” says Roger Stone, director of the Juno Advocacy Network.

It’s that promise of a market that has fueled the growth of advertising strategy companies setting up shop in Washington D.C. For most, their bread and butter has been lobbying groups, because these issue-oriented advertisers are around all year and create a recurring revenue stream.

“Candidates have been a lot slower to adopt the Internet as part of their strategies than issue groups,” says Jonah Sieger, co-founder of MindShare Internet Campaigns, a small, but growing, firm that works with lobbying groups.

But, says Sieger, “the market for online campaigns and political media strategies has just exploded.”

24/7 Media has also been courting politicos and lobbyists, having opened a Washington, D.C. office last year with just that aim in mind.

“We’re very very excited about what we see the possibilities to be,” says Jay Friesel, executive vice president, sales and marketing, at 24/7 Media, adding that we can expect, in the next few weeks, to see political ads running on the network.

So far, the four candidates that are seen as major contenders have all made forays into online advertising, and the spending is only likely to increase as the election draws nearer.

George W. Bush’s campaign, with the help of Web political strategy agency Aristotle, has created a rich media pop-up banner ad (using Enliven‘s technology) that lets viewers calculate how the Bush tax plan would effect them. That banner ran on 1500 sites in Iowa and New Hampshire.

“Thus far, the reports have been very positive on click-throughs and time spent calculating,” says Greg Sedberry, Bush’s e-campaign manager.

Bush’s main primary competition, John McCain, has been using the Internet in his effort to get on primary ballots, and to get out the word on his opposition to Internet taxation.

McCain’s campaign spent $3,000 to run a banner campaign on over 100 sites in Virginia, and got a two percent click-through on the 10,000 impressions it purchased. More importantly, it helped round up 97 volunteers to collect signatures for McCain.

“We are extremely pleased with the Virginia ads,” said Max Fose, Internet manager for the McCain campaign, adding that it expects to expand on that success with more buys as the action heats up.

The second major effort for McCain has been a buy on Microsoft’s Slate.com, where the campaign has bought banner ads proclaiming the candidate’s opposition to Internet taxation. The banner links to a section of McCain’s Web site, which offers an explanation of his reasoning on the issue.

The Democratic side hasn’t neglected the Net, either. Bill Bradley’s campaign is running ads, targeted at 100,000 voters in New Hampshire, Iowa, and California, on the Juno ISP. Roger Stone, who has been Juno’s liaison to the Bradley campaign, says he’s been surprised at how involved the Web strategist has been in the campaign.

“Their Internet and Web person is in and part of all the sessions in setting the strategy,” says Stone. “That really brings the revolution home.”

The Internet-savvy vice president, surprisingly, has been the least active online recently. Back in June, Al Gore bought ads to promote the Webcast of his campaign kickoff, but, so far, no more has been seen of the candidate online.

Part of what’s fueling the increased awareness is the development of the Internet as a more mainstream medium. As Grandma and Uncle Joe get online, there’s just no ignoring the Web as a means of reaching people.

Second, and perhaps most important, is the e-fundraising factor. Candidates are realizing that this direct-response medium is a great way to drive supporters to their sites, where they can make campaign contributions with their credit cards. Since McCain’s victory in New Hampshire on Tuesday night, newly-hopeful supporters have logged on to donate more than $741,000 to the Republican’s campaign. Bill Bradley is reputed to have raised more than $3 million on his site. And, because most of this is credit card money, it can be spent immediately. There’s no waiting for the checks to clear.

In addition, the Internet is just plain cheap compared to other media, and, with some ad serving systems, candidates can target voters outside of the major metropolitan areas that are getting hit with TV and radio spots.

Finally, of course, the Internet has always been praised for its democratizing power — the ability it gives candidates to communicate directly with a voter and, to use marketing lingo, develop a one-to-one relationship.

As technology is developed further — to include better profiling, geographic targeting, etc. — one can only expect the Internet to play a more central role in the marketing of candidates. E-mail campaigns certainly can’t be far off. As Bush’s e-strategist, Sedberry, put it, “the Internet is the fastest growing medium in politics.”

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