SEM Power Politics: PACs, Nonprofits, and 527s

At first glance, search engine marketing (SEM) opportunities in politics would be candidates buying ads on Google, Overture, MSN, and the others. True, SEM has tremendous potential for candidates. In addition to recent geotargeting advances, campaigns can launch quickly, messages can change frequently, and, most important, behavior can be targeted based on current audience concerns. The Web affords the opportunity to go beyond sound bites and educate voters.

At the Institute for Politics, Democracy & the Internet’s Politics Online conference, campaign managers who structure marketing plans for national, state, and local candidates were clearly interested in learning all they could about SEM. Yet interest doesn’t necessarily translate into spending.

For years, TV, print, radio, and other traditional media have been the staple of any political campaign media plan. As Internet marketers, we recognize the public has shifted much of its newsgathering activity to the Internet, particularly search.

Data from comScore and Nielsen//NetRatings show Internet usage is up. Among some important segments, TV viewing is down. Time spent with media by key voting blocks has shifted.

Political marketers will soon consider SEM a critical aspect of any campaign. The data indicate ignoring the Internet, and SEM by extension, could lose an election. Tactical SEM could sway election results by changing swing voter opinion and getting out the core vote.

Politics online is more than candidates. The true SEM explosion may come not from candidates seeking election, but from political action committees (PACs), nonprofits with an interest in issues, and 527 organizations (527 is the section of IRS tax law governing fundraising and advocacy organizations). Many of these were at the Politics Online conference, sharing strategies and learning how Internet marketing can play a role in accomplishing their missions and objectives. Some non-candidate entities included the NRA, AARP,, AFL-CIO,, and both the Republican and Democratic National Committees.

Many of these organizations have significant funding and charters that focus on changing opinion, perception, attitude, and behavior, including voting behavior. Often this is achieved through education. The Internet is uniquely positioned to educate people at their comfort level. SEM is a powerful weapon in the arsenal of all the above organizations. Behavior targeting allows them to engage the appropriate target audience at a unique time — when they’re seeking information.

Nonprofits’ Web sites already dedicate a significant portion to educating and convincing visitors to change their viewpoint. For many, copy and messaging are crafted to influence votes for candidates and often referendums.

Savvy PACs and 527s will be particularly active the last 60 days before Election Day. “Given that the Campaign Finance Reform Act restricts the use of television and radio ads 30 days before a primary election and 60 days before the general election, the Internet is the only national advertising medium available to these organizations during the days prior to the election,” says Eric Porres, a principal at Pericles Consulting.

My research validates this. The Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act states all corporations, including tax-exempt ones, are prohibited from paying for “electioneering communications.” An electioneering communication is defined as a “broadcast, cable, or satellite communication which… refers to a clearly identified candidate for Federal office.” The Web is notably absent from this restriction because Internet communications aren’t broadcast; they’re narrowcast or, more typically, one-to-one server-to-browser connections. Add to that an ability to geotarget by state and designated market area (DMA) within paid placement search media, and SEM could become a killer tool during a campaign’s final stages.

Beyond elections, thousands of topics fit perfectly with nonprofits’ goals. Some nonprofits use SEM to promote their mission already. AARP buys keywords such as “social security” and “retirement.”

The Foundation (working with Oregon Right to Life) uses AdWords on “abortion” to send searchers to a site advancing its anti-abortion agenda. It seeks donations and links to other organizations that share its viewpoint.

In traditional marketing, you’d expect to see the competition. That’s not the case here… yet. Where are NARAL Pro-Choice America, Planned Parenthood, and other alternatives?

Things will get interesting, and not just for campaigns and common politically related topics such as abortion. Recently, Oceana started using Google AdWords to promote its opposition to cruise industry pollution. According to Google, it went over the line with its language, so Google pulled the ads.

This raises interesting questions. Will other PACs and 527s be aggressive enough to have their ads pulled? Where should search engines draw the line when accepting or rejecting ads? Apparently, Overture accepted Oceana’s Google-rejected ads.

Unlike most commercial keyword campaigns, many PACs, nonprofits, and 527s buy keywords with little commercial competition. These early adopters have a head start. They’ll face lower bids and easily meet objectives. Once competing organizations catch on, prices will rise. Then, real creativity with landing pages and messaging will start.

Want more search information? ClickZ SEM Archives contain all our search columns, organized by topic.

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