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Political Campaigning Enters Age of Technology

Lawmakers and Campaigns Are Looking For a More Active Web Presence

With more and more constituents looking for information about their Members of Congress online, offices and campaigns are spending more time and energy focused on online advertising. While traditional banner ads and video advertisements that play before or during online videos continue to be used, some offices and candidates are reaching out to constituents.

A favorite for attracting traffic to Congressional campaign websites is Google AdWords. With AdWords, the search engine giant allows advertisers to bid against one another to see who can place their text-based advertisements on a search result page. Advertisements are targeted to appear alongside specified search terms and within specified locations. The winning bidder gets an ad displayed alongside the organic search results until another advertiser places a higher bid.

According to Wesley Donehue, CEO of political Internet firm Donehue Direct, Google AdWords is the place to start when people are looking to find out more about a candidate or current Member. Donehue’s firm has worked with Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.), who became the target of much Google searching after he yelled, “You lie!” at Obama during a 2009 speech.

“When a hot news story breaks and people want to learn more about it, [Google] is the place to go,” said Donehue, who helped Wilson direct traffic to his campaign website after the incident.

Herman Cain’s presidential campaign used Google AdWords earlier this year. For a while, searching terms related to the sexual harassment claims being levied against him — including the name of one accuser, “Sharon Bialek,” or “Herman Cain Scandal” — would bring up sponsored results linking to his campaign material.

Targeting Constituents

The advertising technique that is gaining in popularity for Senate campaigns and House offices and campaigns is Facebook ads, which can now be narrowed down to target certain ZIP codes.

According to a blog post by Facebook that was last updated about four months ago, targeting by ZIP code was introduced to give advertisers better access to users in more specific locations.

“Intentionally or not, ZIP codes have become particularly useful for detailing definable community populace attributes. Most influential research on demographics, including the U.S. Census, use ZIP codes as their most fine grained level of segmentation,” the blog post says, explaining that the targeting “opens up another avenue for advertisers to market to their desired audience.”

According to franking rules, House offices can advertise online, as long as the advertisements are directed only to constituents and do not include pictures of the Members.

Facebook’s ZIP code targeting is mostly accurate in directing Congressional ads to that Member’s constituents, said Andrew Foxwell, manager of new media and marketing at iConstituent, a digital communications firm that has worked with more than 300 Congressional offices and has done ads for 90 of them.

Foxwell estimates that about 150 Congressmen are using Facebook advertising. According to a case study done about the company, offices that placed Facebook ads with the help of iConstituent for one week received three times as much constituent interaction on the Member’s official Facebook page. The case study summarized the results as being a “10X return on investment as compared to a traditional, glossy paper mailer for one-tenth of the price.”

For Donehue, Facebook is the way to go if you want to target specific groups in a geographically small district.

“Facebook is the best way to go if you’re trying to reach a really niche audience,” he said, citing Facebook’s ability to target based on user-supplied, specific information. “You can’t get that level of targeting through Google.”

Donehue added that this could change if Google’s social media platform, Google Plus, gains steam. Google then would have access to similar information about its users, giving it a better ability to target advertisements.

Two-Way Traffic

Foxwell views Facebook ads as a way not just to advertise to constituents but to engage with them.

“Facebook and Twitter are essential tools for a 21st-century democracy,” he said. “If we can collectively re-engage our citizens using technology and social media by breaking down barriers for meaningful dialogue, then we are doing something right by ensuring these mediums are used by Members’ official offices.”

Of course, the marketplace of ideas is a rough-and-tumble place. But that doesn’t bother Foxwell.

“Even if you get people speaking negatively, at least their voice is being heard,” he said.

Others have reservations when it comes to Facebook ads, despite the low price. Jacobs said Facebook users are often on the website for social, not political, reasons. “When you’re on Facebook, you’re not looking for that information like you are when you’re searching on Google,” he said.

Jacobs also said that getting the attention of Facebook users, such as getting people to “Like” a page or status update, is not necessarily the same as getting voters. “You’re getting them into your Facebook group, you’re not getting their email address,” he said, adding, “I’d rather get 10,000 email addresses than 100,000 Facebook fans.”

On the engaging aspect of Facebook: Well-known politicians don’t need to advertise to get feedback, and lesser-known politicians can look like they just want attention. “You want to at least show the flag. But Facebook users have already become savvy enough that they see through gimmicks designed to get them to click on an ad,” Jacobs said.

While Jacobs would suggest covering one’s bases by purchasing Facebook ads, he urges clients to also devote resources to other methods. “We had far more success with video and paid search, both in terms of the percentage of the clicks that turned into sign-ups and the cost per acquisition,” he said, referring to the 2010 campaign of then-Rep. Tom Perriello, although the Virginia Democrat lost.

Bid on a Tweet

The next big thing on the horizon for Congressional offices and campaigns? Promoted content on Twitter.

According to Twitter Director of Communications Matt Graves, promoted tweets, which appear within a user’s Twitter feed even if they are not following the advertiser’s account, were introduced in April of last year, and promoted accounts, which appear as the first suggestion of “Who to follow” along the right side of a user’s home page, were introduced in October 2010.

Both of those features operate on a bidding system, where advertisers bid to have their tweets or account names appear on users’ Twitter home pages. Promoted trends, which appear slightly farther down the right side of a user’s home page, were introduced in June of last year and can be purchased for $120,000 per country per day, Graves said.

According to Graves, targeting on Twitter is done by a few factors, including which accounts — and national campaigns — a user already follows, any lists the user is on and the self-reported content of a user’s profile, such as describing oneself as a “political junkie.”

Graves said that a benefit of the promoted content on Twitter is its placement within the site.

“These are just normal tweets,” he said of the material that appears either within a user’s Twitter feed or directly alongside it. “They’re appearing where people expect them to appear.”

Although it’s not accessible to Congressional offices just yet, people are already looking forward to the continued opening of promoted content on Twitter.

“I think it’s fantastic,” Jacobs said, explaining that, in his experience, Twitter’s setup encourages users to leave the site to consume outside content more than Facebook’s does. “People are much more accustomed to click links on Twitter that take them off Twitter,” he said.

Jacobs also pointed to the placement of advertising on Twitter. “Ad placement is much more advantageous than Facebook,” he said, citing studies that show how users read websites. Typically, he said, users read more of the top of a website and less as they scroll down. “Twitter advertising is much more mobile-friendly than Facebook advertising,” he added.

But whether you’re in office or running for one, using Google AdWords or Facebook, or waiting patiently to hop on the Twitter bandwagon, strategists often stress the importance of tailoring online advertising strategies to the race.

“Every race, every candidate, every district is different,” Donehue said.

Correction: Dec. 13, 2011

The article incorrectly stated that Congressional campaigns cannot purchase promoted content on Twitter. Twitter promoted content is currently open to Congressional campaigns.

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