Sold Out Politics Online Conference Gets Back to Basics

If the expected turnout at tomorrow's Politics Online Conference at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. is any indication, the political world has officially acknowledged the Web. Now that politics and the Internet are becoming allies, says conference coordinator Matthew Zablud: "It's made a big difference in terms of our event."

At 300, the number of seats filled may seem insignificant, but it's nearly double last year's attendance. In fact, this is the first year in its history that the event has sold out. Hosted by the University's Graduate School of Political Management's Institute for Politics, Democracy and the Internet, the 11th Politics Online Conference will convene pollsters, Internet marketers, political consultants, and advocacy groups to discuss how the Internet is affecting political campaigns.

The event's 86 speakers run the gamut, and include Thomas Matzzie, online mobilization manager of the AFL-CIO and Nick Nyhan, president and founder of marketing research firm Dynamic Logic, as well as Joe Trippi, the former campaign manager of Dean for America, who will go toe-to-toe with Ken Mehlman, campaign manager for Bush-Cheney'04 during a luncheon keynote address. Food fight, anyone?

This time, the marketing-speak that dominates most Web-related trade shows has been translated for the benefit of native politics speakers. Topics to be covered include online campaign management and fund raising, political spam, base mobilization, and yes, CRM (Constituent Relationship Management).

"We're so used to talking to ourselves, but we're preaching to the choir," argues Michael Bassik, speaker at the conference's Dispelling Myths: The Effectiveness of Online Political Advertising session. "We should be speaking in terms that people who aren't in the online ad business will understand."

Since leaving his media strategy post at America Online, Bassik, now VP of Internet advertising at political communications firm Malchow Schlackman Hoppey and Cooper, has dispelled a few myths of his own. He believes that the sales side of the industry should stop focusing on things like the diminishing marginal returns of TV and stop threatening political advertisers with "doomsday scenarios" to promote spending online. "That's not getting through," he contends. Instead, "Let's be more comparative and show them how the Internet is like TV and like direct marketing," Bassik explains. "Plus, we should be highlighting the Internet's greater accountability which helps it stand out."

Relating online advertising to television advertising also makes sense to Rand Ragusa, president of political campaign management agency Voter Interactive. He'll be speaking at the conference's Online Advertising: How to Make It Work For Your Campaign session. "I'm going to talk about the importance of good creative," says Ragusa, who believes that having "that wow factor" is as important online as it is in TV.

Email will also be a hot topic, Ragusa predicts. Political campaign people "realize that there's a direct correlation between the number of email addresses and how much money they can raise," he observes. Now, online political campaign novices must realize the nuances of using communications tools such as email. "By sending emails too often, they'll dilute the message and open rates will go down," notes Ragusa, adding: "I hope there's a discussion about frequency."

Perhaps it's a good thing that this year's conference features an entire session track dedicated to the basics. If anything, the event represents a more genuine understanding among Web folks of what it will take for politicos to truly grasp interactive media. While the primary season opened many eyes to the possibilities, it's still time for baby steps. "We're not even at the stage to discuss what works and what doesn't," contends Bassik. "This is going to be about the basics."