If Politics is the Next Profitable Web Segment, Can .Gov Be Far Behind?

I love Howard Dean.

No, of course I don't know him, and to be honest, the only thing about his platform that has caught my attention is that he is willing to take on the present administration with real vigor.

But, I love Howard Dean for the same reason many of you probably do. He has brought the success of his Web marketing machine to the masses and popularized it by positioning his campaign as extra strategic and insightful, largely because of this Web-based success.

The DNC and RNC have made a killing with fundraising online for years now. But, while enterprise technology is roughly a $10 billion business in the government sector, governments have been unwilling to leverage e-marketing to their advantage, even though even local governments are building sizable media assets online and targeting them with their own digital communications.

Meanwhile, a self-selecting media asset is growing. A study recently conducted by the Center for Survey and Research Analysis at the University of Connecticut on behalf of the Online Publishers Association found that nearly 30% of Internet users are interested in seeing political advertisements online, a significant finding in view of the relative under-exposure of this type of advertising on the Internet to date. Sixty percent of Internet users say they are likely to notice an ad for a candidate online, while 20% percent would rather watch a candidate's ad online than on television.



"It is clear that voters are increasingly turning to the Web for information about political candidates and campaigns," said Michael Zimbalist, executive director of the Online Publishers Association.

But, where else do these voters go online? And how else can marketers reach them? How many of these "interested" parties are the same ones who are active in your locality? It's a fair guess most are, and that they represent a pretty high demographic.

It's also becoming clear that politics and the Web are already very happy bedfellows. In addition to fundraising success stories, companies like Harris Interactive have built multinational businesses on, among other kinds of Web-based research, predicting elections through online polling.

So, how do I segue from successful online politics to the assertion that the next fashionable (read: profitable) segment online is state and local government?

If New York City can garner a $166 million deal with Snapple, making the beverage the City's "official drink of choice," and the City's official tourism site has banner ads and monetization throughout, how long will it be before and all the sites from prominent cities drive revenue from the eyeballs that they draw? After all, these folks who are giving money to candidates are already online, and they are obviously paying attention to the ads they see, if we can believe the research.

I spoke to Scott Burns, CEO of St. Paul, Minnesota based GovDocs for some insight. GovDocs is a leading company in the fast growing sector of e-Government online. They help state and local governments and government related organizations, such as school districts, turn their sometimes very elementary Web sites and the information on them into automated emails through which these governments can easily communicate with constituents and vice-versa. If you know what NIMBY stands for (not in my backyard), or if you ever have attended a meeting of your local school board or zoning authority, you'll understand what the driver is for state and local governments - they need to keep constituents up to date, and constituents are increasingly learning to expect a different level of information flow. Oh yeah, they don't have much money to spend.

"The driver for most state and local governments is saving money while increasing constituent service," said Burns. "While we haven't seen any municipalities consider monetizing their sites, there are many school districts out there who are unabashed about deals they'll make with sponsorships and advertising. The New York City deal with Snapple may be a harbinger of a whole new level of revenue-generation by public entities."

Of course, GovDocs is in the business of providing online services for its customers, and not in the business of online media. A company called eGovNet also tried something along these lines in the late 1990's, and they're still around, but with a similar, enterprise-centric sweet spot.

I'll bet its less than a year or two before many government Web sites and their corresponding email servers have the same opt-in marketing opportunities and monetization models that today's top media sites do. If governments have to focus so much on spending less, more and more will begin to figure out how they can earn more.

After all, I am writing this while sitting eyeball-to-eyeball with a billboard ad on a commuter train, and then I'll board a subway and likely stand in a Bud-sponsored rail car for a few stops. Don't government agencies benefit from these media examples? If there is run of network available today for top 50 DMA newspaper sites, how long will it be before state and municipal sites, and their government-run ancillary organizations are in the mix?

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