Can the Web Get You Elected?

While the rest of the country may look on California's recall election with some amusement, given the number and dubious credentials of many of the candidates to replace Gov. Gray Davis, there is something important going on here -the emergence of the Internet as a powerful campaign tool.

When the Arianna Huffington campaign posted a three-minute flash cartoon featuring three of the men who are or would be governor of California, dressed in red bikini bottoms and black bow ties and cavorting at "The Special Interest Brothel," it drew 58,000 unique visits to the Huffington Web page in 24 hours, 20,000 more than the previous high.

"There's huge bang for the buck," says Dave Fratello, Huffington's campaign manager, noting that the $4,000 expenditure helped reach a wide Internet audience and reduces the need for expensive traditional political advertising. "It's very grass roots," Ms Huffington said, "It's not expensive and people can e-mail (the movie) to their friends."

These are professional politicians talking, not Internet industry executives, yet you can see that they are "getting" the potential impact of online political advertising.

And why not?

Over 160 million Americans have access to the Internet and currently more than 70 million households use it regularly. The Internet is now the most used medium during daylight hours and as Americans use the Web more, they consume other media less. The Internet is simply too powerful to ignore as a viable advertising medium, capable of reaching voters in innovative and effective ways.

Voters who use the Internet -- regardless of party affiliation -- are highly engaged with politics online. A study, conducted by the Center for Survey and Research Analysis at the University of Connecticut, found that 68% of voters who use the Internet are likely to research a candidate's position online. This finding was relatively consistent across party lines, with a clear majority of Democrats (57%), Republicans (68%) and Independents (59%) very or somewhat likely to do so.

"It is clear that voters are increasingly turning to the Web for information about political candidates and campaigns," says Michael Zimbalist, executive director of the Online Publishers Association. "These findings suggest that candidates who use the Web to reach both their core constituents and undecided voters stand to gain a significant advantage in the upcoming political season."

"Political campaigns are beginning to realize that having an online presence takes more than building a Web site," says Bill Caspare, head of political services integration at Klipmart.

Politicians have in the past replied on advertise in television or radio to reach voters but, with mass media you can't target precise groups of swing voters that could decide the election. New data gathering technology like TACODA Systems, can help campaigns surgically target key blocks of voters. It is not difficult through registration and tracking behavioral data to determine how online users feel about certain issues and to target them with campaign messages that encourage their vote - or attempt to change their minds.

The U Conn study also 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.

The Web can serve as a tool to motivate those who are passionate about issues. A few years, ago e-mails on behalf of Heritage Forests Campaign were sent to more than 1 million people known to be concerned about conservation. In response, 171,000 users sent e-mail messages to then Vice President Al Gore asking him to help America's forests--without cutting down any trees. That's a 17 percent response rate. With more expensive conventional direct mail, a 4 percent to 5 percent response is considered highly effective.

Data returned from user interaction with Internet ads far outweighs what you can discern from television, radio, or direct-mail campaigns. Candidates can know precisely how voters react to their messages and how slight tweaks can achieve a more favorable response. In politics, as in product advertising, this information is gold. It is instantaneous and cost effective, allowing for very fast adjustments in campaign messaging.

This realization is beginning to hit home as numerous campaigns gearing up for next year's state and national elections are setting aside budgets specifically for interactive advertising and are making certain at least one member of the campaign staff "gets" Internet advertising.

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