Targeting Likely Advocates With Web Ads

B.R. McConnon III is chief executive of Alexandria's Democracy Data &  Communications LLC , a company that lobbying firms rely on to effectively place their Web-based advertisements.
B.R. McConnon III is chief executive of Alexandria's Democracy Data & Communications LLC , a company that lobbying firms rely on to effectively place their Web-based advertisements. (By Michel Du Cille -- The Washington Post)

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By Jeffrey H. Birnbaum
Monday, August 21, 2006

In contemporary Washington, a C.P.A. is more than a person who does your taxes. It's the newest front in congressional persuasion.

To trade groups hunting for legislative supporters, C.P.A. means Cost Per Advocate, and it refers to the amount they have to spend to sign up a single citizen-activist for their causes. The average C.P.A., by the way, is roughly $5.

That's right, to win over the voluntary services of a voter back home to push an agenda, a company or interest group needs to lay out a mere five spot. These lobbyists-for-a-day can be called upon to send e-mails, make phone calls or even visit their members of Congress to make the lobby's case.

Such approaches, despite their artificial origins, are generally considered the most effective type of influence. When constituents express a preference, lawmakers (who want more than anything to get reelected) tend to listen.

This has made networks of outside-the-Beltway advocates a longtime staple of lobbying. They have been pieced together using various methods -- association membership lists, blind-call telemarketing and direct-mail soliciting.

Lately, Internet advertising has been on the rise as a way to locate supporters, helping to lower the C.P.A. By minutely monitoring the effectiveness of Web-based commercials that invite people to sign up, interest groups are now able to alter their ads almost by the hour and conserve money.

Thanks to such quick-footedness, the $5-per-new-advocate average is commonplace at the OnPoint Advocacy arm of Alexandria-based Democracy Data & Communications LLC, a leading vendor of Internet technology for lobbying firms.

I've written before about the use of online ads to attract grass-roots activists. But when DDC and OnPoint offered to explain in detail how they refine their commercials, I decided to revisit the subject.

Some people (maybe many) will be appalled. They will see these efforts as manipulative, the kind of powerful tool that only wealthy interests can afford. Nonetheless, this is the future -- and the present -- of lobbying. It needs to be discussed.

The first thing you need to know is that the Internet can be watched very closely. OnPoint/DDC's offices in Old Town are filled with cubicles of computer experts who are in near-constant contact with thousands of display advertisements on Web sites. These experts can see when commercials are clicked on -- and when they're not.

That means they can identify which Web sites lure the types of public-policy folks that lobby groups crave and which ones don't. They can also see which ads make the largest number of "sales" -- compel people to sign up as advocates -- and which ones fail to produce.

It turns out that ugly is better than pretty when it comes to lobbying commercials. Elaborate and beautifully colored ads tend to fall flat, said B.R. McConnon III, chief executive of DDC. Straightforward, text-heavy displays work much better.


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© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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