By Jose Antonio Vargas and Sam Diaz
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, March 17, 2007
Howard Dean was dubbed the Internet candidate in the 2004 presidential race, but his efforts to campaign online seem primitive compared to the services companies are touting for next year's election.
From creating video games starring candidates to hosting virtual online campaign events, Internet companies see increasing opportunities in the business of politics.
That was the message at a two-day conference on online politics at George Washington University this week that brought together more than 500 political consultants, campaign operatives and start-up Internet company representatives, many of them part of the fledgling "Internet political mafia," as Andrew Rasiej of the popular blog Personal Democracy Forum described it.
"When it comes to campaigns these days, the Internet is not a sideshow anymore, it's front and center," said Carol C. Darr, director of the Institute for Politics, Democracy & the Internet (IPDI), which is part of GW's Graduate School of Political Management.
Online political advertising, though still comprising a small share of the overall ad expenditure, has steadily increased in the past five years, according to the marketing firm PQ Media. It was $5 million in 2002. It totaled $29 million three years ago. Last year it was $40 million. And major Internet firms and small start-ups are capitalizing on the changing media landscape.
Community Connect, for example, is encouraging the candidates to interact with members at its specialty social networking sites -- BlackPlanet, MiGente, AsianAvenue and GLEE, a new site targeted at Gays, Lesbians and Everyone Else.
Community Connect chief executive Benjamin Sun said the sites not only create an outlet for candidates to communicate with the niche communities but also give users the forum to share opinions of the candidates and their positions on the issues. For GLEE members, the top issue might be gay marriage, while Latinos at MiGente could be talking about immigration.
Scott Randall, president of BrandGames in New York, is trying to get campaigns interested in creating video games around candidates in the same way his company makes them for other products. "Candidates are brands and the power of video games, like a brand mascot, is to create an emotional connection with the brand," he said, though he had not managed to persuade any campaigns at the conference.
Yahoo wants to use the strength of its brand and its lineup of offerings -- from its Groups and Answers services to news feeds and customized home pages -- to put election issues in front of Web surfers and connect candidates with potential voters, said Cyrus Krohn, director of Yahoo Election Strategy.
Already, people are using Yahoo's Group service, which connects people via e-mail and message boards, to talk about the race. So far, more than 700 groups formed around next year's election. In addition, the company has recently launched You Witness News, an offering that allows users to upload their own video clips from events around the country to the site.
Not to be outdone, the online behemoth Google, one of the conference's corporate sponsors along with WashingtonPost.com/Newsweek Interactive, is promoting products -- Google ads, Google analytics, YouTube, etc. -- useful for campaigns.
Earlier this month, YouTube launched You Choose '08, a centralized hub of candidate channels. Next week Steve Grove, the news and politics editor at YouTube, will debut a politics-oriented video blog called Citizen Tube.
Campaigns can use Google ads to target their online videos to specific regions and states. They can track the popularity of their campaign sites and receive reports that answer questions such as: Which pages within the site are popular? Are users signing up for e-mail lists? Are voters making donations?
Elliot Schrage, Google's vice president of global communications and public affairs, said the company has invited the candidates to its headquarters in Mountain View, Calif., for a meet-and-greet lunch.
"There are obvious commercial benefits to our involvement. But this political community is different from the rest of our consumers. It's an unusually creative community, and it's an extraordinary laboratory for innovation," said Schrage after delivering the event's keynote speech Thursday.