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If you're a Blue Dog Democrat and you voted for the stimulus, there's someone using your name on Google to try to turn your constituents against you.
The conservative advocacy group FreedomWorks is launching a search engine advertising campaign this week targeting all 49 of the fiscally conservative House Democrats, either criticizing or applauding them for how they voted on the stimulus package. The organization is buying spots in Google's "Sponsored Links" column, which appears alongside searches for the lawmakers' names.
Don't be surprised if, in the comfort of your Capitol Hill office, a search for your name turns up no ads. FreedomWorks is using Google AdWords to geographically target ads so they only appear for Web users in the relevant congressional districts. This "geo-targeting," plus the fact that the ads won't necessarily appear for every search, makes it difficult to confirm the extent of the ad buy.
For the majority of the Blue Dogs who voted for the final stimulus, the ad sends users to a custom landing page urging them to sign a petition and question their lawmakers about voting for the stimulus. For the half-dozen Blue Dogs who voted against the final stimulus -- dubbed "Top Dogs" by FreedomWorks -- the landing page lauds the lawmakers' fiscal discipline. The pages also encourage users to sign up for updates on how their lawmakers vote on future issues, in the process allowing FreedomWorks to collect their names, e-mail addresses and ZIP codes.
When questioned about the campaign, Blue Dog Coalition spokeswoman Kristen Hawn wasn't surprised the group was in the crosshairs again -- FreedomWorks ran a similar, but smaller, campaign against some Blue Dogs last year after the bailout of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Hawn was surprised, however, to learn that the group could selectively target its ads to appear only in Blue Dogs' districts.
FreedomWorks is at the forefront of a developing trend among advocacy groups, which are taking a page from the presidential campaigns of Barack Obama and John McCain: using search engine advertising to cheaply and effectively reach voters. Obama's Web team dominated the headlines last year for its unprecedented use of social networking, but what got far less attention was both campaigns' use of search list ads and site-specific display ads (both through Google) to reach voters.
Search for the Employee Free Choice Act, the stimulus package and other politically charged items and you'll undoubtedly run into a host of groups lobbying both sides of the aisle. Whether it's SEIU advocating for "card-check" legislation or Freedom Project (the PAC of House Republican Leader John Boehner of Ohio) pushing the GOP's alternative to the stimulus package, issue groups are no longer strangers to search engine advertising.
Peter Greenberger, who leads Google's D.C.-based issues and advocacy team, said nonprofits across the political spectrum are quickly learning from the election, sometimes to the detriment of the politicians who pioneered their use. "Issue groups aren't waiting to find out how Obama leverages his e-mail lists and organizing abilities," Greenberger said. "They're adopting some of his strategies to push against his legislation."
Thomas Keeley, FreedomWorks' online marketing coordinator, echoed this thought. Obama "showed everyone that the online model is viable," he said. "Other organizations, including ours, are analyzing that and pulling pieces out that would work for us. And we're adding our own touches to that."
The Drum Major Institute for Public Policy, a New York-based progressive organization, is another group running ads alongside lawmakers' names -- every single one of them, according to a spokesman. The institute, which has been using Google AdWords on a national level since fall 2007, sends users who click on its ads to themiddleclass.org, where they can see lawmakers' votes on domestic legislation.
FreedomWorks and DMI have entered relatively uncharted territory for issue advertisers by using lawmakers' names as keywords. "If you do a search on most members of Congress, there's nobody advertising, yet that strikes me as an opportunity there," Greenberger said. "Increasingly, Hill staffers are getting their research online."
Using candidates' names as keywords during a House race is a more common practice and could provide insight as to how it can be done most effectively for issue ads. Eric Frenchman, who ran McCain's online advertising last year, said that if groups are going to target individual lawmakers they need to send users to a page that focuses specifically on their target, rather than a generic page.
Frenchman now works as a strategist for the political new media firm Connell Donatelli and continues to advise issue groups and candidates on online advertising. He said that during the presidential race, the campaign bought search ads for each of McCain's primary opponents and sent users to different landing pages on each of them. FreedomWorks appears to have gotten the memo -- it has crafted a page for each Blue Dog in its sights, making this campaign the group's largest yet.
It will also be the longest. Keeley said FreedomWorks plans to keep up the pressure by buying up search terms until Election Day 2010. Downballot races will provide the group with even more opportunities for search engine advertising. Greenberger said there is already an increased use of Internet advertising in local races, something made easier and cheaper by geographical targeting.
With Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine (D) barred by term limits from running again this year, former Democratic National Committee chairman Terry McAuliffe's campaign is out in force on Google. Search for either his name or that of primary rival Creigh Deeds, a state senator, and you may notice McAuliffe's Web site popping up in the sponsored sections.
With the midterms approaching and so many legislative battles likely in the near future, Keeley and Frenchman are bullish on online marketing, especially search engine listings. Keeley cited the quick turnaround available on the Web and the ability of groups to capitalize on timely news stories. Google also keeps track of every click -- where users are located, how long they stay on the site and a whole host of other details -- which gives groups valuable feedback almost immediately.
Another obvious benefit is cost. Advertisers pay for the ads only if users click on them -- a model known as pay-per-click. Even if users don't click on the links, it's still a free branding opportunity for groups when their ad shows up in search results, Frenchman pointed out. "I cannot think of a reason why anybody who is running for an elected office or involved in issue marketing would not spend significant money in search advertising," he said.