- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 4, 2010

Political candidates and elected officials have often been at the forefront of using new technology to communicate with voters. More than 70 years ago, President Franklin D. Roosevelt harnessed the power of radio with “fireside chats” to build support for his agenda. Years later, a young senator from Massachusetts named John F. Kennedy used television to best his opponent - the sitting vice president - in the 1960 presidential debates. Direct mail helped Ronald Reagan tap into conservative support throughout the country and rise to the highest office in the land.

In more recent times, liberal bloggers and the antiwar “netroots” fueled Howard Dean’s long-shot campaign for president in 2003. President George W. Bush’s White House took to the Internet by webcasting events, podcasting his weekly radio address and hosting “Ask the White House” Web chats for citizens at www.whitehouse. gov. And Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign broke new ground by using social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook to organize supporters and turn out the vote.

There’s one aspect of online communications where political campaigns haven’t led the way. Until very recently, candidates had not directed much effort toward advertising online. Candidates in federal or statewide races continue to be focused primarily on television advertising.

Former Republican National Committee online guru Cyrus Krohn has likened television to an addiction for campaigns. “The use of TV in campaigns is kind of like our dependency on foreign oil,” Mr. Krohn said. “We know we have to get off it. We know we need to find alternative energy sources. But we keep on going back to the pump.”

After the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision in the Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission case, the advertising analysis firm Borrell Associates Inc. estimates $4.2 billion will be spent this year on political advertising. However, it estimates that just 1 percent of that amount will be dedicated to online advertising. If candidates gearing up for 2010 follow the example of recent successful campaigns, that projection could turn out to be quite low.

An increasing percentage of Americans are turning to the Internet for information about politics. The Pew Research Center found that 55 percent of the entire voting-age population in the U.S., and 74 percent of Internet users, went online during the 2008 election to take part in or get news about the campaign. In 2000, just 18 percent of all adults went online for information about the election.

As more Americans spend a greater amount of time online, businesses are spending more on Internet advertising. A Magna report projected online advertising to be just shy of 10 percent of the $161 billion advertising market this year. So, why are the forecasts for online political advertising so low?

If political advertising were just about static banner ads and boring blue links, 1 percent might make sense. However, new technology is available that completely breaks down the cost and complexity barriers that prevented campaigns from being creative with online advertising. This isn’t just about sticking video in a banner ad. Candidates can now extend television advertising online with ads that are continually refreshed and serve as an innovative tool for rapid response. These dynamic ads grab voter attention and engage them in the campaign through social media links, polls, sign up forms and other interactivity.

Scott Brown’s upset victory in Massachusetts was fueled in part by his aggressive approach to using all the Internet tools at his disposal. As Politics Magazine reported, Mr. Brown’s campaign could serve as the model for campaigns “hoping to harness the Internet this November to propel everything from online fundraising to GOTV (get out the vote) efforts.”

Mr. Brown’s winning campaign dedicated 10 percent of his advertising budget to the Internet. For his underdog campaign, using targeted dynamic online video advertising was a cost-effective way to spread key campaign messages and engage potential supporters who were turning increasingly to the Internet for information about the hotly contested race. Instead of the dull banner ads, Mr. Brown’s online video spots engaged voters with sight, sound and direct interaction with the campaign. In the late stages of the campaign, more than 46,000 people chose to watch Mr. Brown’s online video ads on the Web site of the Boston Herald. Those voters viewed more than 267 total hours - or 11 days’ worth - of the video messages from his campaign.

On Jan. 19, Scott Brown won by 107,000 votes, securing the biggest upset in modern political history.

Every election brings the potential for change. The 2010 midterms may be remembered for being the election in which campaign technology tools finally matched the dynamic nature of politics.

Anupam Gupta is the chief executive of Mixpo, a Seattle-based technology firm specializing in dynamic online video advertising.

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