Google, Facebook prepare for political ad bonanza in midterm elections

Google and Facebook are expanding their political advertising sales teams as mid-term election campaigns around the country start to mobilize.

The two companies are among the most recognizable Internet brands to consumers, and both firms have the ability to place highly-targeted ads on the computer screens of millions of voters based on the browsing habits and personal data they’ve collected.

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The companies are also pushing campaigns to integrate their online and offline campaigns, allowing TV commercials to send the same messages as online ads and YouTube videos.

Google’s Ann Arbor, Mich., advertising sales office will handle most of the political campaigns, and it recently brought on Andrew Roos, a former campaign manager, to be an AdWords account executive of its election and issue advocacy advertising team.

“We’re ready for online political ads to go more mainstream this year,” said Peter Greenberger, Google’s chief evangelist for the political sales team.

Facebook recently created a two-person political ad team at its Palo Alto headquarters and plans to devote more staff as Election Day gets closer.

Presidential and high-profile congressional races were the first to dedicate resources and money to online campaign tools. Most notably, President Barack Obama leveraged YouTube, social networks and online fundraising tools to spread his message and capture the attention of younger voters.

More recently, Massachusetts Republican Scott Brown used Google ads, mobile applications and text messages to spur voters to elect him to Sen. Ted Kennedy’s vacant seat.

“The test for 2010 is, can this medium be as beneficial for local candidates as it is for national candidates?” Greenberger said. “We knew after 2008 that 2010 would be the next big opportunity.”

He expects online campaign work to spike during primary season, starting in May before peaking in October before the general election. He’s encouraging campaigns to spend at least 10 percent of their budgets on Internet advertising.

By comparison, Obama spent 4 percent of his budget online. In 2004, the average online political ad spending for campaigns was 0.8 percent, Greenberger said.

Facebook says it’s too soon to make spending predictions, but early interest suggests that campaigns are already factoring the web into their overall budgets.

“We’re relying on the largest campaign committees to spread the word to candidates,” said Adam Conner, associate manager of public policy for Facebook.  “We’re seeing increasing levels of awareness of folks who help set the budgets of the campaigns, so there’s already internal buy-in.”

Greenberger said Google is moving beyond the simpler direct response ads that have so far dominated elections to focus more on persuasion ads. For example, instead of listing links to candidates’ web sites and email lists, Google wants campaigns to think about ads that will get voters to take action by creating videos on YouTube, which is owned by Google, that can go viral.

“If healthcare is a top issue for a candidate, this is the time to capture supporters, while the debate is still fresh,” Greenberger said. “You have to get to people while there’s still interest. In three months, people may not be talking about it as much.”

Campaigns have also taken note of Google’s “network blasts,” which blanket ads on the web pages viewed by residents in their district or state. Scott Brown, for example, made good use of the blasts in the days leading up to the special election.

Facebook says that while Google is effective at fundraising and adding names to email lists, the younger company may serve better on targeting ads to specific demographics.

“Our core strength is using the social graph to find out who your friends are voting for,” said Dmitry Shevelenko, Facebook’s political advertising sales specialist.

Facebook is encouraging campaigns to add “fan box widgets” on the front of their web sites, so users can automatically become the candidate’s fan on Facebook.  For the first time, Facebook is allowing candidates to target all the voters in their state with ads on its homepage -- the pages users see first when they log onto Facebook.

“We’re basically allowing a statewide campaign to own Facebook for that day,” Conner said.

Facebook is also introducing a feature that lets campaigns run ads targeted to people who have at least one friend who is a “fan” of the candidate.

“You get to introduce your candidate through the lens of existing supporters who are your friends,” Shevelenko said.

Because of the growing dissatisfaction with some Democratic policies, Greenberger expects anti-incumbent campaigns to take full advantage of the web “because they’ve got nothing to lose…and they have the willingness to try to something new to get an edge.

Meanwhile, Facebook says it’s come a long way in figuring out how to engage web users and keep them coming back. More than half of its 400 million users visit the site every day.

And Shevelenko, who formerly worked in Facebook’s social gaming business, says campaigns could glean ideas from how popular online games can capture users’ attention.

“There’s a lot the political world can learn from the success of games like Farmville,” he said. “Mafia Wars -- now there’s a game campaigns can relate to.”