Campaign Trail: Politics 2.0

Q&A: Google's Greenberger Talks Campaign '08

When It Comes to Search, Candidates Should Buy the Issues

By Published on .

Google hasn't been quiet about increasing its presence in Washington -- but it's not just an army of lobbyists it has hired. In time for a heated 2008 presidential election, Google has added some political muscle to its sales team, tapping Peter Greenberger to convince candidates and advocacy groups they should be spending more on search, site targeting and, of course, YouTube. Greenberger worked on the 1996 Clinton-Gore campaign and Gore's failed 2000 bid. He managed Brad Carson's Senate race in Oklahoma (with the cowboy boots gathering dust in the closet to prove it) before working in the public affairs division of D.C.-based interactive firm New Media Strategies.

Ad Age: We're talking a lot about how political campaigns are using the web and social media, but we were also talking about that in 2004 when online was only 1% of the political ad dollars spent. Is this really changing?
Peter Greenberger: It was anemic. But it's changing and it's already changed, especially looking at search expenditures. I would suspect that each one of the top six candidates have probably spent more than Kerry and Bush spent combined. ... There are three phases to campaign and outreach. You've got reaching out to the base, which is natural in the primary and where we are now. And the goal with online would be e-mail acquisition and contributions and you're speaking to a smaller audience. You're speaking to the people who are voting in Iowa and it's only 120,000 people. ... The second stage is the persuasion stage -- when the campaign opens up wider, when you're making your case. That's when you really want to touch people where they are online, touch specific issues, try to win them over. And then there's the final phase, the GOTV -- get out the vote -- where you're looking to take action offline. Each of those involves different strategies. Some of the best ideas will come from the campaigns and then they can use our platform to implement them.

Ad Age: We've written about the YouTube factor playing a role in the recent midterm election, for better or worse (the "Macaca moment," for example) and we've certainly seen it already in the recent CNN debates. What's your take on the YouTube factor?
Mr. Greenberger: Obviously with the sponsorship of the debate, it's firmly planted within the mainstream of this campaign. It provides candidates an incredible opportunity to speak directly to voters, and on both sides people have taken advantage of it. Mitt Romney has uploaded a huge amount of video. ... He's also used it defensively. There have been negative videos about Mitt Romney from the time he was governor of Massachusetts and he has very effectively answered those charges using video. The best way to do it is not just upload campaign commercials and walk away and say "We've used YouTube," but to use it to open up a dialogue and engage this community. ... Mike Gravel did this remarkable existentialist video where he stares at the video for what seems like a long time. He's by a river or lake and he turns and walks away, picks up a big rock, throws it into the water, and walks off with no words. It caused an incredible stir online. Now his message is a little confusing in the video but the internet has allowed for more creativity into the process. And for more humor. I just read an article -- in Ad Age -- about that. The interjection of humor is terrific. The internet allows you to do that because it's a lower barrier to entry. The candidates seem more willing to experiment online.

Ad Age: What might candidates not be thinking about when it comes to how they're using the internet?
Mr. Greenberger: Most of them have understood the idea to brand themselves, so they're buying their own names [in search]. But what few of them are doing is buying the issues. Voters are very frequently searching online for information about the environment and energy efficiency, global conflict, Iraq war, health care ... it's a great opportunity to bring their message to people while they're actively looking for these issues -- a very powerful moment in the marketing continuum or sales cycle. They're trying to make a sale to the American people and in many cases they're not speaking to them. ... As we know, only about half the people in this country vote, so my guess is even a smaller fraction are visiting a candidate's website. But 80% of Americans are online. If you can reach that delta you have an opportunity to beat your opponent.

Ad Age: Do you think the web has the potential to increase voter turnout?
Mr. Greenberger: We hope so ... but ultimately it's less about what we're doing and more about how candidates use this medium and Google. The creative ideas will come from the candidates. If Sen. Clinton's campaign finds a creative way to connect with young women online, it has a great opportunity to expand the electorate in its favor. Similarly with other candidates. If you can reach people you weren't able to reach before in an effective way, then you grow the electorate.

Ad Age: We've heard a lot about the NetRoots factor in the past, but it didn't appear to do much for Howard Dean's ability to get the Democratic nomination in 2004 or, more recently, Ned Lamont beyond the primary. Can this be a factor beyond initial burst?
Mr. Greenberger: What we're doing is more expansive beyond the NetRoots. The NetRoots is an important constituency -- certainly for the left -- and perhaps it'll grow for the right as well. But it's a constituency that cannot be ignored. Just as politicians must listen to and have a dialogue with African-Americans and women and the gay/lesbian community and hunters, the online NetRoots community is active and can be very helpful and potentially very damaging. They're just a piece. The value we bring is the opportunity to speak directly with that community but also with every other diverse community on the internet and to tailor the message appropriately. The advertising we site-target on liberal blogs will be different from the advertising we place on women's blogs or African-American blogs.
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