House Members Can Expand Online Ads

Google, Facebook Ready to Cash In

Posted July 19, 2010 at 6:30pm

The newest class of incoming House Members will have more freedom than ever to market themselves to their constituents online.

The change comes after the House Administration Committee last week passed a resolution expanding the subject matter that can be represented in official online ads.

It’s a subtle change that constituents might not notice, but the platforms that stand to cash in, such as Google and Facebook, as well as advertising firms that act as middlemen between Congress and the platforms, say they are happy to have their hands untied — if only a bit.

“We are excited that Members of the House of Representatives are now able to take greater advantage of new technologies like Facebook advertising,” said Andrew Noyes, the social networking site’s spokesman.

Where Representatives could only advertise town halls, military service academies, Congressional jobs, the Congressional Art Competition and emergency information, they can now publicize their office contact information, promote official House.gov websites, and plug a slew of constituent services, such as Capitol tours, presidential or Congressional greetings, assistance with government casework and requests to fly a flag over the Capitol.

“This is a major step forward with how Members of Congress interact with constituents,” said Peter Greenberger, head of Google’s political ads team. “As constituents are increasingly using the Net to look for information, it makes sense that Members of Congress are disseminating information” on the Web.

The most useful change, however, is that Members can now expand their e-mail lists through online ads, said Rob Carter, who heads the Washington, D.C., office of CampaignGrid, an online advertising firm.

“Our clients have been clamoring for that opportunity,” Carter said. “It’s high time that this was allowed.”

Steven Moore, chief of staff for Rep. Peter Roskam, said his has been one of those eager offices. Since the Illinois Republican took office in 2007, Moore said they’ve noticed a group of constituents, particularly young people, who get most of their information online.

“By not using that channel, you’re depriving a subset of the population of access to their Congressman,” Moore said. “This is an opportunity for us to find people on a very granular level and communicate with them on things that they’re interested in.”

In fact, it was precisely that ability to target constituents that made this rule change possible.

Carter said Members were reticent to approve the change until online ad platforms proved that they could geotarget ads, or direct them to the smallest practical geographic area. The resolution specifies Members must do so.

That shouldn’t be a problem considering Google can target IP addresses within specific ZIP codes and Facebook can target ads not just by location, but also by age and sex. Since Members pay per click or per view, targeting the ads ensures that they get what they pay for.

The ads are still subject to normal franking rules, including the campaign blackout date, which starts in August. Since the blackout date is quickly approaching, these types of ads probably won’t start until after the November elections or as late as next year, when new Members are sworn in and want to introduce themselves to their constituents.

But stakeholders say this is just a start toward relaxing online rules. Members still can’t promote third-party sites, such as their Facebook or Twitter profiles, nor can they take specific policy positions or talk about upcoming votes in online ads.

“At a time when we’re entering into some very big debates about the fundamental opinion on where our country is going, Congressman Roskam can’t talk about those issues,” Moore said. “I’d like to be able to use this like a telephone or like mail.”