The Web Politic?

Just 1.4 percent of Internet users visited the Web site of a Democratic candidate in October, according to a new study. But Web publishers hope to prove that this sliver of the body politic contains highly influential voters who may persuade others.

These statistics and insights into political behavior online were unveiled at the E-Voter Institute Conference this week in La Jolla, Calif. E-Voter Institute is a non-partisan trade association representing Web publishers and Internet solution providers, created to promote the use of technology for political and advocacy communications.

According to Nielsen//Net Ratings, 1.9 million users, or 1.4 percent of the active Internet population, visited a Democratic candidate site in October 2003, with women aged 18 to 34 more likely to visit these Web sites than men. These people are in general heavier Internet users, visiting almost 2.5 times as many Web sites and spending more than twice as much time online as the general online population. These users are also significantly better educated than the general online population.

But still, 1.4 percent is only 1.4 percent. Perhaps that’s why the Third Annual E-Voter Survey of Political and Advocacy Communication Leaders, conducted by Dynamic Logic, showed that the Web has a long way to go before it surpasses the perceived power of the television set. In the survey, political communication experts said personal appearances and television were the most effective methods for reaching and persuading voters. Next in popularity, with over 60 percent of the respondents, were direct mail, radio ads, phone calls and e-mail. Only 28 percent believed that online ads are effective, putting the medium behind newspaper ads and yard signs in these pols’ perceptions.

“Political ads are like brand advertising. They’re about messaging and building a brand to carry over until election day — the politicians’ purchase day,” said Dynamic Logic president Nick Nyhan. “They’re building brand and message all the way up to election day.”

Nyhan said that political types tend to be old-fashioned and stick to the tried-and-true — television. But, in an era when the effectiveness of television advertising is being called into question, and when younger adults seem to be turning off to broadcast TV, “Maybe a political campaign will reach target voters better online, depending on who they are.”

There was some good news for online publishers in the survey results. Online advertising was seen as a legitimate tool by two out of three political media specialists, a 21 percent increase in interest from last year and a 106 percent increase from 2001. While e-mail continues to be popular, the interest in its use has remained constant since 2001.

The E-Voter Institute hopes to prove that the skinny 1.4 percent of Internet users may not be a huge target but it is a high quality target for politician’s ads. The theory, according to Nielsen//NetRatings senior Internet analyst Greg Bloom, is “quality over quantity. Candidates can go online to reach people who are what Roper calls ‘influentials.'” These people like to make their opinions heard, in organized meetings and casually among friends and people in their communities. “The idea, still unproven,” Bloom said, “is to figure out whether the people who use these types of Web sites, are the kind of people who, if they believe in something, convince ten others.”

Neither did Nyhan think that the low number of people who visited campaign Web sites was bad news for the medium. “A lot of people think that politics and the Internet is about getting people to come to candidates’ Web sites. They don’t go to the campaign’s physical headquarters to pick up campaign literature, either. Expecting an election to be won by having people come to you is naove,” he said. “You have to go where people are already going — and that’s advertising.”

Nielsen//NetRatings, Dynamic Logic and E-Voter all will keep a close eye on the 2004 presidential campaign to try to find out whether online ads have an influence. In order to get Web publishers’ hands on some of the more than $200 million Democratic candidates have raised to date, the E-Voter Institute will have to do some more influencing itself.

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