Health Reform Battle Spurs Web Ad Blitz

As the healthcare reform debate comes to a head, politicians and advocacy groups are taking to the Web to make last-minute cases to their constituencies.

But instead of blanketing the Internet, most efforts have been limited to search and laser-targeted local ads in select districts—typically districts where an individual Congressman’s vote is considered still up for grabs—or where upstart politicians are running against the bill.

“Mass-media campaigns are not the target,” said Peter Cherukuri, vp, gm at the D.C. Bureau of The Huffington Post. “All this money is being targeted at 26 to 30 districts. It’s very grass roots and very targeted.” That likely benefits ad networks that can offer geo-targeted inventory at scale, along with local media Web sites.

Still, Huffington Post has run a campaign this week from the group Health Care Action Network, which supports reforming health insurance. On the flip side, Politico has been carrying ads from the group Hands Off My Heath Care, which urges citizens to resist a government takeover of the system.

But the big action at the moment seems to be happening at Google, where search traffic has spiked over the past week. At the site, ads are being run by the White House (“The future of reform is about to be decided. Stand with the president”), to Sen. Harry Reid (“Stand with me on reconciliation”) to the National Republican Congressional Committee (“Join the fight. Stop Obama & Pelosi”).

Others glomming onto the surge of healthcare interest are Dr. Daniel Mongiardo, who is running for the U.S. Senate in Kentucky with the message “Health reform Needs A Dr.,” the smaller government-favoring Freedomworks.org and the anti-poverty group Results.org. Sources said that one group is considering running a massive ad blast across Google’s content network during the final days before the expected vote this Sunday.

“Over the course of this year-long debate, we’ve seen over a hundred groups use search advertising to shape the healthcare [dialogue],” said Peter Greenberger, head of Google’s elections and issue advocacy team. “From the ‘public option’ to ‘death panels’ to ‘econciliation,’ healthcare buzz words have become Google keywords. Advocacy groups have used Google advertising to raise money, recruit supporters, frame the debate and mobilize for the final push. Regardless of the outcome, the openness and efficiencies of online advertising have allowed for a much richer and engaging health care dialogue in 2010 than what existed in 1994.”

Thomas Keeley, the online strategist for Freedomworks.org, said that on March 3 his team launched a new Web campaign—with the anti-health-legislation theme “Stop reconciliation.” Since then, the group has gathered over 100,000 petition signatures through Google search ads, and over 250,000 overall by running banners on conservative sites like National Review and The Fox Nation.

“The conservative [sites] have delivered the best conversion,” he said. “But with Google AdWords we’ve been able to target the entire country, especially as people search for ‘reconciliation. Search ads give us an extremely cheap per conversion [rate], and it’s the easiest one to target we’re going to keep it going until the House vote.”

Keeley said his team has not turned to Microsoft’s Bing, but others have of late. The number of healthcare-related searches and clicks on Bing have jumped over the past few days, said officials. And while Microsoft would not reveal specific dollars, over the past four months search-ad spending targeting heath-related terms swelled by 34 percent. From January to February, spending nearly doubled.

There is not much spending happening on Twitter, but lots of politicians are turning to the social platform to get the word out—either for or against the bill as it nears a final vote. For example, Ohio Rep. House Leader John Boehner tweeted today: “President Obama’s ‘jobs’ event delays vote on Pelosi plan to ram job-killing #hcr bill thru House.”

Interestingly, according to the site TweetCongress.com, nine out of ten of the most active Twitter users are Republicans or Republican organizations. The Senator with the most Twitter followers: Arizona Sen. John McCain, with over 1.74 million. The 2008 presidential candidate made his feelings on the bill known, albeit sarcastically: “Another sweetheart deal added to the health care reconciliation bill.”