Net companies prepare for political conventions (and parties)

Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo are all offering ways to follow the Democratic and Republican conventions online. They are facilitating the conventions in a number of other ways as well.

Stephanie Condon Staff writer, CBSNews.com
Stephanie Condon is a political reporter for CBSNews.com.
Stephanie Condon
5 min read

Internet companies including Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft are planning to use this year's political conventions to show off their technology and products--and, of course, host massive parties for employees, celebrities, and politicians.

Even though public interest in the Democratic and Republican conventions may be waning, there are more ways than ever to tune in to what's happening over the next several weeks. There are Webcasts, alerts sent via text messaging, and an announcement that Sirius XM Radio will carry "live, uninterrupted" audio from the conventions.

The common theme is finding out the best way to employ the conventions--where Barack Obama and John McCain are due to be come the two parties' official presidential candidates--as high-profile marketing opportunities. Google and Microsoft have signed up to be "official convention providers," and Verizon Wireless proudly announced this week that it's "ready" to handle 5 million more calls and data transmissions than usual in Denver next week. The deluge of press releases of dubious value has even included one firm boasting that it will provide area hotels with the "first wood hotel key card."

Google caters to bloggers, searchers
Google, as the official "Search and Online Video Community Provider" for the Democratic convention, which starts Monday in Denver, is a sponsor of the Big Tent, an 8,000-square-foot, two-story venue for journalists and bloggers.

White House in winter
The road to the White House in January leads through the party conventions in Denver and Minneapolis in the next two weeks. White House photo by Paul Morse

"This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to have everyone who works in politics in one place," said Ginny Hunt, a manager on the Google elections team. "It'll be a rare opportunity to have such hands-on work between Googlers and users." Google will be holding workshops and demonstrations of its applications in the tent, such as how to create an election map, and it will offer perks like free smoothies and massages for those who have access to the facility. There will also be kiosks throughout the convention facilities at which anyone can upload videos to YouTube.

Google will offer similar services at the Republican convention in Minneapolis-St. Paul, where it is the official "Innovation Provider." The Republican gathering starts Sept. 1.

The Internet company also recently rolled out its 2008 election Web site. It highlights new tools, like a video search engine and the Google Reader Power Players site, that capitalize on the interests of Google users, according to Hunt. "In terms of general interest around the election, we're only seeing it grow," Hunt said. "The online component will hopefully make (the convention) a bit more personal and a bit more 'on demand.'"

On the video search engine, users can enter terms a politician might have used in a speech and search for its exact location in a video of the speech on YouTube. Hunt said political speeches offered a perfect opportunity to demonstrate Google's skill with technologies like speech recognition.

This fall, Google plans to launch a voter information project it is collaborating on with the Pew Center's Electionline.org. It will let users look up their voting registration status, voting precinct location, and ballot information. User searches for this information spiked on Google during this year's primary season and before the fall election in 2004.

Yahoo looks for interest in videos
Yahoo also anticipates that providing online coverage of convention news will pay off. It is partnering with Politico and other news outlets to sponsor public discussion forums at both the Democratic and Republican conventions that will be made available on Yahoo News.

"Politics has been the top news category on Yahoo News for six straight months, so there's no question we're seeing a strong interest in it," said Yahoo spokesperson Brian Nelson. "Yahoo is in a much different position to provide deeper coverage of the convention than we were four years ago."

Nelson said Yahoo expects to see strong user interest in content provided through Yahoo's video partnerships with news outlets like ABC, CBS, and CNN. "These are partnerships we didn't have, and we weren't getting the video coverage like this four years ago," he said.

Microsoft's many applications
Microsoft will also provide online coverage of the Democratic convention, as its "Software and HD Web Content Provider." The company will provide live, high-definition video of all four days of the event at the convention's Web site. It will also provide data feeds, pictures, and other forms of content on the site. Enabled by its Silverlight technology, viewers can "customize" their viewing experience of the convention by viewing multiple streams simultaneously, viewing additional information such as a speaker's voting history, and using other features.

The company will highlight its Surface technology at both the Democratic and Republican conventions at "digital concierge" kiosks on site. The kiosks will provide local information like hotel locations and restaurant guides, as well as multimedia files from past conventions.

A number of Microsoft applications will be in use at the conventions behind the scenes. "We do consider our technical support and expertise we're providing to the conventions our first priority in helping them put on a first rate convention," said Microsoft spokesperson Ginny Terzano.

At the Democratic convention, Microsoft will provide systems for media registration, delegate tracking, credentials management, and podium operations. Both conventions will use applications like Microsoft Office Live Meeting for Web conferencing and Microsoft Office SharePoint Server for online document management.

One Microsoft employee told us that the software company's name will be on the badge lanyards for at least one of the conventions.

The after parties
The three companies' participation in the conventions isn't limited to technical aspects, however. Google is co-sponsoring a party with Vanity Fair magazine the final night of the Democratic Convention.

"Microsoft is sponsoring some receptions and events as is typical of most corporations engaging at the convention," Terzano said. The company is working with other organizations to host a day of batting practice at Coors Field in Denver and the Minneapolis stadium to benefit local Denver and St. Paul/Minneapolis charities. For the Republican convention, Microsoft is co-sponsoring an essay contest for local St. Paul and Minneapolis teens. The winner will be invited to lead the Pledge of Allegiance during the convention and receive prizes like an Xbox.

While eBay isn't directly participating in either convention, its design director, Shawn Henderson, is decorating the Huffington Post "Wellness Lounge" at the Democratic convention.

The Wellness Lounge is a 1,300-square-foot space with a main conference room and five smaller rooms intended to provide a soothing environment for the media and other convention attendees. The lounge will feature Ayurvedic consultations, skin care sessions, Thai massages, and a special "Twitter room," among other things. Henderson will furnish the lounge with eco-friendly furniture like daybeds and chairs that will later be auctioned on eBay to support a charity of the Huffington Post's choosing.