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Flashy Web sites vie for politicians' eyes

The jury is still out on whether Web sites can generate successful lobbying campaigns, but a close look at one recent effort suggests that cool features don't necessarily translate into results.

Can multimedia Web sites add more than sizzle to political lobbying campaigns?

The jury is still out, but a close look at one such recent effort suggests that cool features don't necessarily translate into impressive results.

In July, the Washington, D.C., lobbying firm WinCapitol launched a Web site with streaming video of 535 individual ad spots targeted at every member of Congress. The site was set up as part of a campaign to push what WinCapitol dubs an anti-sweatshop bill, H.R. 1662, "The 'Made in USA' Label Defense Act of 1999."

Three months later, the firm is claiming success, announcing today that the site "has helped to spark an avalanche of support...and will help change the way citizens lobby their government."

WinCapitol's video-streaming strategy comes as politicians, lobbyists, and activists are flocking to the Web with their messages, despite little evidence that e-politics wields influence where it counts: in Congress.

"It's not having an impact," said Jonathan Band, a partner with the law firm Morrison & Foerster in Washington, D.C., who is familiar with lobbying issues. "Lobbying on the Net is likely to lead to more email than anything else. And congressional offices do not give the same weight to it as a hard-copy letter."

Jonah Siegel, founder of Mindshare Internet Campaigns, concurred. "Email is the killer app for organizing, but it is uniquely ineffective at projecting the voice of constituents into the political process," he said.

By adding multimedia features, WinCapitol hopes to change that perception.

Targeting Congress's audience
The firm produced the 110-second video spots for the Take Pride in America Coalition, a group of more than 240 business, labor, consumer, senior citizen, and human rights organizations.

The spots portray alleged dire working conditions in Saipan, in the Northern Mariana Islands, and then disclose whether the Internet user's specific representatives in Congress are cosponsoring the pending legislation. If the representative is a supporter, the spot praises the member and asks the viewer to contact other representatives about the issue.

According to government records, the coalition has spent approximately $280,000 on lobbying expenses for the first six months of this year, the latest reporting period. WinCapitol principle Jim Sims said the firm has not released the costs of producing the videos and the Web site.

In its favor, the firm points out that H.R. 1662 has received more than 50 new cosponsors since July, when the Take Pride Web site was launched. But the firm is less emphatic about exactly how online video helped pull that off.

Little traffic
According to Sims, the site averaged a paltry 7,940 hits per week since the spots were unveiled to the Hill, peaking at 17,627 in late July. Traffic continues to hover at 5,000 to 6,000 hits per week.

In addition, the Web site has generated 1,500 to 1,600 emails to Congress, not counting letters sent via postal mail, faxes, phone calls, and office visits.

Staff members for the bill's cosponsors, Rep. Bob Franks (R-New Jersey) and Rep. John Dingell (D-Michigan), declined to comment on the bill or the impact of the Internet campaign.

Staffers for Sen. Spencer Abraham (R-Michigan) and Sen. Fritz Hollings (D-South Carolina), who have cosponsored a companion bill, S. 992, also declined to comment on the success of the campaign.

Sims suggested the low numbers are not a sign of failure.

The organization is "less concerned about generating email as opposed to ensuring that nearly every congressional office received at least one," he said. "That is because the emails themselves help alert the member of Congress and his or her staff to the fact that their constituents are seeing a video spot featuring that member on this issue right now."

It's not clear how many members of Congress have accessed the Web site. But Morrison & Foerster's Band said he doubts many have taken the time to visit the site.

"You've got to make it easy," he said. "They've got 50 issues on their desk. If they have to make more than two clicks, they won't come."