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The social networking election

Sites like MySpace, Facebook and LinkedIn have found a new audience consisting of political junkies. But will they be able to cash in?

By Jeff Cox, CNNMoney.com contributing writer

NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- Consider the Web site LinkedIn a late entry into the already crowded 2008 presidential race.

The professional networking site, kind of a MySpace for the white-collar crowd, kicked off its campaign this week with an event featuring Democrat Barack Obama, who signed on to communicate with the site's 13 million members.

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Obama on Wednesday posed a business-related question to LinkedIn members related to his efforts to defeat New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and others vying for the Democratic nomination. (His question: "How can the next president help small business and entrepreneurs survive?" to which he received 135 answers by mid-morning Wednesday.)

For the Illinois senator, his debut on LinkedIn gives him the chance to connect with movers and shakers in the business world. And for LinkedIn itself, Obama's decision to partake in the often lively forums on the site gives it a boost of street cred in a new and growing niche for online social networks - as a well-traveled political town hall that could provide a strong revenue source in the future.

New ground on the Net

While the past two presidential elections served as vivid displays of how powerful the Internet can be in political campaigns, the 2008 race marks the first time social networking sites, for years strictly playgrounds for the high school- and college-age crowds, have established themselves as critical stops on the campaign trail.

"The Obama campaign has been on the leading edge of this technology," says Kay Luo, LinkedIn's director of corporate communications and herself and open supporter of Obama on her personal LinkedIn page. Luo says the event will allow Obama to "get input and increase visibility" among the professional community.

That may be true, but the question-and-answer session on LinkedIn, as well as the pages the candidates have on the more well-known sites such as MySpace and Facebook, open up new revenue turf, something critical as more and more players enter the networking market.

The challenge will be to figure out how to take advantage.

Some candidates using the networking sites have attracted legions of visitors. Clinton alone has more than 133,000 MySpace "friends" and Obama has even more.

"Obama is approaching 200,000 friends, which puts him in a league with some of the bands and comedians on the site," said Jeff Berman, MySpace's senior vice president of public affairs. MySpace recently opened a page on its site called Impact Channel to serve as a one-stop shop for users looking for presidential race content.

Like the other sites, MySpace relies heavily on targeted advertisements to drive revenue. MySpace ads are administered through Google, which uses keyword matches to decide which ads go to which pages. MySpace derives revenue based on how many users click on the ads.

In the case of the presidential candidates, those pages are often home to cause-related promotions, such as for candidates in Senate and House races as well as advocacy groups.

"The MySpace generation is very conscious of what causes brands are associated with, and have a very strong preference with associating themselves with brands that are tied with causes they care about," Berman said. "This is an enormous opportunity for cause marketing for advertisers."

For instance, MySpace pages for both Clinton and Democratic Sen. Joseph Biden feature ads from the National Abortion Rights Action League and the re-election campaign of Sen. Tom Harkin. Republican John McCain's site often shows an ad for a law firm that takes on Lemon Law cases, while fellow GOP candidate Sam Brownback's page boasts a banner ad for conservative Web site HumanEvents.com

For NARAL, having its ads show up on the candidate pages has given the organization a recruiting boost. A company official was not sure how many page views its ad received on Impact Channel pages.

"We're fortunate that the ads are showing up on these sites," said NARAL spokesman Ted Miller. "We've had an uptick in traffic over the past week as a result of these ads appearing on these various candidates' pages."

How that translates into revenue is, at least for now, unclear. Representatives for several networking sites contacted did not have separate revenue totals for the presidential pages, but analysts agree the potential is vast.

The business of politics

MySpace's Berman insisted the site's main goal with its "Impact Channel" is to provide a public service, but he acknowledges the remarkable traffic the sites generate. That trend should only grow.

Republican pollster David Johnson of Strategic Vision said his party will need to spend a considerable amount of time catching up to the Democrats in their proficiency in utilizing the social networks.

"Our party is really behind in learning how to maximize this and use it to our best benefit," Johnson said. "We were very proactive in learning how to use talk radio. When it comes to the Internet, especially social networking sites, we're really behind."

That won't last, according to analysts, who predict that the 2008 campaign is only the beginning in terms of candidate involvement with social networking sites.

Tracy Ryan, an advertising research specialist at Virginia Commonwealth University, said the field will become more specialized in the future, as evidenced by LinkedIn's ability to focus on the business community.

"It's so inexpensive. It's great in terms of efficiency," Ryan said. "Four years from now there will be 300 social networking sites and it's going to be key to monitor which networking sites for which audiences they go after."

The networking sites face the future challenge of finding the best ways to monetize the added traffic from its political niche, said Tom Woldrum, senior vice president of online media for New York-based consulting firm MRM.

"They're getting so much competitive pressure," Woldrum said of the sites. "The only question for them is, how do we make money off all this activity. It will be interesting to watch the way they attempt to do that and at the same time preserve whatever it was that attracted people to their site in the first place." Top of page

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