Virginia Prepares to Open Door To Advertising on Its Web Site

Virginia Prepares to Open Door To Advertising on Its Web Site

Donald Upson

Virginia Gov. James Gilmore is planning to issue guidelines for advertising on state Web sites as part of a major announcement on digital government next month, said officials in the Virginia Office of the Secretary of Technology.

Under the planned guidelines, advertising revenue would be used to pay for improvements to state agencies' information technology infrastructures, said Secretary of Technology Don Upson. In addition, the advertising will be administered by private-sector contractors, not by the state, and multiple vendors likely will be qualified to administer advertising on agency Web sites.

Upson said vendor selection would be up to individual agencies and that his office would not interfere once the guidelines are published.

"It should be the agencies' call, and not mine," he said. "All I should have to do is set the rules of the game."

Gilmore's announcement is timed to coincide with the end of the Virginia legislative session Feb. 24, but the announcement might be delayed if the session is extended, according to Upson's office.

At the same time, the Iowa Information Technology Department is getting ready to issue a request for proposals for Web sponsorship later this month, department officials said.

Unlike Internet advertising, which typically allows users to click through to the advertiser's Web site, the sponsorships will limit advertisers to displaying their name in exchange for partially subsidizing the site.

Similar to the Virginia approach, the Iowa RFP will seek a vendor that would assist the state in identifying sponsors, said Richard Varn, Iowa's chief information officer.

Although Iowa will issue an RFP, this doesn't mean the state will make an award, according to Varn, who said that a subsequent award would depend on the cost and level of effort it will entail. Once the RFPs are received, technology department officials will confer with the advisory council and governor before proceeding.

Iowa will restrict Web sponsorship to the executive branch because the courts and legislature are not interested in it, Varn said.

Iowa and Virginia are among the first states looking to use online advertising as a way to raise revenue to fuel digital government initiatives. State CIOs acknowledge that the notion of advertising on government Web sites raises tough questions, such as who should be allowed to ad-vertise and does an advertisement imply endorsement.

Because of these kinds of questions, the states have taken three approaches: advance with caution, wait to see what happens in other states, or place a temporary moratorium or permanent ban on advertising.

A guide to digital government, published in December by the National Association of State Information Resource Executives, Lexington, Ky., added some legitimacy to the idea of state government Web advertising and sponsorship.

The guide cites advertising as one of several untapped income sources that would allow states either to return income to the general fund or to reinvest it in other IT projects.

States are delaying advertising or sponsorship on their Web sites for many reasons. Kentucky has placed a moratorium on advertising on the state portal while it concentrates on content and design, said Aldona Valicente, Kentucky's CIO.

Washington state is studying public opinion before it makes a final decision, said Steve Kolodney, Washington's CIO. However, there is a clear precedent for Web sponsorship in the state, he said. The precedent was established when the Department of Transportation allowed Recreational Equipment Inc. of Kent, Wash., to sponsor a Web page on snow conditions, Kolodney said.

Pennsylvania has taken a firm stance against advertising and sponsorship on the state's Web portal, called "PA Portal." However, state officials eventually may allow it on Web sites for technology councils scattered throughout the state, said Charles Gerhards, Pennsylvania's deputy secretary for information technology.

In the latter case, the state would put a disclaimer on the portal disavowing responsibility for content of other sites linked to the state's main portal, he said.

Companies are proving to be as reluctant to pursue this opportunity as some states are to allow it. The exception is Columbus, Ohio-based eGovNet, which firmly believes it can grow this market at the state and local level.

The company's GovAds division was established last year to assist governments in finding the ways and means to generate new revenue from their Web sites, said Timothy Bartlett, eGovNet's president and executive officer.

"We understand the intricacies of Web advertising and how to create a compelling story to advertisers on the high-value properties of government Web sites," he said.

Both Upson and Bette Dillehay, Virginia deputy secretary of information technology, mentioned GovAds as a likely bidder on RFPs for advertising or sponsorship on government Web sites. Upson also named PlanetGov of Chantilly, Va., and EzGov Inc. of Atlanta as other possible bidders.

"The minute you put out an RFP, you'll know who wants the business," Upson said. PlanetGov and EzGov did not respond to inquiries from Washington Technology in time for this article.

Varn said he expects there will be no shortage of companies willing to handle Web advertising or sponsorship for state governments. "This is a very common thing, and thousands of firms do this," he said.

EGovNet is providing advertising services on the Web portal it developed for Honolulu. That portal carries advertising from automobile dealers, banks, insurance companies and real estate companies.

Bartlett said advertising is suitable for a number of different categories of services that government might provide citizens, including vehicle registration, travel and tourism and professional regulation. EgovNet allows only products and services that can be purchased by consumers and excludes political or religious-oriented advertising, according to its marketing literature.

Although traditional advertisers might want to get into the space, IT companies are better suited to provide the type of advertising and sponsorship solutions that state officials are talking about, Bartlett said.

"It is imperative that the advertising or sponsorship solutions provider in an online environment provide the highest levels of integrity through secure means for advertising," he said.

One of the technical issues involved, for example, is that government Web sites must be "tagged" for acceptance of advertising or sponsorship on Web sites and pages, Bartlett said. Tagging involves inserting commands that transfer the advertisement from the contractor's server to the government Web page.

"This may seem easy, but it is a detailed issue that must be worked through," he said. "Traditional advertisers do not have this expertise."

About the Author

William Welsh is a freelance writer covering IT and defense technology.

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