Washington State Government Cashes In on Ad Space

The state Department of Transportation's Website Advertising Pilot Project has evolved from manually posted images to a sophisticated system that allows government agencies to target various factors, generate more revenue and adapt to more modern civic strategies.

As government agencies face the economic reality of generating alternate revenue streams, formerly non-traditional methods are becoming common civic strategies. Since 2011, the Washington state Department of Transportation (WSDOT) has conducted a pilot project to allow advertising on popular online traffic and traveler information pages.

In its first three years, the pilot generated $168,177. The legislature provided $75,000 in start-up costs, which were paid off by early 2013. But today? The project produces about $7,000 per month, says Tonia Buell, WSDOT’s project development and communications manager for public-private partnerships.

When the Website Advertising Pilot Project first launched, the ads consisted of static images that were manually posted to the Web pages. Today, however, WSDOT uses ad-serving software that can target various factors, such as time of day, unique visitors and impressions.

“It’s more sophisticated now, and we’re generating more revenue because of it,” Buell said. “Our advertisers are very pleased and keep coming back, and this shows the success of our business. We have click-through rates as high as .34 percent.”

Dot-Com vs Dot-Gov

For the Washington State Department of Transportation to offer ads, it is abiding by federal regulations. The General Services Administration, which provides domains ending in dot-gov, prohibits advertising on dot-gov Web pages, Governing reported the year the pilot launched. As a result, the department is placing advertising solely on its dot-com pages.

The department manages two different types of advertising: direct and ad networks. The initial intent was to review the creative for every advertisement prior to publish; however, this proved challenging to do with ad networks, such as Google AdSense, that deliver aggregated ad supply. So to help customize, manage and troubleshoot the advertising pilot, WSDOT signed with Municipal Media Solutions less than one year into the trial.

“We’ve taken a very conservative approach to the ad program,” Buell said, "because our No. 1 priority is to keep the integrity of the website and not have the advertising interfere.”

Buell shared one instance in which the department shut down the advertising due to delayed page-load times. To resolve the issue, Municipal Media Solutions revised the script so that Web pages load before advertising banners. 

Three years into the pilot, and the department has not experienced any instances of inappropriate advertising or an ad that breaches the department’s policies. Buell said that the approach is family-friendly and similar to what one might see on a transit system. There are restrictions on alcohol, drugs and guns. Additionally, the ad space is reserved specifically for companies with commercial businesses.

“We don’t post public service announcements,” Buell said. “The space is strictly for paying customers in order to help generate revenue. We’ve taken a very conservative approach from the beginning, and I think the public has appreciated that.”

Critical feedback from the public is addressed quickly. In August 2012, website visitor William C. Peters wrote, “Advertising? Disney & dog food? On a government website? I cannot express how repulsive this is. It takes away any professionalism or credibility. At the very least, it’s visual clutter. Leave that stuff for Amazon, etc.”

Through this type of feedback, the department was able to adjust the content and improve the sophistication level for the types of ads displayed.

“It’s a reminder that people want travel- and traffic-related information,” Buell said. “When you see something that seems out of the blue, it can be frustrating. Today, the ads are so targeted.  We want to make the ads related to what people are looking for.”

Current advertisers included companies such as Alaska Airlines, Chelan County, Clipper Vacations, Fairfield Inn & Suites, Geico, Mt. Baker and White Pass Washington, to name a few.

“Municipal Media’s WSDOT.com Mountain Pass pages were a perfect solution to help drive more skiers and snowboarders to Mt. Baker Ski Area,” said Sierra Sahlfeld of Mt. Baker Ski Area. “Our advertising campaign far exceeded expectations, and the team at Municipal Media was very accommodating in getting our ads launched quickly and swapping out creative.”

As ad-serving technology improves, the department is looking at a future where content is even more reflective of the Web user. Buell described the potential of a site visitor viewing a traffic camera in a specific neighborhood, and the correlating Web page would advertise area retail services.

“Today, our technology is much more sophisticated and so is the whole online advertising industry, so we need to continue to evolve,” Buell said. “In the future, we are going to be looking at ways to monetize our mobile apps. We’ll continue to find way to optimize revenue while maintaining the integrity of our site. We don’t want disruptions when people come to our site.”

Buell, who is responsible for overseeing the creation of various pilots, is preparing to hand off this project on to another manager, as the program has “gotten to a point where it moves pretty easily and does not take that much effort.”

Since its launch, the following agencies and jurisdictions have inquired about WSDOT’s Website Advertising Pilot Project: Burnsville, Minn.,; Orlando, Fla.; San Bernardino County, Calif.; Illinois Department of Employment Security; Indiana Department of Transportation; National Center for Technology Advancement; Portland, Ore., and its public transportation agency, Tri-Met; Washington State Department of Licensing; Washington State Digital Archives; Washington State Lottery; and Washington State Parks.