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The Washington state Department of Transportation is testing advertising on some of its dot-com web pages in an effort to increase revenue.

Since January, the Washington state Department of Transportation (WSDOT) has been navigating something few government websites have pursued. Check your state or local government website -- you'll notice that it most likely lacks advertising. But WSDOT, among a handful of other government websites, currently or have featured ads alongside civic information.

WSDOT is now nine months into its Website Advertising Pilot Project, allowing banner ads on the ferry tracking and 12 ferry schedule pages. The Wall Street Journal reported that WSDOT's Web ads have only generated $30,000 as of early August. But that could change. Tonia Buell, WSDOT project and communications manager, says that WSDOT recently selected Municipal Media Solutions to sell its ad space via a revenue sharing plan. Once that contract is finalized, advertising will expand to WSDOT's mountain pass and traffic condition pages.

The idea for online advertising transpired when some forward-thinking state legislators learned that WSDOT gets an average of more than 1 million page views per day, says Buell. That sort of traffic has significant potential to attract advertisers.

The WSDOT Web Site Monetizing Feasibility Study, published in January 2010, shows that there is precedent in Washington and other states for monetizing government websites. Most of these efforts involved tourism-related Web pages. Over a decade ago, WSDOT allowed outdoors company REI to sponsor travel info. Currently, the state's Department of Commerce-backed tourism site,, features advertising alongside content such as travel deals. In addition, the Oregon Department of Transportation, Oregon Tourism Commission and California Travel and Tourism Commission are among the handful of agencies that have engaged in Web advertising.

In order to offer ads, WSDOT is abiding by federal regulations. The General Services Administration (GSA), which provides domains ending in dot-gov, prohibits advertising on dot-gov Web pages. As a result, WSDOT is placing any advertising on its dot-com pages instead.

The pilot isn't going over well with everyone. Some residents, appalled at the notion of advertising on government websites, have written: "I am totally offended by the advertisement on your pages; I pay plenty of taxes already." "Government is not a business," another one wrote in. Others complained about the content of the ads. WSDOT's first advertiser was the Hawaii Visitors and Tourism Bureau, Buell says. "We had complaints from people that were saying, 'Why are you advertising Hawaii?' and, 'That should be advertising for Washington.'"

WSDOT is taking a cautious approach to what ads are featured -- any content that is obscene or indecent, discriminatory, religious, political or related to any public issues is prohibited. In addition, advertisements for alcohol, cigarettes or firearms and those containing adult, misleading or fraudulent content are prohibited. "That cuts the potential advertising market down," Buell says, noting that Municipal Media Solutions understands the need for such rules. "Because the important thing is that people are able to get the information that they want from our website and not be distracted, and not have inappropriate ads in the public domain."

Not all responses have been negative, however. Buell has received such feedback as, "God bless you for attempting to raise revenue for the state of Washington," and "I am excited that WSDOT has decided to do this." Another resident said, "This is a great way to help close the budget gap, and I appreciate that the thought has been given to the content of the ads to keep the website family friendly -- well done."

Once Municipal Media Solutions is on board and starts selling more ads for the approved WSDOT Web pages, the department will have a better idea of what it can expect from ads in the future and will report back to the Legislature in March. WSDOT might recommend to the Legislature that it wants to expand the pilot to additional online opportunities, such as the 511 traveler information system, mobile apps, some social media tools and e-mail alerts.

"We will have to report on our results, and [legislators] could say, 'Great, keep going, you can expand the program,' or they could shut us down," Buell says, "but we hope they'll see the potential in Web advertising and let us continue."

Jessica Mulholland is the associate editor of GOVERNING, and is also the associate editor of both Government Technology and Public CIO magazines.
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