Integrated Tool Suite
No campaign — or country — is too small to benefit from political technology.
That's the approach Ben Schaffer, head of Media Mezcla, brings to his business. In 2008, for example, Schaffer's firm worked for a client in the first free presidential elections the Maldives has had in 30 years.
He applied the same ideas there that he applies for his clients in the United States: Take his full-service software solution, Campaign Engine, and customize it for each customer.
"We do a lot of work in the design process to figure out what people's goals are for the site," Schaffer says. "Is it fundraising, is it [volunteer] sign ups? We design pages appropriately so they're directed towards what's most important for them to be doing."
The software is provided as a service — you don't need your own hardware — but it isn't the only service. Schaffer sees the software as one aspect of a broader product.
"What candidates want now is to be Barack Obama," he wrote in an e-mail. "Of course, there are a lot of strengths that Obama and his team had that are hard to come by. But we believe their real strength was in setting up a strong foundation both technically and in their messaging, and then being wise and flexible enough to respond to and take advantage of crisis and opportunity along the way. That's something campaigns on every level can learn to do."
This technology purveyor to Democrats came to be thanks to another, less successful presidential candidate in an earlier race: Howard Dean, the unsuccessful 2004 contender. During Dean's pioneering presidential run, as a campaign media consultant in Burlington and New York, Schaffer met other people who would go on to consult on smaller races — and, over time, started asking Schaffer if he knew about better software than what they were using. Media Mezcla's first clients went online in 2005, and Schaffer's firm has been powering progressive politicos every since.
At the core of Media Mezcla is Campaign Engine, designed to be an easy-to-use, all-in-one solution for campaigns. Now in its third iteration, Campaign Engine rounds many bases: It handles online contributions, fundraising and event organizing, mass e-mails, content management, volunteer management, and social network integration, tracks site traffic, and allows users to manage all the resultant data in a campaign-centric constituent relationship management database.
Details include the ability to do A-B testing — sending out the same e-mail with different subject lines to different groups and keeping track of which one is opened more often — detailed site analytics, and sophisticated form generators. Schaffer boasts that any data a campaign can get into Microsoft Excel can make its way into Campaign Engine.
The system is OpenID-reliant, which means people can take existing online identities with them to a hosted site from Facebook or Google; in demos in other industries, this has been proven to increase the frequency with which people take the time to create a user profile. If a campaign site has a fan page, Campaign Engine can import the Facebook fan page's news feed to the website — showing the status updates of the campaign's supporters.
"Of course you're going to see stuff that's not necessarily relevant," Schaffer said. "What it shows is that there's a community and that they're active."
He adds that ease of use trumps his desire to stay on top in the bells-and-whistles tally. The point for Media Mezcla, he says, is for these tools to be easily wielded by someone who is not technologically savvy.
A former media consultant, Schaffer says Campaign Engine has its place.
"We make tools and tools are very important, but tools, what they are is tools, and really what's important is your message."
- Education advocacy group Education Reform Now's website is powered by Campaign Engine.
- When Democratic New York City Councilman David Yassky was running for city comptroller, he translated the city's 2009-2010 budget into a searchable online database, It's Your Money NYC, which also used Campaign Engine.
Campaign Engine is geared for political campaigns and progressive organizations that want a made-to-order website and technology hub but don't necessarily have a lot of technological know-how. Media Mezcla has worked with candidates at all levels, as well as political organizations and non-profits, in 21 states and Washington, D.C. Schaffer says he also has a special focus on education.
"Because we're small," Schaffer wrote in an e-mail, "all clients get the attention of the owner of the company and receive the same high calibre of work."
Media Mezcla also hires out as campaign consultants to campaigns that need extra help getting their technology off the ground, and can bring in additional consultants for anything from video production to financial reporting.
A hypothetical state senate campaign would cost $400 per month with a $1,000 one-time setup fee; a U.S. Senate campaign would cost $1,650 per month with a $3,000 one-time setup fee.
Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fl.); Gov. Ted Strickland; Friends of New Orleans; the National Stonewall Democrats
Most Democratic candidates already know about the Voter Activation Network: State Democratic parties sell or give away licenses for candidates to use its software to generate voter lists for campaigning and get-out-the-vote operations. (State Democratic Party organizations get it for free.)
Strictly speaking, though, VAN doesn't sell data. The voter records that users see are licensed from Catalist or the Democratic National Committee. What VAN does is build software for clients to augment, segment, and work with those voter files. VAN's president, Mark Sullivan, says that working with Barack Obama's presidential campaign in 2008 pushed the firm to innovate in volunteer management and online activism, as well. This year, VAN has also moved into the business of building public websites that make use of their software and databases — generating call lists from a VAN database for volunteers to do phone-banking from their mobile phones, for example, according to Sullivan.
"Candidates are coming to us on the first day they're putting their campaigns together because the public website is the first nasty thing they have to figure out," says Sullivan.
This is the product of a long evolution from VAN's beginnings, in 2001, when Sullivan — then a tech consultant for Sen. Tom Harkin — built (with former business partner Steve Adler) the VAN's first iteration for the Iowa Democratic Party, Harkin, and Gov. Tom Vilsack, both of whom were up for re-election.
"Handling the voter file was this extraordinary complexity and nobody did it well," Sullivan recalls.
The idea of the system built for Harkin and Vilsack, he says, was to "take the voter file and literally put it on the Internet."
Then VAN did the same thing next door, in Missouri; then in another state, and another, until, in 2007, the DNC approached VAN to take this approach national. Now, says Sullivan, the DNC has a national voter database accessible via the Internet to authorized users, anywhere.
Early on, VAN's focus was on field operations: They were one of the first to experiment with handheld devices, putting some field capability on PalmPilots. Earlier this year, VAN released an iPhone app.
But from shortly before the Obama campaign to the present, VAN's expertise grew. The company has been paying more and more attention to volunteer management. Sullivan describes it, loosely, as a question of scheduling: Finding ways to match available people with available tasks, events, and so on. Going forward, VAN will be focusing on resource management, answering questions like: Where can we put volunteers? How many seats are in each location? How many phone lines? Is there Internet access?
The next step is enabling more volunteerism via the Web.
"The focus now really for us is overwhelmingly, I think, in that public web space," Sullivan says. "This is new. We've just arrived in this space. To us it's kind of like the ultimate intractable problem, the disconnect between what happens on the public website and what happens in the back-end database."
Voter Activation Network's core product is software that allows users to segment and manage lists of voters, then export those lists to wherever they need to be. The resulting selection from the VAN database could populate the recipient list in an e-mail blast application, like the one that VAN offers; a printout for a volunteer about to go door-knocking; VAN's built-in distributed phonebank tool, which presents volunteers with a series of phone numbers, scripts, and after-call report forms; the company's predictive dialer, which uses a web-based application to take a campaign staffer through a similar sequence of calls; wherever.
VAN software also allows for robo-calling: You export a list of voters for whom you have phone numbers, upload a pre-recorded message, and set the robot loose, so to speak, according to Sullivan. When we spoke to him about VAN in March, he said that robo-polling functionality was also in development and nearing release.
Developed over the course of the Obama campaign, volunteer management software is designed to allow an organization to track volunteer activity, manage volunteers, and schedule them for events.
Sullivan also said VAN has specially built software to track union membership and organizing activities. VAN acquired a small software company that develops union-building tools, New Union Work Systems, in 2009.
For the Obama campaign, Voter Activation Network served as the central repository of constituent information for all the campaign's activity, Sullivan said. This required some serious engineering, he said: VAN received nightly database dumps of information from the database that powered MyBarackObama.com, the campaign's social networking site, which was built by Blue State Digital. In a similar way, the VAN database populated the call lists that the campaign's BSD-built distributed phonebanking tools provided to volunteers, and was the final destination for all the feedback coming back to the campaign about voter interaction.
Varies, depending on who you are and which organization you're using to get VAN software.
AFL-CIO; Obama for America; Democratic Party of Oregon
While some companies are still trying to get onto Facebook, period, Grassroots Enterprise — now part of Edelman Public Relations — is thinking about app fatigue.
Grassroots' CEO, former journalist Bill McIntyre, says social media innovation is a big part of the company's business. He claims that Grassroots was the first e-advocacy group to develop an application allowing a supporter with a Facebook account to send a letter to elected officials directly from Facebook.
Since then, he says, faced with mounting invitations to be a fan of That 80s Hair Band or to play Scrabulous, Facebook users are all apped out. They don't want any other bells and whistles.
But Facebook allows clients "to be relevant to a pool of people who are logically interested in their issue or product," McIntyre says.
That's too useful a tool to give up on, McIntyre said. So social media remains a central focus for his company.
But social media is not all Grassroots Enterprise does. The firm brands itself as a full-service digital advocacy consultancy: Clients can get communications strategy, web design, technology to engage supporters online and a database to help manage that engagement, and then, the icing on the cake, integrate the resulting presence with Facebook, Twitter, and other social networks.
Grassroots advertises itself as more than happy to take on work strictly within any one of its areas of focus, rather than take on an entire campaign. But McIntyre certainly describes his approach as more holistic.
When it comes to reaching constituents, he said, many online strategies are "designed to bring them back to a website or a microsite, whatever it is. The smart way going forward broadens that pool, expands that net, so that wherever people are playing, listening, talking, doing work, whether its LinkedIn or Flickr or MySpace or YouTube or Facebook or Twitter or whatever else it is, that the engagement opportunity is out there so that all channels are reached and integrated."
Grassroots also offers online ad design and placement, but perhaps controversially, also advertises its ability to generate a large amount of online supporters in a short amount of time — which some folks might call astroturfing.
Grassroots Enterprise's core software product is Grassroots Multiplier, a constituent relationship management database that accepts add-ons to handle e-mail, social networking integration, and content management. Another product, Grassroots PhoneTheVote, is a mobile application that allows supporters to become part of a phone bank while on their smartphones. Multiplier is designed to allow for users to generate 17 standard reports and any number of custom ones that analyze supporters' interests and level of engagement in the hopes of turning the casually interested into the true believer.
When it comes to the software, McIntyre says, Grassroots is buy one, get 'em all.
"We don't sell modules as some do. Basically your hosting and subscription fee permits total access, almost like a buffet. Take what you want but eat what you take kind of thing," he says.
Grassroots also wraps consulting and account management around the software service — but that costs extra.
The firm's custom software work includes a Flickr wall where people mobilizing against a bill in Congress post pictures of themselves, protest signs in hand, and are automatically added to a dynamic webpage full of such pictures. Grassroots also develops mashups using Twitter and Google Maps. An early social media offering was an app allowing people to send letters to their elected officials in Washington without leaving Facebook.
With the rise of application fatigue, though, the new product is an addition to an organization's Facebook fan page which allows a supporter on Facebook to take action without installing an app. (They're still prompted to install one after they take action, however.) Grassroots also offers a "tell a friend" page that uses Facebook Connect to populate the list with a user's Facebook friends and a Facebook "action center" to prompt supporters to write letters or drum up support among their friends, among other social networking offerings.
- Grassroots Enterprise created an "I Am Smoke Free" Facebook application for the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids.
- The American Chemical Society's Legislative Action Network website runs on Grassroots Multplier.
Grassroots Enterprise primarily serves large organizations like public interest groups, large non-profits, and industry groups. The firm's pitch comes in sweeping terms — we don't just build websites, we build movements, that type of thing — and its client list includes names like PhRMA and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Grassroots — now a part of Edelman PR — has always been bi-partisan; McIntyre used to be the chief spokesman for the National Rifle Association, while one of the firm's founders, David Chiu, also once served as the Democratic counsel to the U.S. Senate Constitution Subcommittee. The firm recently took on the task of creating a Facebook page devoted to supporting the confirmation of Sonia Sotomayor as a Supreme Court justice.
Varies; Grassroots executives said a campaign rarely ranges below the six-figure range in price.
PhRMA; American Chemical Society; U.S. Chamber of Commerce; the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids
It's easy to think of Blue State Digital as the IBM of political technology. As one of the brightest-burning stars to come from the 2004 Howard Dean campaign nebula, the firm has long since become part of the industry's firmament. Blue State's work for Barack Obama in 2008 further established the company as a technology leader.
To paraphrase the saying about IBM, nobody (to whom the Democrats-only firm will sell) will ever get fired for hiring BSD.
Blue State sells campaign management technology and web design work, and offers Internet consulting for political campaigns, advocacy organizations, and corporations. It build the Obama campaign's online fundraising, social networking, peer-to-peer fundraising and online issues advocacy infrastructure.
Though Blue State's team is expanding beyond politics — it took on Vogue as a client in November 2009 — Chief Technology Officer Jascha Franklin-Hodge says political campaigns will always be the firm's primary focus.
"Politics is in our DNA," says Franklin-Hodge. "We know intimately what it's like to be in a campaign."
The firm has had success repurposing its technology both within and without the political sphere. The Service Employees International Union, a union for health care workers, used BSD's tools to mobilize its members as advocates for Obama during his presidential campaign and again to curry support for health care legislation.
That said, Franklin-Hodge isn't entirely happy with the Blue State-IBM comparison.
The company "innovates more than it toes a safe line," he says.
Going forward, Franklin-Hodge says, the company is focused on finding ways for campaigns to capitalize on volunteer interaction online. BSD tools can already turn a volunteer into an advocate, for instance, by having that person allow a campaign website to post to his or her Facebook news feed whenever the volunteer sends an e-mail or makes a phone call on behalf of the campaign. Look for BSD to also polish its ability to reach into other social media sites like Flickr and Twitter.
Post-Obama '08, Blue State Digital is a frequent purveyor to large organizations and Democratic political campaigns, like statewide campaigns and mayoral campaigns in large cities. The company promises a full-service suite of tools and comes with a reputation built on several successful and innovative campaigns — including arguably the most innovative presidential campaign to date, where technology is concerned — and that pedigree does not come cheap. Its social networking and peer-to-peer tools are built to be useful for large operations who are seeking to involve people spread out across multiple states or areas of interest; BSD software allows people to organize themselves by county or city to work towards client goals, whether it's spreading support for an issue or a political candidate.
Blue State Digital sells a suite of products built around a core constituent relationship management system; broadcast e-mail, online fundraising, social networking, peer-to-peer advocacy and website content management all interact with that database, passing it information a campaign manager might find useful.
Like other database offerings in the field, BSD's software is designed to allow highly granular segmentation of a single donor, volunteer and contributor database. In layman's terms, that means every person who interacts with the campaign — from the campaign manager to its bumper-sticker vendor to its top fundraisers and street team — has an entry in a single database, and all of the campaign's interactions with each person are tracked. The campaign, says Franklin-Hodge, can query the database in sophisticated ways using "plain-English kind of interactions." Searches for donors who gave at least a certain amount in the last election but have yet to give in the current one, for example, can supposedly be accomplished without knowledge of the scripting that relational database geeks use to make data useful.
Customers can do a lot of things that are becoming standard operating procedure in the marketing world — send e-mails with different asks or subject lines to different segments of a database, for example. But what made Blue State famous during the Obama campaign was its ability to produce workable two-way communication tools: mechanisms for creating location-based social networks and allowing them to take action.
Obama's campaign used those tools to create MyBarackObama.com, and BSD powered volunteer phone-banking sessions in kitchens across America. Later, similar peer-to-peer technology allowed Democrats to meet in local dining rooms, hash out their own visions for the Democratic Party's national platform, and send those planks to the party for consideration. The BSD Online Tools suite also includes the ability for supporters to write letters to the editors of local publications or to their elected officials.
The tools enable campaigns to pursue what is becoming a large-campaign best practice: keep the online constituents active, all the time, even if they aren't active raising or donating money.
And, professing to embrace another emerging best practice, Franklin-Hodge says BSD's software is now built with open APIs so it can integrate well with other applications and home-brewed tools cooked up by their clients' own developers. The days of "walled gardens," he says, are over, and BSD has embraced a mashable ethos.
Franklin-Hodge stressed that BSD owns its own server equipment, which is hosted at a location that he says can keep clients' online fundraising cash coming in even when the servers are processing a high volume of content — to the tune of millions of dollars per hour.
- Service Employees International Union is using Blue State Digital phone-banking tools to allow supporters to lobby voters who are represented by senators on the fence about health care legislation to call their senators and persuade them to support the Democratic Party plan for health care.
- A segment of the telecommunications lobby uses Blue State Digital for its website in favor of new cable TV regulations to open the door for competition to major players like Comcast and Time Warner.
The Jewish Federations of North America went to Blue State to help it build Jewish Community Heroes, an online contest to inspire community service efforts in the continent's Jewish community — and build a list of potential supporters. Blue State says the site collected 570,000 votes on more than 450 nominees, collected 40,000 e-mail sign-ups, and had 230,000 unique visitors.
A full solution could be between $20,000 to $30,000 set-up and $1,000-$2,000 monthly hosting/maintenance, Franklin-Hodge says, based on tools and list size. Set-up fee based on how much design work is involved. Advanced social networking tools also up setup costs, he said.
Democratic National Committee, Organizing for America, SEIU, OFA, AmeriPAC
Since founding Plus Three in 2002, Juan Proaño has seen a lot of competition move into the field of technology for political campaigns. But his full-service web firm continues to grab big-name clients, recently taking over the design and back-end of the EMILY's List website. Plus Three also worked on John Edwards' 2008 Presidential campaign.
Plus Three stays competitive, Proaño says, by winning on the nuances.
The firm does web design and strategy built around its central technology offering, ARCOS, which does everything from handle content management and a constituent database to facilitating e-mail blasts, fundraising asks and petitions. It's not what ARCOS does that makes it stand out, says Proaño, but rather how ARCOS does it.
His team built ARCOS after years of work in the political technology field, crafting tools for the Democratic National Committee and more than one candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination. Plus Three's first client was the DNC, for which Proaño and Plus Three built Demzilla and Datamart, the national Democratic Party's first sophisticated donor and voter databases.
When it comes to politics, Plus Three only serves Democrats and progressive, Democratic organizations.
Plus Three, with a staff of 24, serves the same presidential-campaign-level product to clients large and small. Proaño says the issue for his company is scalability.
"How does a small company grow and be able to serve large organizations that have pretty significant requirements?" he asked.
For Plus Three, the answer is commitment: The firm offers service level agreements and uptime guarantees to back up the assertion that the small company can meet the needs of giant organizations.
What Plus Three doesn't offer is a piecemeal solution. Unlike other firms with highly modular software, Plus Three's ARCOS is an all-in-one product; there's no a-la-carte option with this company.
Plus Three's central product, ARCOS, is a one-size-fits-all suite of Web software for campaigns and nonprofits. Plus Three can design sites for clients around ARCOS' content management system; on the backend is a constituent relationship management database, e-mail blast and analytics functionality, the ability to create personalized fundraising and contact-your-electeds pages, a letter to the editor function, access to some of Plus Three's own data — like a list of talk shows for supporters to call into — and many other Web 2.0 features.
Where Plus Three stands out, says Proaño, is in how ARCOS handles these things.
ARCOS can process one transaction and send it to multiple accounts, he says. For example, a single donor, in a single transaction, can donate varying amounts directly to one nonprofit's general fund, a fund earmarked for a specific cause, and a third account set aside for a fundraising event. ARCOS also tracks failed attempts at donations so an organization can follow up with people who leave an online donation incomplete.
Proaño is sensitive to the needs of minority-operated nonprofits and minority candidates — in his contribution system, he says, even the error pages support multiple character sets, so everything is readable to users working in different languages.
He also touted the segmentation capabilities of ARCOS' CRM product, which would, in theory, allow a user a great deal of granularity in breaking out individual groups of constituents — creating lists of donors who were recently active, volunteers who have yet to donate, and so on — as targets for e-mails and other communications. The CRM software, he said, can follow a single person across all of his or her given e-mail addresses. Proaño said this would be useful, for example, when an existing constituent creates a new account with an organization's website using a new e-mail address. In that case, ARCOS could recognize the user and connect the new account with donor and volunteer information for that person that's already in its database.
Proaño says Plus Three is also rounding out APIs to allow developers to create interaction between ARCOS-powered websites and other applications, like Facebook. The firm already has its own online community software, Civitas, which is intended to be of use to large chapter-based organizations and Organizing for America-esque communities. That social media software is designed to allow groups of supporters to communicate as chapters, teams, and individuals.
Proaño says he is looking to compete for the same clients that Blackbaud or Convio might otherwise get — the mid- to large-size nonprofit — and, like many other political technology vendors, he's looking at the thousands upon thousands of local political races that happen across the United States.
"How can we deliver the same powerful tools for our clients at a lower cost?" He asked, rhetorically. "How [do we] do that for the smallest races? There are over 7,500 mayoral races a year across the country."
All of his clients raise at least 20 to 30 percent of their money online, he said, and some raise upwards of 60 percent.
But the day when some clients routinely raise all of their money on the Internet is not too far off, he said.
"Have you ever seen a direct mail piece from MoveOn?" he asked.
Plus Three is focused on beefing up its back-end software to be more competitive with the segmenting and targeting capabilities of the database software a Blackbaud or a Convio might offer.
"We've got all of the bells and whistles, essentially, that people are looking for on the front end," he said, "and we've really been looking to expand our CRM functionality."
Proaño is looking to vend to organizations of all shapes and sizes. His is one of those companies trying to make federal-campaign-level software available, usable and affordable for the smallest town council campaign.
Front-end $2,500; back-end $5,000; Full ARCOS build from $7,500; monthly database fees start at $750/mo. for less than 10,000 records; the next tier, 10,000-25,000 records, is $1,200/mo.; Civitas begins at about a $4,000-$6,000 one-time fee, depending on the organization.
John Edwards '08; EMILY's List; The Sierra Club
Ravi Singh treats his clients with the confidentiality of a Swiss banker.
The founder and chief executive officer of ElectionMall Technologies signs non-disclosure agreements with each customer and refuses to discuss who may have used ElectionMall in the past — although he does point out, with subtle pride, that some of his products may look familiar because they've appeared on the websites of prominent campaigns.
In an industry dominated by names like Blue State Digital, NGP, Aristotle, and Campaign Solutions, ElectionMall is a rarity: while many firms that cater only to campaigns limit their clientele to only Democrats or only Republicans, Singh maintains careful neutrality.
As a onetime candidate for public office, Singh says the firm has learned from his own personal pain that the smallest campaigns are often ignored by technology providers.
For a long time, that was the case, and Singh competed with a relatively small number of firms for the chance to purvey technology to America's mayors and state representatives. Now, though, other companies are catching up, and say what Singh has been saying for years: The future of political technology is in making big-race tools easy to use and affordable for local candidates.
Which isn't to say ElectionMall is no longer unique. Singh's company sells its products in extraordinarily modular form, while many other vendors to small campaigns sell software in an all-in-one bundle. And while originally political companies are looking beyond their industry to the nonprofit and advocacy worlds, Singh remains focused on campaigns.
ElectionMall sells software ranging from website templates to robocall technology, all of it a-la-carte, and all of it hosted on the company's own computing cloud.
Singh says ElectionMall is a one-stop shop for political campaigns, but the unique thing about ElectionMall is that customers buy each tool individually rather than in bundles. A campaign with a website could buy access to fundraising and e-mail blasts but not online shopping, or robocalling and e-mail blasts but not staff and volunteer management.
(There is some bundling — for a little more money, the robocall service comes with the ability to send SMS text messages, for example.)
Robocalls are not the only product ElectionMall has that a campaign manager might not necessarily expect to find online. The company handles e-commerce from top to bottom, for example — a campaign could buy the buttons it needs from ElectionMall, then sell the buttons using ElectionMall's e-commerce software.
Some of the more standard political features include pages to collect volunteer information; staff and voter management pages, allowing for the printing of walk lists and tracking interactions with individual voters; email blasts with analytics; user-customizable personal fundraising pages; website badges that supporters can post around the Web; voter data, a database of editors and reporters to use for media relations, and other data for sale; and pages allowing supporters to create and manage their own events.
ElectionMall's technology is capable of the same end-to-end handling of fundraising that ActBlue offers, Singh says. Campaigns don't need to look elsewhere to get any of the credit card processing steps completed.
Some vendors focus their offerings around a central, strong constituent relationship management technology, and market their other products as add-ons to their database software.
"That's not us," says Singh.
ElectionMall could provide a campaign with everything, in theory — it has what Singh called a "mini-CRM" on offer, for example — but that's not the model the company plans to provide. Each piece of ElectionMall software is designed to stand alone or plug into whatever the campaign is already using.
"We plug into SalesForce, we plug into some of the other software," Singh said. "We have an import/export feature, you can plug into NGP, Aristotle, Complete Campaigns, any sort of open source CRM applications."
All-in-one products focused around a central CRM application give campaigns the tools to segment out targets for fundraising requests and action alerts. For example, Blackbaud and Democracy in Action both tout how their offerings — Sphere and Salsa, respectively — make it easy for a campaign to generate a list of supporters who, say, volunteered three times in the last three months, and then send them an e-mail asking for money.
ElectionMall is, in part, designed for campaigns that wouldn't know to do that even if they had the tools.
"A lot of these other campaigns, they can't afford expensive consultants or people to tell them how to do these things," Singh said. "One of the nice things about all our products is that there are built-in analytics, that think on their own."
ElectionMall's software will prompt a campaign to send a fundraising request to anyone who volunteers, for example, or a request to volunteer to anyone who sends money.
- Republican Majority for Choice — a Republican organization that supports abortion rights for women — uses ElectionMall to power its website.
- ElectionMall partnered with Google and the Iowa GOP to stream real-time election results in the 2008 Iowa presidential caucus.
Ravi Singh, ElectionMall's founder, stresses that the company only works with campaigns. But he also emphasizes that he'll work with any campaign, regardless of party affiliation, in part because of a belief that the democratic process, and technology making it easier to participate in that process, should be available to everyone.
"We're getting a lot of campaigns that are saying, 'we're so happy this is all we do,'" Singh said. His company policy against disclosing client relationships prevented him from giving examples. "We don't focus on any other sectors."
Like other sectors, though, members of the political technology sector are starting to get wise to the importance of social networking and design that is functional as well as good-looking.
"People are looking for, also, best practices," Singh said. "People are also starting to realize that a pretty website is no good if it doesn't have interactive features in it."
To cater to those clients, ElectionMall Technologies has figured out integration with 21 social networks, including Facebook and MySpace. At a Personal Democracy Forum conference last year, Singh rolled out a Facebook moneybomb app.
Pricing is by module, i.e.: Basic website, $99 plus $10/month hosting; Enterprise-level website, $5,000 setup, $495/month; constituent relationship manager, $100/month per user; event management, $295/month
According to FEC data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics: Jesse Jackson Jr. for Congress; Lyndon LaRouche PAC; Sandhills PAC
When a donor sponsors a participant in the Susan G. Komen Foundation's Race for the Cure, Convio's software delivers the money.
Ten-year-old Convio provides fundraising, communications and advocacy solutions to non-profit organizations looking to get more out of their interactions with donors and constituents. For organizations pursing an advocacy campaign, Convio's products allow supporters to communicate with one another, form groups, and mobilize to raise money. For example, Convio drives the Race for the Cure website's ability to facilitate signing up for the race, forming teams and supporting individual participants.
"We do a really good job of covering all of the core competencies that a nonprofit needs to have," says Meg Murphy, Convio's director of marketing and programs.
Where they're concerned, that begins with constituent management. One of Convio's own core competencies is its database software, which tracks donor contact information, preferences, and demographics. That allows nonprofits to reach donors the way they want to be reached, Murphy explains — online, if they'd like, or by mail or a phone call if that's what they'd prefer.
The fundraising-centric approach Convio takes is rooted in the company's origins, Murphy says. Founder Vinay Bhagat was volunteering at a phone-a-thon drive when he was hit with an idea: Technology could make fundraising more efficient. So, after talking it out with over one thousand nonprofit executives, Bhagat founded Convio in 1999.
Convio's constituent relationship management software, Common Ground, is targeted to organizations that want a consolidated, streamlined database for all of their donor information, and track all the interactions they have with their volunteers and constituents. It can also track your vendors, program recipients, and so on. Convio seeks to provide additional value through an open API so organizations can develop their own applications with the ability to interact with that central database.
Convio offers separate solutions for advocacy, content management, e-commerce, e-mail marketing, fundraising and donations. There are also packages for personal and team fundraising, such as the set-ups that Race for the Cure uses for people to form race teams, become team leaders and collect sponsorships online.
Convio's event management software allows nonprofits to track who attends or volunteers at which events, so users can identify their most active supporters. Advocacy tools include the ability to create legislator scorecards, generate action alerts, and target messages towards constituents based on what the constituents say are issues that matter to them. Supporters are also "helped" with letters to the editor, and top advocates can be identified to receive rewards.
An e-commerce product allows nonprofits to infer interest from purchases, and target messages to constituents based on those purchases.
An all-in-one package, Convio Go!, offers one year of some products from Convio's marketing, fundraising and advocacy toolbox, technical support and training, and some help with campaign strategy and execution.
Like many shops, the firm will sit down and work out customized solutions for people willing to foot the cost.
Convio is focused forward on the way social networking and mobile applications will become of greater use to the fundraising world. Convio software can already be partnered with other platforms for SMS text messaging.
"One of the things that has really been exciting ... [is the] integration with Facebook and how people are tapping [the] Facebook community, not just for the fundraising area but it's just a way to reach a whole new generation of donors and establish a relationship with them," says Murphy.
Convio is also working on making communications along existing channels — social media, e-mail, mobile and in the real world — easier to use.
All of Convio's software is hosted by the company — clients don't download a thing, and pay monthly for access.
- Susan G. Komen for the Cure's Race for the Cure uses Convio to allow racers to form teams and solicit donations.
- In June 2008, America's Second Harvest of Wisconsin entered the Convio Go! program, which bundled support and training with web page, e-mail communication and fundraising tools.
Murphy, Convio's director of marketing and programs, says her clients are taking greater advantage of her firm's software to network and mobilize supporters.
"One of the things that came out of this Obama campaign was this grassroots, youth-driven theme of participation," she said.
Convio clients are taking an increased interest in how they can reach out to people who don't yet have the assets to donate money, but have other valuable commodities to offer: time and energy. Where organizations might not have previously considered taking legislative action, the Internet makes it easier for them to cultivate the necessary support and use it.
Murphy says that customers have had plenty of time to experiment with social media, and Convio expects to meet a demand for the kind of granularity and control in social media interactions that clients already have when they use long-established tools like e-mail.
The firm focuses on making its clients' costs predictable and delivering an easily visible return on investment.
Subscriber fees from $1,000 a month; Set-up usually runs between $500-$1,000; A basic Convio Go! package starts at $500/month for online marketing and advocacy. Common Ground starts at $100/month per seat. Database migration not included.
Susan G. Komen Foundation; Cancer Action Network; NARAL Pro-Choice America
Call it the Barack Obama factor.
Even before Americans knew for certain who was going to be their 44th president, politicos from Alaska to Alabama began emulating the online strategies Obama used in his campaign. Simple splash pages making judicious use of the Gotham typeface, part of Obama's curiously cohesive brand, became standard operating procedure for Democratic congressional candidates.
NGP Software provided some of the technology that helped Obama win at around the same time new pricing models in the industry and more money in the war chests of congressional contenders and statehouse hopefuls put those candidates on the market for political technology.
As those candidates' campaigns began to shop around, they seem to have reached a consensus: Hey, if NGP is good enough for Obama ...
The industry powerhouse now provides its software to almost 80 percent of the Democrats in the House of Representatives, says its president, Stuart Trevelyan.
"There has been a sort of Rubicon crossed where technology is no longer an afterthought to a campaign," says Trevelyan, a former media consultant who joined NGP in 2007 as president and part owner.
That's a tremendous opportunity for NGP, which identified smaller campaigns as a target market about two years ago. The company has for years been providing campaign management software with an emphasis on fundraising compliance and Internet tools, and maintains a focus on the nuts-and-bolts compliance reporting political committees need to get done to stay on the right side of campaign finance laws, which vary widely from state to state. As social media skyrockets in importance, NGP seeks to develop tools that takes advantage of that, too.
"We have an online campaigns team [that] not only builds websites, but helps consult [with] clients in building their online profiles and managing online communities," Trevelyan explains.
NGP Software's core offering is Campaign Office, provided as a service — it's hosted on NGP's computers, and paid for through monthly fees.
Campaign Office is, at its heart, a constituent relationship management database tailored to the needs of a political campaign. It accepts and tracks data from a campaign's Web site, including the ones NGP builds for clients using the open-source Drupal content management system, from the software's separate online fundraising, e-mail and social networking packages, and from a package for campaign foot soldiers in the field.
The additional fundraising package includes event ticketing, among other things, and the social networking package — another add-on paid for separately — includes personal fundraising pages. NGP handles the back-end work involved in collecting donations online and filing reports with the Federal Elections Commission and many of its state counterparts. Trevelyan says compliance is one of NGP's strengths; he likens Campaign Office's capabilities in this regard to Quicken's TurboTax, the tax preparation software.
"There's a filing deadline, there's a relatively complicated set of issues, it's mission critical and legally required," Trevelyan says.
Not all 50 states make it possible for campaigns to file electronically, so it's hard to say that NGP will file compliance reports for your campaign no matter where you are in the country.
That said, NGP has a client services department to help customers make sure their fundraising efforts are meeting the requirements of their particular state, Trevelyan says.
Between the fundraising module, the broadcast e-mail capability and Campaign Office itself, the application suite also has the ability to send out customized e-mails. Trevelyan says the e-mail program has a feature he called "SmartAsk," which allows a campaign to include custom-tailored amount requests for each donor based on what the donor may or may not have given in the past. As the e-mails go out in bulk, each recipient gets what should be a more appropriate ask — meaning the donors who went to that $2,500-a-plate dinner and the ones who bought the $25 T-shirt won't all be hit up for the same amount of money. A field services package generates barcoded walk lists and generates follow-up thank you letters for get-out-the-vote efforts.
Part of the unique value for NGP, from Trevelyan's perspective, is that NGP's CRM tracks offline as well as online donations.
The real power in any CRM offering is segmentation — the ability to work with subsets of a list — and Trevelyan said that's also true for Campaign Office. Being a central repository for all the interactions a campaign has can be a valuable asset; it powers strategy such as, for example, identifying people who create personal fundraising pages as potential hosts for real-world house parties. But NGP is also looking to expand its integration with social networks. A feature launched in November 2009 allows someone who contributes on a client's personal fundraising page to post that contribution to their Facebook wall.
There's also Campaign Office Mobile, which allows campaign managers — who, in the latest election cycles, seem to have developed the ability to follow their candidates through crowds at events while never taking their eyes off their BlackBerries — to look up information like contribution and contact data while on the go.
Trevelyan, not surprisingly, says that software has been popular, too.
To reach the thousands of small-scale campaigns that happen in the U.S. in any given year, NGP offers a slimmed-down version of Campaign Office at a lower price point. But the firm also provides services beyond software, including IT and data consulting.
Trevelyan says he's been leaning on NGP's clients to try to pull users out of the Facebook "data silo" — industry-buzzword-speak referring to how users and data about them is stuck in Facebook and does not migrate to other sites — and onto their campaign websites. But NGP's real focus is on data and how to combine data from a variety of sources. He says that the firm will continue to focus on providing data to clients that spans offline and online activities.
- Rush Holt for Congress' website is powered by NGP software.
- Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, John Edwards and Bill Richardson all used NGP tools in their 2008 Presidential bids.
At the Democratic National Committee, NGP Software replaced their "Demzilla" software. The DNC uses Campaign Office to ensure fundraising compliance, for doing list segmentation and to deal with issues about recurring donors, for example, and to file their finance compliance reports with the FEC.
Campaign Office begins at $175/month with no setup fee; an average U.S. Senate campaign might cost $750/month; price varies by office and state; modules like online donations, event management and e-mail blast are extra. Some large clients pay setup fees.
The Democratic National Committee; Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee; Democratic Governors Association
In 2008, technology provider Blackbaud bought Kintera, a software company that had also been busy buying up tech firms. With the purchase came Kintera Sphere, a suite of online fundraising software, and Blackbaud wasted no time in tucking Sphere into a vast portfolio of products that run the gamut from constituent management to e-mail communication and event fundraising.
In an industry where many firms have no more than a dozen people, Blackbaud is a whale among guppies. The 2,000-employee firm produces the well-known fundraising database software The Raiser's Edge, among other technology of use to nonprofits, advocacy organizations and governments. The Federated States of Micronesia is a client. It brought in over $300 million in revenue last year, according to a company spokeswoman. A publicly traded company, Blackbaud pours a heavy dose of that capital into research and development.
Mark Davis, Blackbaud's director of technical solutions, said the company spends about $43 million a year on R&D, and added that about $11 million of that goes into Internet-related research. The money is supposed to help Blackbaud stay on the cutting edge for its target audience.
"We target organizations who are perhaps doing things that are more sophisticated," Davis said, speaking of targets for Blackbaud's advocacy and online fundraising software.
Blackbaud has products that, in some ways, compete with one another: a constituent relationship management product targeted to large organizations, Blackbaud Enterprise CRM; The Raiser's Edge, CRM software that is generally targeted towards mid-size organizations and operates on a client-server model; an enterprise edition of Raiser's Edge; and Blackbaud Sphere, online activism and constituent management software, provided on a software-as-a-service model, which can also track online interactions with constituents as they sign on to fundraising appeals, register for events and interact with an organization's website.
In its latest form, Sphere is primarily an online donation, advocacy, marketing and events management system. Like many of Blackbaud's products, it's offered from one whale to another — designed by an industry behemoth for the largest and most complex institutions.
"We built the software to really focus on a lot of the really high-end type customers," Davis says. "Organizations who view advocacy as a kind of key component for a larger project, or a larger kind of engagement."
Clients like nonprofits that are focused on health, universities and advocacy organizations use the Sphere software to raise money and run online campaigns.
On what the Blackbaud team considers its "advocacy" side are add-ons to Sphere built to help organizations educate their constituents about their issues. For example, Blackbaud offers an action center that can track bills and votes in Congress in real time. Connected to that are tools allowing constituents to do research and take action by identifying their target legislators and sending off faxes or e-mails.
Sphere is supposed to work at the center of an online operation, and tracks these kinds of activities. Davis says Sphere can turn that data into fundraising cash.
"I'm a fundraiser or director of online engagement, what have you, I can log in to the system and have the ability to generate and run reports in real time, and see key performance indicators in terms of what actions have been taken," Davis says. "See who are my people who have taken action in the last six months, see who my advocates are."
Using Sphere, this hypothetical director of online engagement could then automate a task to, for example, send out an e-mailed fundraising plea to anyone who has taken action three times in the last 12 months — reaching people who have already demonstrated engagement and might be more likely to engage again.
This is where Blackbaud's research cash comes into play. Sphere is accessible via open APIs, meaning your web development guru — or a savvy supporter — could, for example, create a Facebook application for supporters to allow into their Facebook accounts. If a supporter opts in, that Facebook application could be used to send calls to action, to allow the supporter to send out similar calls, and even to track that supporter's activity within the application — all of which can be reported back to Sphere, for the organization to track and act on if it so desires.
Davis says Blackbaud is spending a significant amount of time trying to understand how best to make use of social networking tools like Facebook applications.
And mobile? Yeah — Blackbaud is spending money there, too.
"What I'm comfortable saying is that we've got a number of our large event organizations actively pursuing development projects with us to take the event fundraising solution and provide an iPhone application for that where I can check up on my fundraising status progress and maybe do some cool things on the iPhone app," Davis said in November 2009.
Blackbaud also creates ways for an organization's supporters to reach their congressional representatives with letters, e-mails, calls and faxes. But, says Ben Jenkins, product manager for shared services, the trick is finding ways to make Blackbaud's clients' messages stand out among a high volume of data coming in to the offices of elected officials. That's another continuing project for Blackbaud's internet team.
- Amnesty International USA used Sphere to form an online community of advocates around re-authorizing the Violence Against Women Act; Amnesty International's pages on the International Violence Against Women Act still have Kintera's fingerprints.
- University of Michigan started using Blackbaud Enterprise CRM in 2009 for its fundraising operations.
As of November 2009, the Blackbaud Internet Solutions product team was focusing, among other areas, on how to make e-mail, social networking, and other online advocacy tools more effective, and how to make client websites more engaging and Web 2.0.
On Blackbaud's website, the company showcases one instance in which social networking paid off for a client. When a blogger posted an open letter to the manager of Lance Armstrong's racing team, the manager responded via Twitter with a challenge: if he raised $10,000 for Armstrong's foundation in one week, and another $10,000 for World Bicycle Relief, he could get a spot at racing camp. The blogger, who goes by @fatcyclist, went on to raise over $100,000 in five days during early December 2009, according to Blackbaud's website. What's more, he did it using the peer-to-peer fundraising tools from Blackbaud that Livestrong was using on its website.
Sphere products, software only, range from $2,000 to $18,000 a year
Ohio State University; YMCA of Greater Charlotte; The American School in Japan; The National Baseball Hall of Fame & Museum; Make-a-Wish Foundation of Michigan
For tens of thousands of Democrats, The Great Schlep was a blockbuster campaign with a lot of moving parts.
There were the organizers, progressive Jewish activist Mik Moore and consultant Ari Wallach. There was the star, the comedian Sarah Silverman. There were the targets, older Jewish voters in Florida. And there was the pitch, in an online video of Silverman, imploring young Jewish Democrats to go to Florida and convince their older relatives — who, rumor had it, were about to buy en bloc into fear and unease about Barack Obama and potentially cost him a swing-state victory — to vote Democratic in the 2008 presidential election.
To get the campaign viral in time for it to have an effect, Moore and Wallach needed a robust, complex website, and fast.
On a five-week timetable, Jonathan Karush's firm, Liberty Concepts, built a website with tools like a peer-to-peer networking feature allowing volunteers to bring friends into the campaign. The Schlep website had videos of Obama delivering speeches on subjects of Jewish interest, pro-Obama talking points for conversations with unconvinced Jewish parents and grandparents, links to its Facebook group and a website to help make travel plans, and an online donation form.
With the help of Liberty Concepts, The Great Schlep's Facebook group accumulated about 25,000 members and sent many kids to Florida to lobby their grandparents, Karush said.
Karush founded Liberty Concepts in 2000, while an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania. He was inspired to start his own business and put it to work on the Democratic campaign of former Maine Senate President Mark Lawrence.
"It was at the very beginning of the realization that campaigns were going to be using technology," Karush said. "For a young person that didn't want to photocopy or do data entry, it was a way to be immediately relevant and play a key role."
By the time he collaborated with a design firm to do The Great Schlep, Liberty Concepts was already an established firm. Since then, it's expanded even more, and what began as a web design firm has expanded into a full-service web operation for progressive candidates and campaigns, with products ranging from content management to social media tools.
Liberty Concepts provides the kinds of bread-and-butter services, like e-mail blasts and fundraising tools, that are now par for the course in online campaigning — but the firm sets itself apart with purpose-built applications.
The firm has two core products: a proprietary content management system that it offers at a lower price point, targeted to small organizations and campaigns, and a more extensible system, based on the open-source Ruby on Rails application framework, for bigger projects.
The larger system, Zissou, allows integration with other products from providers like Kintera, ActBlue, and NGP, including Democracy in Action's Salsa software. Karush says that while some advocacy tools' source code has yet to be released, Zissou's core is "totally open."
Among the more complicated tools, Liberty Concepts touts the ability to create a full, standalone social network for a campaign — including instant messaging, blog tools, and complex profile management.
It's ready for use, but has not yet been deployed for a campaign.
"Nobody's actually paid us for it yet," Karush said.
The smaller one, BlueKit, includes features like Liberty Concepts' peer-to-peer fundraising tools and a letter-to-the-editor application.
"A lot of the firms out there that we compete with, they have a model of software as a product. They've created a system and they're trying to re-market that system to as many clients as possible," Karush said. "We're looking to customize applications for an individual client."
For the Schlep, said Wallach, a co-organizer, those were the peer-to-peer tools dreamed up by Moore, his partner.
"What they're really good at is if you come to them with what you want done, they can turn a napkin drawing into a finished, engineered piece of work," Wallach said of Liberty Concepts.
The firm's client base is mostly Democratic candidates in the House of Representatives, and Karush says it is expanding. In the 2008 election cycle, Liberty provided services to 48 clients in the House and the U.S. Senate, he said — but the firm markets itself as a solution for smaller civic organizations, too.
Hosting is available in-house, but not all clients take advantage. Karush says about 95 percent of its clients' sites and applications are hosted by his firm.
Look for Liberty Concepts to provide more tools in the social media space and to move into mobile. Karush said he anticipates more tools taking advantage of Facebook Connect and similar technologies, which his firm has been rolling out in iterations since 2008. And while he said that mobile tools are on the horizon, as of November 2009, he wasn't ready to say what they were or when they would be ready.
- The website for David Hoffman, a candidate in the 2010 Democratic primary for an Illinois U.S. Senate seat, features three Twitter feeds side by side: Hoffman's campaign account, tweets referencing Hoffman using a hashtag, and questions directed at Hoffman through tweets.
- Liberty Concepts quickly generated a website for Martha Coakley, the Massachusetts attorney general running to replace the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, on short notice.
The organization's focus on innovation and flexibility makes it well suited for clients who know what they want but not how to build it, says Wallach, the occasional Liberty Concepts client.
Fundraising through social networks has become one of Liberty Concepts' primary areas of service. Karush says the firm's software enables the "grass-tops," rather than the grassroots, to "leverage their networks to maximize message propagation."
In plain English, that means Liberty Concepts' software gives clients' top supporters the ability to send out calls to action to people in their e-mail address books, Facebook contacts, and other contact lists. Clients can track what users do on their websites — send e-mails, log calls and so forth — but what they do on Facebook or Twitter is beyond Liberty Concepts' software's ability to track. For now.
Karush says he's also working on systems to allow big-name donors to contact strangers targeted from voter lists and other databases, and iPhone and BlackBerry apps are coming down the pipeline as of winter 2009.
Liberty Concepts also offers an add-on that can enable political supporters and political action committees to set up "ActBlue-style" personal fundraising pages for groups of candidates, track how much money they're raising, and customize the look and feel of their landing pages.
The firm's services are open to the Democratic and, on occasion, independent bands of the political spectrum.
$8,500 flat fee for a website template plus $400-$600 monthly, to no more than $100,000 for all the fees, monthly charges and other costs for a hypothetical, full U.S. Senate campaign, after maintenance and extra features.
U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.); Democratic Minnesota gubernatorial candidate Matt Entenza; U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH)