Engage will build you a pretty website — if you're a Republican, that is — but that is far from all they'd tell you that you need, and it certainly isn't all that they'll do for you.
The firm is a full-service consultancy for online politics, from web design and social media work to managing strategic communications. Founded in 2007 by Patrick Ruffini, Engage's most recent work includes Sen. Scott Brown's successful Massachusetts special election campaign, and ongoing work for the Senate campaigns of Tom Campbell and Rob Simmons, among others. That work followed a stint as consultants to Bob McDonnell's successful 2009 campaign to become governor of Virginia — a campaign heralded as the dawn of a new era, technology-wise, in Republican campaigns, thanks to its creative use of mobile and its sophisticated online presence. Ruffini and his partner, Mindy Finn, were both involved with the Bush-Cheney '04 presidential campaign — Ruffini was the Bush-Cheney '04 webmaster; Finn was deputy webmaster at the Republican National Committee's eCampaign, which worked with the campaign — and their roots in politics stretch backwards from there. Now, Engage regularly produces blog posts and research on Internet politics, including a well-publicized case study of the McDonnell campaign. They both regularly make media appearances, including on Personal Democracy Forum's group blog, techPresident, where both are contributing bloggers.
Looking ahead, Ruffini says the market among Republican constituencies is just about ready for the kind of next-iteration web tools that have already sprung up on the left, like ActBlue, where interested folks can set up a profile and start raising money from their own networks for the Democratic candidates of their choice. He also seems to think it's important to take a pragmatic approach to online technology rather than embracing newest tool without an idea of how it'll be used.
"We have to wait until there's an actual market to address before we see the kind of ActBlues and things that sprang up organically on the left," Ruffini says. "I'm pretty confident that we will see that. I'm pretty confident also that whatever we do will be grounded in the tools that people are actually using day to day on the ground."
Engage has one out-of-the-box software product: iContribute, which allows campaigns to solicit, receive, process and track online donations. The consultancy side can build a lot more for its clients.
"We built what we think is an easier, faster solution for collecting online contributions that really is focused," Ruffini says. "The real niche I think we're trying to fill is sort of the online marketing aspect of online fundraising."
Ruffini says iContribute's most exciting feature is ability to track and create new pages on the fly. Using the URL generated for each discrete fundraising landing page, the campaign can track which asks are pulling in money, how fast it's coming, and how much is being raised in total.
The iContribute software can also use information about money now coming in as marketing to help raise more money, Ruffini says: For instance, a client could set up a leaderboard listing top donors, display the campaign's last five donors, or track the total amount raised in real time. The software has controls built in so that donors wishing to shield their privacy can opt out of having their name prominently displayed.
All of this is supported by what Ruffini says is one of the software's core strengths: "It enables, I think, pretty good real-time intelligence capture," he explained.
Lately, the focus for the team developing iContribute has been on creating "widgetized" forms to go out on third-party websites. For Ruffini, heavy promoting on social media and other websites is what drives online fundraising, and iContribute focuses on those areas as a result. The iContribute team will build an XML feed to securely pipe out information for a widget at no additional cost, says Ruffini.
"Not to get into a comparative sales pitch," Ruffini began, "[but as] more people are getting in this space, there are some people who have tended to focus on the compliance side, on the FEC side."
In contrast, iContribute — while it allows users to export necessary compliance data as an Excel spreadsheet — doesn't generate compliance reports, and is instead designed to be more a tool for raising money online than for tracking the money a campaign already has.
- On Jan. 11, 2010, iContribute powered a money bomb website for Republican Senate candidate Scott Brown's campaign to replace the late Ted Kennedy. The software powered all of Scott Brown's fundraising.
- Republican congressional candidate Jim Tedisco was the guinea pig for a thermometer chart widget designed to show the candidate's latest fundraising goal, and progress towards that goal, in real time.
Ruffini's and Finn's work on Bob McDonnell's successful campaign to become governor of Virginia has been dissected at length, both on Engage's website and several times on techPresident. The consultants did a lot more through their firm, Engage, than just handle online fundraising, but McDonnell did use the iContribute software.
Approx. $200 set-up for a Congressional candidate; seven percent of all contributions, which also covers of credit card fees. Additional features would raise the set-up fee; consulting through Engage comes separately.
Rob Simmons (Sen. R-Conn); Tom Campbell for Governor (Ca.); congressional candidate Jim Tedisco