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)