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Democracy.com Hopes to Level Campaign Playing Field With Social Network For Politics

BY Miranda Neubauer | Tuesday, October 15 2013

When Melissa Yasinow started out her first-ever local race for City Council in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, she looked to Wordpress and Paypal to set up a web presence. But she said she found dealing with Wordpress bulky and had never used it before. "Wordpress doesn't let you set up donations [and] when you have a Paypal account, it doesn't look integrated as part of the platform with your website," she said.

Now her main web presence is on Democracy.com, a start-up that hopes to establish itself as the social network for politics by offering a free web presence and tools to candidates and voters.

Talmage Cooley, founder and CEO of Democracy.com, said the idea for the platform grew out of conversations he was having two years ago at the Harvard Kennedy School. He was struck by the fact that the vast majority of candidates on all levels in the U.S. don't have websites. "Most candidates in small state and local races with an average campaign budget of $2,500 simply cannot afford the cheapest campaign in a box platforms or really lacked the technical skills to set them up," he said. Research and discussions with both the DNC and the RNC indicated that in 2012, only 10 percent of the around 800,000 candidates in races from the local to the federal level running in anything from caucuses and primaries to general elections had websites, he said.

The non-partisan Democracy.com project is one way of addressing the influence of money in politics, he said, by making it easy for candidates at all levels to emulate the platforms more well-funded candidates have access to at no cost. "Let's build a platform to have a super professional campaign website that looks like a campaign website, where candidates can solicit donations, recruit and organize volunteers, and let that be the start of the first social ecosystem for politics," he summarized the idea.

While the platform, which initially launched seven weeks ago, is currently focusing on candidate profiles, there are plans to add voter and issue profiles in the coming months. Other established platforms, like Nationbuilder, are not taking that social network approach, he pointed out. Other options to build a website might also require hiring a developer, and those "are all focused on candidates with the most money," he added.

Cooley said Democracy.com is not about replacing candidates' presence on social networks like Facebook. "In the 2012 election, Obama running the most expensive campaign with a sophisticated website was also on Facebook, Twitter, on Tumblr and Pinterest...it's not an either/or," he said. "Any candidate with one website who ignores all the other social channels is in trouble and misreading the market."

But he emphasized that Facebook doesn't have a built-in donations mechanism or a way to keep track of volunteers. "It can't be everything to everybody. Democracy.com also offers a credit-card processing service, an outbound message blast function and event tools, he added, as well as other features.

For its initial outreach, the company is targeting candidates who don't have a website, especially in smaller state and local races, he said. As part of that process, Democracy.com's staff has been working on compiling what could be the largest database of incumbents in the country, he said. Those candidates may have a basic, unclaimed profile on the platform that they could turn into an active one.

By focusing on candidates first, Cooley said Democracy.com hopes to avoid some of the mistakes more voter-focused platforms like Voter.com and Votizen made. Those sites ran into the problem that most of the electorate is fundamentally uninterested in seeking out candidate details, he said. Democracy.com is therefore focused on the "huge underserved market" of candidates who do care, he said. Democracy.com also lets candidate import their existing mailing lists, helping them to encourage supporters to visit their profile on the site.

Cooley said he could not yet release the total number of candidates using the platform at this early stage, seven weeks after its initial launch, but noted that the site had seen an average week-to-week user growth of 35 percent. "We are still at the very beginning of the company, but this growth trajectory is a very positive indicator of early market reception to our value proposition," he added in a follow-up e-mail. There are also plans for an international expansion, he said. While having a basic website will always be free, Democracy.com plans to add additional paid tools in the future.

The start-up has closed on its first round of financing with $2 million, Cooley said, raising money primarily through large angel investors who have a track record with start-ups. The start-up is planning to float its first round of equity financing in early 2014, hoping to raise at least $5 million in January, he said. Democracy.com's advisory board includes Lawrence Lessig, Nicco Mele, Trey Grayson, director of the Institute of Politics at the Harvard Kennedy School and Katie Cashmore, VP of Marketing for Wordnik.

Unlike other services, "we are going after the long-tail of small state and local candidates that is completely underserved at this point," Cooley said. "We are not simply a vendor of campaign websites, we [aim to be] a social ecosystem of candidates, voters and issues."

All Politics is Local
Some of the first candidates using the platform welcomed its ease of use and candidate-focused functionality.

Jim Malless, who is running for a City Commission at Large seat in Lakeland, Florida, described himself as a "not real techie kind of guy" and praised the Democracy.com platform for being "all plug and play," noting that it was easy to customize and set up. Before, he said he had been using a website that a neighbor had helped him set up, but that one was on a platform he wasn't familiar with, and many tasks needed three or four steps compared with Democracy.com. "The guy who helped me set up my original website said he liked Democracy.com better than the one we put together," Malles said. Rather than paying somebody else, he said his campaign is now posting stories and videos to Democracy.com. He is also using Hootsuite to post to Facebook and Twitter, but he said he personally "has not been a huge fan of Facebook."

Sondra Peeden, a City Council candidate in Southeast Queens, New York, was originally using Nationbuilder. She is running as an independent candidate after coming in last in the Democratic primary. She said that with Nationbuilder, it had become very difficult and expensive to do certain things, adding that she had difficulty changing the template by herself and was referred to a training video for certain tasks. "After trying to upload [my voter data] by myself, I couldn't do it, then I had my campaign manager work on it for me, and between me and my campaign manager we couldn't get it done," she said. Her campaign had to employ a technology expert to address the issue, she said, and it involved calls back and forth to the West Coast with the time difference, making the process inefficient and expensive, she said.

In contrast, she said the backend, navigation and interface of Democracy.com were very straightforward and integrated well with other tools such as Mailchimp and social media platforms. "It's allowed my small campaign team to focus on the business of campaigning rather than use my limited resources to hire a webmaster," she said. She added that she was still learning about many Facebook tools, such as video chat, but used it more for casual, real-time communication, while Democracy.com was helpful for highlighting platform issues in a more formal way and to publicize events. She said having the Democracy.com site helped lend her campaign legitimacy, especially with low name recognition.

Move Florida Forward, a Super PAC supporting progressive candidates in Florida, is working with Democracy.com to implement it as a standard platform for its candidates. Shawna Vercher, executive director of the group, praised not only its technology but its vision. "Whereas a lot of companies focus on just the functionality of how something works," she said, she applauded Democracy.com for having "community building" and candidates in mind. Not only would it represent the group's brand of candidates in a professional way and help influence donors, she noted, but it also helps candidates meet campaign finance reporting requirements, she emphasized. "A lot of people underestimate the value of good reporting, that's the kind of thing that can get a candidate disqualified," she said, adding that the easy tools for that purpose especially benefit the campaign staff who file those reports.

Looking ahead to legislative and key municipal races in 2014, she said she expected between 30 and 50 of the group's candidates to be using the platform, Vercher said. Democracy.com is the group's first technology partner, and both are partnering to develop new functionalities for the site, she said. By the end of the year, she said she expected Democracy.com to be the group's main platform for online donations.

Yasinow, the City Council candidate in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, also praised the campaign reporting functionality, saying that it took a "click of a button" to generate the form she had to hand in. She added that the Democracy.com platform has proven so effective "that the opponent in my race has designed her own Democracy.com site."