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With Crowdverb, GOP Geek Squad Aims to Match Dems Datum for Datum

BY Sarah Lai Stirland | Thursday, February 16 2012

Politicians have always been interested in the psychology of crowds, but it hasn't been until the dawn of the era of social media that moving these crowds started palpably looking like a science unto itself.

In the world of elections, President Obama's 2008 campaign created the first big chapter in this evolving story, and his 2012 campaign has staked out an interest in staying on top. But it looks as if members of the Republican Party are moving earnestly to make sure this chapter doesn't end the same way as the first.

One of them, Cyrus Krohn, a veteran Republican digital operative, just recently went public with his joint effort to narrow that technological gap. When Krohn left his post as the Republican National Committee's chief digital strategist for the 2008 presidential campaign, he Rick-rolled readers of his farewell note, sending folks who clicked a link at the end of his post to a video of Rick Astley's "Never Gonna Give You Up." But he also promised to help the Republican Party regain a technological edge, saying "the perception that the GOP is woefully behind online" was "the blog-flogging of political simpletons." And now he's putting his Astley in gear to deliver on that promise.

The plan? Krohn didn’t want to give away the store, but part of it will involve the examination of social media data to identify potential supporters, hopefully unlocking the power of constituencies that are difficult to contact by conventional means. Before online activists sunk the Stop Online Piracy Act and ravaged the reputation of Susan G. Komen for the Cure in the wake of a decision that would have cut breast-cancer screening funding to Planned Parenthood, that might have sounded more like hype than hypothesis. Now, though, there's fresh precedent for the way networked groups can influence American politics in the blink of an eye.

Krohn is co-founder of Crowdverb, a sort of Justice League of Republican digital operatives assembled into a new Seattle-based startup in time for the 2012 presidential campaign. The team already lists the super PAC American Crossroads and conservative publishing groupEagle Publishing as clients.

Joining Krohn are co-founders Todd Herman, another former RNC digital director, and Sally Poliak, a veteran Republican communications strategist in Washington State and a former marketing professional at Microsoft. Among the staff joining the company are many digital veterans. They include Crowdverb's new Director of Technology Bob Ellsworth, who previously helped the RNC architect its current online outreach and donation infrastructure; Todd Van Etten, RNC new media director and now leader of Crowdverb's D.C. office; and Spencer Whelan, of the social fund-raising company Kimbia and now heading up Crowdverb's Austin office.

"Our job," Krohn told me, "is to sift through data to find the crowds, and then find out through various tactics what they’re willing to do, what we believe they might be willing to do on behalf of a customer, and then with tactics get them to mobilize to take that action."

These days, just about anyone can sift through social data to find unguarded thoughts, preferences and political persuasions among the postings of millions of Facebook users. The real trick, says Ellsworth, who has worked on large scale technology projects, is not just finding, but marketing to a new generation people who are increasingly hard to find through other channels.

"Where it gets tricky [in outreach] is many people don't have landlines, and a significant portion of a certain age cohort don't have e-mail, and they're not in databases, so how do you get through to them?" Ellsworth said on the phone. "It's also one thing to find them. It's another to motivate them."

He adds: "The way I look at it is that there is a story behind every piece of data. If you look at the data enough, you can find stories within it, and how you interpret that data is the key to getting somebody to do what you want -- whether it's getting them to vote, or somebody to take an action on an issue, or to buy a product. Once you can find out the story behind that person, and their motivations, you can do a lot."

The preface to this story is Krohn's farewell-from-the-RNC post of 2008, when he promised a return to the days when Republicans would once again demonstrate incomparable precision in their ability to reach new potential voters. Historically, the Republicans’ party-controlled Voter Vault software set the industry standard, and GOP operatives awed observers with the ability to pick out apt recipients of each targeted message. But time and lack of resources led to the erosion the utility of those voter files as the information about likely supporters aged. It didn’t help that the GOP kept such a tight lock on the information, and outside groups hoping to make use of the information in their own campaigns couldn’t help to keep the information updated.

But that’s slowly been changing. Ellsworth was brought in to open up the RNC’s databases and Voter Vault so that outside apps (like Twillio) could plug in. Now the RNC is open for business, in a sense. The committee is opening up its voter files to outside vendors to enable new political apps, said Saul Anuzis, chairman of the RNC's technology committee. Republicans have created a private company called the Data Trust that "similar" to the Democrats' Catalist, he said. Catalist provides left-leaning groups with access to voter lists, but in exchange, members of those outside groups are required to update those lists with information gained from their interactions with the contacted individuals.

"Several outside vendors have developed various GOTV as well as other mobile phone apps that will be launched for the first time this cycle," Anuzis told techPresident in an e-mail. "We are encouraging outside vendors to work with us to develop new technology, while taking advantage of our extensive database of voters. Micro-targeting and enhanced voter data will allow us to target our audience better."

Data management will make or break the 2012 campaign, said Brian Donahue, a founder of the political media and messaging company Craft and a veteran of President George W. Bush's 2004 presidential campaign.

"I think the largest threat to Republicans' success going into 2012," he said, "is Organizing for America and the Democratic Party committees hiring data managers in all the target states, and placing a heavy emphasis on data gathering, and organizing data."

Crowdverb isn't working with any presidential campaigns at present, Krohn says, but may work with outside groups, where unlimited amounts of campaign funding can be routed his way.

"To be blunt, since Citizens United v. US whether you agree or disagree, even Obama has come to accept super PACs are what they are," Krohn said. "We see opportunities in the private sector, in advocacy, in the association arena, super PACs, candidates, campaigns, and individuals to deal with their respective brands."

It's clear that Krohn is part of a generation of Republicans who believe that the party needs an operational makeover. And with the launch of Crowdverb, he's part of the growth of an outside-the-party infrastructure, free of the constraints of the rules of the RNC, that's being built to defeat Democrats during this election cycle. Within the party, however, there seems to be some dissent as to how successful this emerging model is going to be.

"I think there are a lot of organizations and private firms and entities that are investing the resources into gathering data and data processing, but you need overall cultural buy-in by all your party operatives, all your party committees, and all your organizations in order to fully realize the advantages to data gathering and targeting," Donahue said. "That's something that the Left has made a cultural decision to integrate all of their efforts, and I believe the Right has to do that as well."