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Blue State Digital Lowers Its Prices As Partisan Software Debate Continues

BY Sarah Lai Stirland | Tuesday, July 17 2012

Digital agency Blue State Digital is expected Tuesday to announce a new price structure for digital tools that put the company in direct competition, in price and functionality, with other firms in the business of providing software to political campaigns — especially left-leaning ones — in a move that comes at the right time to take advantage of a controversy around one of the company's newest competitors.

Blue State rose to international fame by providing software and consulting services for Barack Obama's 2008 presidential campaign, but both before and since it was known as a vendor affordable only to the highest-level Senate and presidential campaigns. With other large-scale firms like Trilogy Interactive and NGPVAN, all of which swear only to work with people of a similar ideological stripe, Blue State has become a cornerstone in the multi-million dollar business of providing technology to progressive and Democratic political campaigns. Other companies, like Salsa Labs, stepped in to offer software to campaigns and causes with thinner wallets.

But newcomers to the political software industry have been less shy about eschewing partisanship. Jim Gilliam and Joe Green, who have both worked in organizing on the left, in 2011 launched the nonpartisan software company NationBuilder. Controversially, they recently struck a deal to provide software to the Republican State Leadership Committee. That is polarizing online progressive activists into two camps: Those who think software companies shouldn't provide tools to their ideological opponents, and those who think it shouldn't matter.

As this debate continues in progressive circles, Blue State is aggressively courting its lower-priced competitors' clients by encouraging them to move to its own platform BSD Tools, which offers fundraising, email list management and other campaign features.

Blue State Digital's Chief Technology Officer Jascha Franklin-Hodge authored a blog post on Friday in which he said the idea that BSD Tools "are too big and expensive for my organization" is "BS."

The company is now offering BSD Tools to organizations with 50,000 supporters or less at a monthly price of $450. Previously these tools had not been widely advertised as available in this price range to smaller organizations. Blue State is hosting a chart that shows it's putting its offerings in the same neighborhood as lower-priced competitors, but Blue State may be picking and choosing the prices they're showing for rivals — Salsa Labs, for example, doesn't list prices on its website and offers different deals to campaigns affiliated with different organizations. While NationBuilder does post prices, it also has a similar setup of special deals with large organizations. And Blue State doesn't mention NGPVAN, the other eminence grise in the progressive software industry, which provides services and tech tools that BSD does not, like financial compliance and voter file management.

Franklin-Hodge denied that the new marketing push had anything to do with NationBuilder — even though NationBuilder is at the top of the list of competitors he compared against Blue State Digital in his blog post, and obliquely referenced in press materials when Co-Founder Thomas Gensemer was quoted saying that the company is "continually committed to offering our digital solution platform to those candidates and causes who best uphold BSD's values."

"I wouldn't say this is prompted by NationBuilder," Franklin-Hodge said in an interview. "I think we're in a competitive marketplace, and we always have been. NationBuilder is obviously the new kid on the block in this space."

But its new online marketing materials pointedly note NationBuilder's recent deal to be the exclusive organizing software provider for the RSLC.

"No matter how much you pay, your feature ideas and feedback on the platform will go directly to help thousands of Republican candidates and campaigns up and down the ballot," Franklin-Hodge wrote in his Friday blog post.

Other progressives who work in this space have said that that kind of logic is overblown. Blue State Digital alumnus Steve Ofner, founder of the digital design and development firm Liberal Art, works with multiple platform providers on behalf of clients. He's noted that platform providers have so many clients that it's often impossible to incorporate all of the suggestions that are submitted to them.

NationBuilder's mission statement argues that it makes its tools available to anyone because "it is arrogant, even absurd, for us to decide which leaders are 'better' or 'right.'"

Franklin-Hodge and Blue State have been playing up the difference.

"We make a decision as a business based on what we view as our values, and the work that we feel is consistent with that," he said. "It won't always be agreed with by 100 percent of the people, but I think if anybody who looks at who we work with and our client base, they'll see a very clear moral perspective behind who we do or don't take on as clients."

The ultimate irony in Blue State Digital's latest marketing push, of course, is that it is owned by the global marketing and advertising services firm WPP, which owns companies in this space across the political spectrum — including CrowdVerb, a company launched by several former staffers for the Republican National Committee, which WPP acquired earlier this year.

About that, Franklin-Hodge says: "Our ownership by WPP does not affect our decisions about which clients we will and won't take on."

This article has been corrected to fix an editing error. Articulated Man merged to become part of Trilogy Interactive; they haven't been separate companies since 2010.