Friday, August 10, 2012

Digital Politics: Votizen

Votizen is a digital politics start up that plans to be the "social network" of voters. The idea is this: You sign up, you (if you choose) add your social networks. It mines them for voters who "like" candidates, causes, etc. You (if you choose) put in your voter registration address and it matches that to a state database and tries to verify it (date of birth match, etc.). You then can put in (if you choose) how you voted in the last few elections back to 2000.

The value proposition (and it wasn't clear to me until I went to the very bottom of the page and clicked on campaigns and saw their how-to video): this is a GOTV (Get Out The Vote) amplifier. It works as follows:

  1. The campaign signs up and gets a Votizen URL to send supporters volunteers to. That's important: people who sign up might just be supporters--but you really want your activists going to Votizen and signing up.
  2. These people add their networks (Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Google+) and it mines them for contacts and compares that to its 50-state voter database. It tries to sort them into buckets of likely voters (it calls Turnout), persuadable voters (who can vote--but are not so likely--it tells you you'll need a personalized message they care about), and not sure (maybe not a citizen or not declared). Each person has a Swing-State meter as to how important their vote might be. It looks like this:

You (I removed the name)! Hey You! THROW YOUR VOTE AWAY!!
When your message (that one is spamiriffic) shows up it'll show up straight in the social network (appears on Facebook) and, if they want, they can follow the link back to Votizen and re-start the cycle.

This is important: Studies have shown that just going door-to-door with a non-partisan reminder to vote significantly increases turn-out. We don't know if Facebook messages work--but personalized ones from friends might well (especially that "can I count on you" phrasing). The problem with door-to-door is (a) it's expensive in terms of time, effort, and volunteers (even a free volunteer could be doing something else for those hours) (b) you are more likely to hit non-registered voters than voters and (c) you might get the other guy's voters! You don't want that.

This mobilizes supporters electronically, reduces the time, and, by using voter-registration cuts out the air-ball effect of "mobilizing" someone who isn't registered (getting them registered is very effort intensive).

For the random guy who stumbles across the site from, say, this article, the proposition is a bit less enticing. You can sign up--and put in your voting history and registration and then you get a dashboard showing where your friends are that you can ask to vote. It asks me for a lot of personal information (and each "ask" is a barrier to entry--a chance the user will just bail) and gives me a look at my network in return.

I Don't Really Care Much About What's Going On In Texas ...
I'll admit: it was interesting to me that I had more 3rd Party voters than Democrats--but what does it mean that I have more likes for Obama than Mitt Romney ... when I have more Republicans than anything else on my networks?

Does it mean I have more Republican voter friends who are less likely to vote? Maybe. I think it's that I have more Republican voter friends who are less active on Facebook.

In any event, I don't see a lot of random people signing up because it's missing something key: a Votizen-centric social conversation. I'll discuss that below.

The Other Value Proposition: Selling Voters
The other part of the business model is that Votizen "sells voters." There's some kind of cost-per-voter model (you need to ask them) and while I don't know the political spectrum I have worked in targeted advertising. In targeted selling the idea is to only pay for your message to go to your specific potential buyers: every guy sitting alone on a couch watching a feminine protection advertisement represents wasted dollars.

In order to make this work the vendor (the guy selling voters) needs a lot of information about his product (you!). The more they have, the more you are worth. Votizen gets a lot of information. From the social-network connections to their checked voter registration to their zip codes (zip code is often the key piece of demographic data for economic bracket, education, likely marital status, and earning potential) to their, if they entered it, private past history, Votizen voters might well represent the gold-standard in politics.

According to a video with the Votizen founder David Binetti Rick Perry paid around 500 dollars per voter (that's adding up the cost of TV ads and so on). I would guess a Votizen sells for around 100x less than that.

The Missing Social Network
 If Votizen is leaving money on the table it's that for the random guy who is not plugged into a campaign there is little incentive to sign up and divulge information. I did it because I'm writing a politics blog but I cannot imagine spamming my LinkedIn list to vote for Ron Paul--I'd never work in my industry again.

I can guess there was a board meeting where the Votizen founders and architects congratulated themselves on "not" being the social venue--we'll let Facebook and Google+ and the real social networks host that--they're the experts. Maybe I'm wrong--but I bet I'm not. It would be a smart play and against their real value model which is working through campaigns.

On the other hand, the barrier to entry is so high (and they do a good job--their "how did you vote" selection uses icons for the candidates, defaults to I-won't-share, and so on) that they are not going to grow organically at the rate they'd like to (maybe I'm wrong: I don't have numbers).

To counteract this, the conversation needs to be happening on Votizen. How would you do that? I'm sure there are people with better ideas than I have. They already sort of hint at a leader-board where I can see Jennifer Long is badgering people about voting Green. I bet people are getting tired of Jennifer Long.

They have "stickers" you can use to declare yourself. That's a good idea (I guess they show up as icons for other Votizens). But what about a wall for each candiate you can subscribe to and limit by region / state / etc.?

How about an issues board where we could discuss taxes? Maybe declare if we'd changed our minds (ha!). What if Votizen had a running total of declared votes so we could see "who's ahead in the Votizen poll"?

I think there is some exciting potential they're not tapping.

The Other Thing
I went from being underwhelmed to being very impressed when I went to the very bottom of the page and clicked the "footer links" for campaigns and watched the video. Then I went: Oh, crap--I get it. Until then I felt it was kind of all over the place and missing a conversation. Votizen needs to reorganize its navigation and message. It has a pretty good blog down there too--unfortunately no one will ever see it (I had a hard time finding Votizen's twitter feed too ... it's Votizens United ... a kind of unfortunate name if you don't like Super PACs).

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