Voter.com goes pig – voting service marketing
Because of their big pile of venture capital chips, voter.com expected to out-promote, out-deal and out-last other political portals.
IN NOVEMBER 1999, a Bostonian in his mid-20s named Justin Dangel launched Voter.com, an online political portal with the slogan, “Delivering democracy to your doorstep.” Venture capitalists staked Voter.com to tens of millions of dollars in start-up funds. They bet that Dangel and his crew could use the Internet to make money off politics in an unprecedented way.
In high-low poker games, “going pig” means you think you have both the best high and the best low hand. Voter.com thought it could play with the news media on the one hand, and the professionals on the other, by taking them on in the cyberspace casino. The Internet afforded Voter.com — and such other online enterprises as Grassroots.com, Speakout.com and Vote.com — the chance to reunite the provision of political information with outlets of political action. (For you young readers out there, political parties used to perform both functions.) The wager was that many people would prefer a “one-stop shop” for politics on the Internet to searching around for news, commentary, discussion forums and campaign organizations.
People certainly flock to omnibus stores, as Wal-Mart, the Sears catalog and Amazon.com have proven. (OK, Amazon hasn’t proven it on the bottom line yet, but wasn’t Jeff Bezos Time’s Man of the Year?) To explain the Voter.com business model, its vice president of Democratic Outreach, former Gore campaign director Craig Smith, drew me a diagram with eight boxes, labeled news, candidates, officials, activists, ideology, product vendors, strategists and legislative tracking. (This roughly corresponded to the tabs on the home page navigation bar at www.voter.com.) “We’re the only one in all the boxes,” he told me. He said the big pile of venture capital chips gave Voter.com an unbeatable head start on competitors. Smith and his Republican counterpart, former congressman and Christian Coalition Director Randy Tate, intended to out-promote, out-deal and out-last the other political portals.
People might like a one-stop shop for politics, but, of course, they have to hear of it first. To drive traffic their way, Voter.com arranged to be the official Web site for the National Press Club on Super Tuesday. They set up kiosks on the National Mall and processed petitions during the Million Mom March. They placed ads online and offline at the time of these and other political events. For the 2000 conventions, they erected kiosks in the sports arenas and big hotels, slapped ads on taxicabs and threw lavish parties (on the former presidential yacht Sequoia in Philadelphia).
During the conventions, Voter.com offered online visitors a variety of exclusive name-brand Beltway merchandise, from columns by Elizabeth Drew and Jack Germond, to nightly tracking polls by the bipartisan “Battleground” team of Lake Snell Perry and The Tarrance Group. The content was timely, lively, intelligent and neatly displayed. Voter’s editors did a fine job of aggregating this content with annotated links to news from other media organs, some of which (e.g., Slate) carried reciprocal links. Voter’s original videos were more amateurish, a collection of abrupt hallway-grab interviews with convention celebrities. But there’s no question that, as a journalism provider, Voter.com was a player.
As they consumed the news and commentary, site visitors could not but notice the other tabs and, on the right third of the screen, links to pages in a standard directory–style format, paid for by candidate-advertisers. (Sparser information about non-client candidates could be accessed from less prominent links.) The candidate-advertisers were indexed by name, state and office sought. Voter.com spokesman Michael Bustamante told me that, for a fee pegged to the size of the jurisdiction, candidate/clients got these pages, and additional visibility via the “My Voter” feature, which custom-sorted the candidate/clients as a visitor inputted issue and other political preferences. (That inputted information is passed back neither to the candidates nor to outsiders, he said.) In mid-September 2000, Bustamante told me the company had contracts with 1,100 candidates in 39 states. But “My Voter” was down for weeks, and I saw links to only a few dozen candidate-advertisers.
Earlier last year, a Voter.com tab labeled “My Voice” promised to: “help you find others who share your passion. We’ll show you how to conduct an effective campaign, communicate with your elected officials, and measure your progress. We give you the tools to do it and it’s all free.” But by fall. “My Voice” had been replaced with “Activists.” This section offered guidance in creating a group logo, petitions and action alerts, but not how to find and persuade others to form a group, or how to maintain group membership through measurable progress. None of Voter.com’s 26 message boards were devoted to candidates, and the existing ones were virtual voids.
Voter.com claimed 750,000 unique visitors for the convention month of August 2000; Bustamante further asserted that site traffic never declined. The August numbers square roughly with those I obtained from the online traffic monitoring firm PC Data Online, which had Voter doubling unique visitors from 120,000 the week of the Republican convention to 250,000 the week of the Democratic. Like all online traffic reports, these figures have gaps and flaws. Still, it was clear that Voter.com trailed the online divisions of the established media companies by a great margin.
Politics is a subject most Americans follow rarely and with little enthusiasm. The news media cover politics for prestige, not for profit. The people who do enjoy political news — the junkies — are notorious browsers and scavengers when it comes to information, and just as notorious party/group loyalists when it comes to action. For a new player to wrest them away from their habitual choices and get them to go to just one online destination, politics itself would have to undergo a metamorphosis.
That’s a possibility, for as democracy moves online, two trends may be exacerbated. There may be so much important and complicated information in the public square that even junkies will need new digesting and organizing tools, and so much fragmentation of interests that loyalties will dissolve into ad hoc groupings or coalitions, such that the junkies will need an activism guide to keep current with who’s doing what.
But possibilities are not facts. For any online political shop, as for Amazon, I think technological innovation protected by government patent is a hidden key to success. A winner in the political section of the cyberspace casino will have to connect information with action in ways that existing media and professionals will not be permitted to replicate for a while. Voter.com may have been developing such capabilities, but it didn’t have them on Feb. 5, 2001, when it folded.
Nor did anyone else.
Michael Cornfield teaches political strategy and directs research for the Democracy Online Project at George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management.
COPYRIGHT 2001 Campaigns & Elections, Inc.
COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group