Marketing Election '08: Q&A With Matt DeBergalis, ActBlue

Full-length interview with Matt DeBaergalis, 29, who created ActBlue to be the "PayPal of political giving."

FC: What is your background? Are you a political junky?

DeBergalis: I was not a political guy at all — I'm actually a software developer by background. I went to school in Boston and my first political endeavor was running for city council in Cambridge, in 2003. My goal was to get friends and other people in the community to get more involved in day-to-day life in Cambridge. There wasn't any kind of young voice involved in the city's decision-making process and so I decided to run. I ended up losing, but I really enjoyed the experience and felt it was an important thing I could be doing.

My colleague Ben, who also lived in Boston and had done some political volunteering in 2002 up in New Hampshire, shared my opinion that there were better ways to organize groups of people and get them to take action. In particular, we thought that one could do a lot better by taking advantage of existing friendships and social circles, rather than functioning via top-down organizing the way that a campaign typically does. Ben and I actually consider ourselves more political entrepreneurs than anything. A lot of political work comes from more of a field organizing perspective and we do things differently.

FC: How exactly did you come up with the idea for ActBlue?

DeBergalis: We concluded that we wanted to have an impact in 2004 and we wanted it to be measurable, which is a big problem you'll find in the political world. Typically, it's hard to know whether what you're doing has an effect at all.

We decided to fundraise because it's easy to move money around versus people. We focused our initial efforts on independent fundraisers because that way we didn't have to sell a campaign on some idea — we could just work with the people who wanted to raise money.

The whole thing is built around using existing social networks: whether they are coworkers asking each other to do things, friends, or existing communities built around e-mail lists or blogs. But we aren't trying to direct people to give money to any particular place, we're just trying to facilitate connections that already exist. Our feeling is that everyone has some sphere of influence and that set of people will respond to appeals from a person far more actively and frequently than they will to a top down national advertising campaign. We're just trying to harness that.

FC: What exactly does ActBlue do and what makes it effective?

DeBergalis: Everything revolves around what we call a fundraiser. We list every Democrat running for federal office from the 22 states we're active in. You can go to the website and pick one or many of those candidates and build a fundraising page. So your page — which is sort of user-generated content — is about the set of candidates you've picked.

The important part of the fundraiser's job is to get people to go to that page and give money. What we do is process the credit card contribution — we are responsible for passing that fund along to the candidates and for reporting the activity to the SEC. More importantly we publish the aggregate statistics for how much has been given, how many people have participated, and so on. That's hugely important. Political giving is generally a carefully considered act — it's an act of emotional passion — and when people get an email from a candidate or they open a blog post and see that 2,000 other people have already donated, they feel like they can make a real contribution to that effort. When you don't know what's going on, it's a lot less compelling pitch. So real time feedback and transparency has always been front and center in what we do and makes the fundraising a lot more effective.

Campaigns are vastly different today then they were even four years ago, in terms of how willing they are to allow independent people to shape some of the dialogue and participate in conversation. New media in general is a great example: the blogs have had a tremendous impact on politics because they can be so participatory.

Let's not kid ourselves though, there's a lot of money in politics and the amount of money coming through ActBlue is not the totality — most of the money is the networks of large donors who are doing the traditional writing checks kind of fundraising. So in some sense it's not so much the amount of money that's coming through as the story behind it. It's a lot more interesting that 10,000 people from every state gave money to Paul Hackett in 2005 over two weeks. The actual money in the bank is nice, it bought a lot of TV ads but the better story is how people are participating: how people have built themselves around a cause, have aligned themselves with it, and are recruiting other people to do the same. That's what a political campaign really is. It's about advertising a message and getting people to support you.

FC: What have the options been up until you guys came along?

DeBergalis: It was and kind of still is the Stone Age. Political contributions are still largely done by individuals writing checks to campaigns. There are people who literally collect a pile of checks from their social circles. The means by which galas and fundraisers are handled are so archaic that it only really works when the numbers are big enough. It's fine if you want to handle $5,000 contributions that way, but you're not going to do that with 5,000 people each giving $10 or $20.

Door-to-door fundraising vehicles don't really make that much money. The other big tool however has been direct mail — it works particularly well for the Republicans, they've always had a large advantage in direct fundraising by mail. ActBlue is a nice counter-example: our model, where everyone can use their own language and own pitch for why they're supporting a candidate, actually works better for the democratic party than for a republican party.

The advantage of the Internet over direct mail is that people have some kind of indication of how much is being raised — everybody recognizes this is a lot more effective than blindly sending an email that asks for money and does not show you how many people in other towns are getting the same mail at the same time and responding.

FC: Why do you think the Democrats are doing better online than the Republicans?

DeBergalis: Thirty years ago Republicans began to invest heavily in lasting institutional assets. Large donors, the Coors foundation and others began to develop think tanks, media outlets, news institutions, and a direct mail strategy that's grown to become a monster at raising money. All of these things were deliberate choices, while the Democrats didn't do this. So I think to some degree the Republicans haven't needed to innovate as quite as badly as we've had to innovate because they were in power and they had all of this.

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