Tech startups are taking aim at phone vendors who are struggling as voters increasingly switch to cellphone-only households.
Longtime phone vendors are pining their hopes to the AAPC’s legal challenge to the Telephone Consumer Protection Act, which prevents them from robocalling cellphones. But in the meantime, a new generation of tech companies are pitching their services as the alternative to traditional phone consultants.
“If the pitch is phones are dead, well, not yet,” said Marty Stone, a partner at Stones’ Phones. “But are phone consultants in the buggy business and seeing cars come in? Yes.”
Sangeeth Peruri, a co-founder of California-based VoterCircle, said his company can provide an alternative to phone banking.
“The simple pitch we give is that 30 minutes on the platform is the equivalent of 10 hours of phone banking,” he said. “That seems to resonate.”
The company’s service works like this: a campaign uploads a data file. A volunteer doing outreach logs into the platform. “We have some algorithms that go through and figure out who all their friends are who happen to be voters in the district. And then we say, ‘here is your list we want you to canvass,” Peruri explained. “We then provide tools for them to do that efficiently through text or email or any other means that they want to do it.”
He added: “We’re trying to provide a social-relationship overlay that enhances what existing vendors and consultants do. It may over time reduce phone banking, but that’s kind of happening on its own because people aren’t picking up their landlines and you don’t have as good cellphone lists.”
VoterCircle currently boasts California Democrat Ro Khanna’s congressional campaign as a client, but has mainly focused on local races.
“We’re starting at the local level, and over time if we’re successful, we’ll have further reach,” said Peruri.
Jessica Hyejin Lee’s HandStack is another tech startup that could bite into phone vendors’ bottom lines. Her company, which is backed by the Silicon Valley venture capital seed fund 500 Startups, offers campaigns persuasion, fundraising and organizing over text message.
Field organizations can initiate a text conversation with a voter’s cellphone without an opt in, Lee recently told C&E. “You can have your organizers text people instead of phone banking,” she explained. The company gets around the federal auto-dial restriction by having each text originate from a different number.
Facing increased competition, phone vendors have also sought to innovate. For instance, Stones’ Phones and Chism Strategies last cycle debuted a service known as catch and release or “leave your voice.” It works like this: A live or automated call is made to a voter. The operator gets the respondent to explain why he or she think it’s important to vote.
The response is recorded and then played back to the voter in a call closer to Election Day. Stone said it caused a 4 percent increase in turnout from unreliable voters when it was used by New Mexico Sen. Tom Udall (D) during his 2014 reelection.
More recently, Stone’s company set up telecaucuses for Iowa voters unable to be present at the Democratic precinct caucuses on Feb. 1.
“Phones are constrained, but the majority of people 45 or 50-plus who have a landline phone is still pretty high — and I call those people voters,” said Stone. “My mother’s 78. She doesn’t text. She’s not going to respond to a text. If you call her, she’ll respond.”