Ximena Hartsock was frustrated. She was working as an outreach director for an advocacy organization in California, where she attended community rallies intended to drum up support for any number of local policy issues. Often, she recalls, a speaker would energize the crowd and convince them why some piece of legislation or new proposal would benefit the community. The speaker would then urge them to go home and call or e-mail their county or state representatives to voice their support.
“Most of them had no idea who their state senators were, and many of them, especially in rural areas, didn’t have a computer,” Hartsock said. “Plus, by the next day, that fire and enthusiasm was starting to fade. We needed a solution; some way to turn that passion into action right there in the moment.”
So she built one – but not on her own. In late 2012, Hartsock lured two entrepreneurs, Jeb Ory and Patrick Stoddart, away from tech start-ups they were already running to launch a new venture called Phone2Action. The company now provides an online and mobile platform that helps private companies, nonprofits and trade associations connect their customers and supporters with local and federal policymakers.
In short, the company’s clients – which include the Consumer Electronics Association, the American Heart Association, Ford and ridesharing company Lyft – pay a subscription for access to Phone2Action’s software tools, which allows them to build digital campaign pages featuring stories or information that illustrate the importance of, say, patent reform legislation (for CEA) or eased transportation regulations (for Lyft). On the side of the page, visitors can input their name, Zip code and e-mail address, and the site will automatically populate an e-mail, tweet and Facebook post (authored by, in this case, CEA or Lyft) expressing support and urging policymakers to vote in favor of the cause or legislation.
One more click, and those messages are automatically sent to the inboxes and social media feeds of the proper elected officials, based on the individual’s Zip code.
The idea, Ory said, is two-fold: One, to give individuals an easier way to connect with elected officials, and two, to give Phone2Action’s clients a more effective way to harness the lobbying power of their supporters. What made that possible, he explained, was really the proliferation of smartphones.
“We realized early on that this had to be a mobile-first operation, because people were going to start using their smartphones for everything,” Ory said in an interview at the company’s headquarters in Washington. He noted that clients receive a five-digit text message code that directs smartphone users to their mobile campaign pages, further streamlining the process and making it easy to rally supporters. “Everything we do, we do with a smartphone user in mind.”
While the smartphone revolution opened the door, it has been the meteoric rise of social media that has given Phone2Action’s tools even more potency. That’s because, while an e-mail or phone call to an elected official remains private, a coordinated social media blitz on sites like Facebook or Twitter “has become the modern-day equivalent of protesting in the town square, except that anyone with a cellphone can participate from anywhere in the world,” Ory said. “That’s really powerful.”
The company’s tools have played an important role in several legislative battles across the country. Recently, the American Heart Association ran campaigns urging the New York legislature to approve a measure requiring public schools to teach the CPR lifesaving technique. Once the bill moved out of the state legislature (after years of stalling), “it wasn’t clear whether Governor Cuomo was going to sign it,” Ory said. In response, the heart association swapped out the state assembly’s e-mail addresses and social media accounts and inserted Cuomo’s phone number, e-mail address and accounts, prompting a social media barrage that flooded the governor’s Facebook and Twitter feeds. Cuomo signed the bill days later, citing an exceptional display of support from parents across the state.
Rather than take down the campaign page, AHA has since changed the automated email and tweet to a thank-you message directed at the governor.
Here in Washington, DC United and backers of a new soccer stadium used Phone2Action’s tools last year to connect supporters of the proposal with city officials. The stadium was ultimately approved in December. Meanwhile, a coalition led by Balance Gyms is using the software to rally opposition to a controversial new tax on fitness centers in the District.
While Phone2Action’s campaign model has proven viable, several hurdles still stand in the company’s way – not the least of which is the sense of powerlessness felt by many Americans when it comes to public policy and today’s legislative process.
“People lack the perception that they can truly have an impact on policy and that their voice matters,” said Stoddart, the company’s software guru. “One of the biggest challenges for us, in addition to simply building these tools, is to change that perception and show that technology can give us back the power to effect change.”
Phone2Action, which started at a technology accelerator program in Kansas City before moving to Washington, now has six full-time employees (in addition to the three founders) and works out of a small office at the WeWork coworking space in Chinatown. The company has raised $600,000 from Dundee Venture Capital based in Omaha, Nebraska, and while not yet profitable, the founders are projecting more than $1 million in revenue in 2015.
Another challenge, from the standpoint of raising capital, has been turning additional investors on to the idea of disrupting the legislative process with technology.
“Right now, everyone’s thinking about how we change transportation, how we change the dating scene, and so on,” said Hartsock, who previously served as director of parks and recreation under former D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty. “There’s not as much discussion about innovation around policymaking and advocacy.”
Moving forward, the team is working on ways to capture more data about the individuals who communicate through its platform. The idea is to provide clients with better insight into who their loyal supporters are and help them more easily communicate with their most passionate advocates.
“Within five years, we envision a world where everybody – whether you’re an individual in a rural community or the CEO of Fortune 500 company – will be able to connect with their elected officials and let them know how they feel about certain policies,” Ory said. “We want to be the glue that holds that all together.”