Narwhal beat Orca, even though Orcas eat Narwhals. And so goes the story of how Obama’s technology beat Romney’s technology. But while we all marvel at the power of Obama’s online campaign, the truth is that most of the tools his campaign used are available to ordinary citizens and advocacy groups for less than $20 a month. The platform that provides these tools is NationBuilder. I sat down with NationBuilder’s Vice President of Organizing Michael Moschella to learn more about this great tool.
Moschella is a long time progressive organizer. In addition to his work at NationBuilder team, he serves on the Boards of Directors for the Netroots Foundation and New Leaders Council. He previously worked as Chief Organizer and Political Director for the Truman Foundation. Michael has been organizing the netroots, emerging progressive leaders, progressive bloggers and progressive members of our military for many years.
This is the first of my TOOLBOX INTERVIEWS, which will explore some of the cutting edge tools for integrating social media into advocacy and political campaigns. So, join me as I talk with Michael about NationBuilder and then check it out… build your own nation.
ROESENBLATT: What is NationBuilder?
MOSCHELLA: NationBuilder is the world's first Community Organizing System (COS). We're the one-stop shop for building an online presence, engaging a membership of any kind, building a database, and communicating with supporters and prospects. Every major technology tool you need to build a community works together seamlessly and we start pricing at $19 per month so anyone can use it to become a leader.
ROSENBLATT: You've said that NationBuilder puts 80% of the tools available to big campaigns into the hands of ordinary citizens and small organizations. What other tools would a campaign need beyond NationBuilder if it wanted to get to 100%?
MOSCHELLA: Obama's presidential campaign employed hundreds of people and spent millions of dollars to stitch together the tech tools they needed to organize. With NationBuilder, these tools - a website, people database, and communication tools like email, text messaging, and social media - are available to anyone in one unified system.
In the past, these tools were tightly controlled and used for partisan purposes. We’re building an open ecosystem of tools that can be used by anyone. We recently released our API so that campaigns and developers can start building applications to address additional needs they might have for more customized functions. For example, Andrew Bauer, a college student communications director for Dan Cowen’s campaign for Councilor At-Large in Syracuse - is building a mobile canvassing application to use with their nation.
ROSENBLATT: Integrating social media activities of campaign supporters is key to modern campaigns. What does NationBuilder do to track how supporters use their own social media megaphones to promote a campaign's cause?
MOSCHELLA: Social media lets leaders know much, much more about their communities. Knowing what people are saying about you, to whom they're saying it, and the scope of the impact, that's the key to strategically growing any organizing effort. In the past, to do anything useful with this information, you'd have to monitor a bunch of social media platforms, tediously tie that info back to its source, and manually store it in your database.
Now, NationBuilder automates everything by making people the central component of your technology infrastructure. After someone takes an action on your website, NationBuilder can match their email address to their profiles on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Klout, giving you a robust understanding of who they are. Leaders can use this information to build much stronger relationships.
Let me give you an example of how this works. One of NationBuilder’s very first customers was the Scottish National Party. They came to us three months before the general election in 2011 with a failed Drupal implementation and down 15% in the polls. NationBuilder pulled everyone who was talking about the party on Twitter into their database and synced that information to their voter file. They started calling people up who had never been contacted by the party before who were thrilled to hear from them. Three months later they had tripled their membership and won a landslide victory, becoming the first party to gain majority control of the Scottish Parliament since its inception.
ROSENBLATT: NationBuilder is a self-service web platform. What does that mean? Who is able to use the platform?
MOSCHELLA: Our goal is to allow everyone to be a leader, so everyone can use NationBuilder. Some people see technology and data as a weapon to be controlled. At NationBuilder, we see it as infrastructure for democracy and that’s what we’re working to create. Regardless of ideology, we strive to make every NationBuilder customer successful with the platform. We're not strategy consultants and we don't take sides; we just work really hard to make the tools of organizing accessible to anyone who wants to use them. We believe that empowering leaders and communities means a better world for people of all ideologies.
ROSENBLATT: As an open platform, people and organizations from across the political spectrum can use NationBuilder. This has created some objections within the progressive community. Questions raised include data security, on the one hand, and sharing technological advances, generally, with the other side. How does NationBuilder respond to these questions?
MOSCHELLA: To address the issue of data security, we’ve done something pretty unusual. We give each and every customer a completely separate and self-contained database. This is not how most technology companies handle data for their customers and it’s taken some tech genius to pull it off. What it means is that when a person signs up to be a part of a nation, a unique profile is created in that nation only. Every NationBuilder customer has an independent database and nation data is only shared between customers at their request.
As for the question of sharing technological advances, well, we don’t think that the tools of organizing should be controlled by anyone. The first amendment gives us free speech, but it also gives us the right to peacefully assemble. And the way people assemble today is online. The organizing technology that we’re building at NationBuilder is helping people come together to support the leaders and the causes they believe in. It’s not a weapon to wield; it’s infrastructure that’s enabling democracy in this new world.
ROSENBLATT: What's next for NationBuilder?
MOSCHELLA: NationBuilder's earliest adopters were mostly political and advocacy leaders because those communities are most familiar with community building technology. I spent ten years running major political campaigns and advocacy organizations, and I learned how to organize that way too. But increasingly more people-centric organizations are catching on. We recently launched four editions of NationBuilder to empower leaders of all kinds - political campaigns, nonprofits, businesses and government organizations.
Just last week we released Aware, a responsive website theme that automatically changes the location of images and icons to perfectly fit any size screen you display it on - which is amazing for mobile and tablet user experience. Left-right scroll bars are a now thing of the past. If you asked your web developer to make this, you'd be looking at a bill the size of a new house down payment. But now you can have it for $19 per month.
We're also putting major university alumni networks onto NationBuilder, professional sports fan bases, businesses like restaurants and yoga studios, and fledgling democracy movements in developing nations. If you want to build an active community, NationBuilder is your essential toolkit, and we'll be continuously developing products that support these groups and make them available to everyone.
Social Advocacy & Politics is a weekly, exclusive column for Social Media Today by Alan Rosenblatt that explores the intersection of politics and social media. Look for the next installment next Tuesday morning.