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For Lou Aronson, inspiration struck four years ago during the heat of the 2008 campaign. He listened as his neighbors traded complaints about the overwhelming number of robocalls streaming into their phones—all except one who proudly proclaimed that since he no longer had a landline, he hadn’t endured a single political call all year.
“I turned to one of my neighbors, who’s a political consultant, and suggested he open a mobile phone based polling company,” recalls Aronson. “He laughed and told me it was the dumbest idea he’d ever heard.”
Four years later, Aronson has left behind a career as an attorney to launch Votifi—a company he hopes will eventually fill a void left by traditional survey research as smartphone use continues to soar.
On the front end, Aronson pitches Votifi as a peer-to-peer network for voter engagement. Once people sign up, Votifi streamlines the user’s access to political content, observing what users are reading and what they are sharing. The next step is building a profile to quantify the data—Votifi’s chief scientist has developed a predictive algorithm to sort voters by issue.
“If you weight people based on issues, rather than self-identified affiliation, you begin to get a much more accurate predictor of how they’re going to behave,” says Aronson, who recently sat down with C&E to talk about the vision for his startup.
C&E: What’s the business model here?
Aronson: We’re building a community, but we don’t advertise in that community. We don’t sell our list to anybody, but for those who volunteer to be polled we do market that access to campaign managers and to the political industry. If the broad, overarching data holds it means that 20 percent of every dollar spent by political campaigns will be spent on research. So we’re just a new methodological approach to information data capture. We’re building profiles and we don’t call you. We ask a question every day and over a point in time build that profile. You can then take a poll on your phone—five or six questions with radio buttons. This is about meeting people where they are.
C&E: How can you get to a representative sample?
Aronson: It’s a two-fold challenge. As we build out a political community, the first question is are we going to get big enough? Secondly, will we get to a representative sample of the American population? That can be accomplished in a whole host of ways. You can get there through SEO—advertising and marketing. One way to do it is to just stand up on our soapboxes and start screaming and yelling until everybody signs up. But with enough people you can build that community, and then if you happen to be weak within a particular district you can target into that area to improve the sample.
C&E: What’s the reaction from pollsters?
Aronson: Well, my favorite pollster happens to be John Anzalone. He invested in us and he sits on our board. We have talked to a couple of pollsters who think it’s a nonstarter. We’ve talked to others who think it’s not really necessary. Some of them think that you can wait and just model away the landline issues. They may be right at the moment. But in 2016, when there are over 250 million smartphones and over 120 million tablets, they’re not going to be right. The biggest challenge right now when it comes to talking to campaigns is that our community is not yet large enough. When I get 10,000 mobiles in West Virginia and Missouri I’m sure people will say, “Ok, we’ll talk to you.”