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Hot or Not: Social Polling Startups Take the Temperature of the Masses

Hot or Not: Social Polling Startups Take the Temperature of the Masses
Teagen Densmore (left) and Erin Burchfield, co-founders of
social polling startup Loop, working at Zoka coffee in Seattle.
Image credit: Loop

Does this tie match this shirt? Which website design do you like better, this one or that? What do you think of Alex Rodriguez after his suspension by the MLB? Is Apple's new phone worth the money?

Questions like these are the province of social polls. They often, but not always, take a binary format (i.e., "A or B?") and they live everywhere from Facebook and Twitter to dedicated apps.

Whether or not the crowd has wisdom, it certainly has opinions -- and lots of them. Increasingly, businesses are interested in using these opinions to get a read on their public image and the tastes of consumers. Over the last two years, a slew of startups have appeared to satisfy these twin desires -- that of individuals to weigh in on topics of interest, and that of brands to find out what people think.

One of the most interesting of this crop is Poutsch, which launched its mobile app two months ago. Poutsch offers more options than most polling startups; its users can create poll questions and flesh them out with pictures, videos, SoundCloud links or hyperlinks to articles. Users can then share these questions on social media or embed them on blogs. Answer types range from binary to multiple-choice to sliding scale. (During the beta, the average response to the question "How much privacy are you willing to sacrifice for your security?" was 60 percent.)

Poutsch started in Paris in the middle of 2012, then moved to Brooklyn at the beginning of this year following a six-month stint at Le Camping, a Paris-based startup accelerator. Poutsch's team, one Frenchman and two Belgians, raised $10,000 through Le Camping, and another $10,000 by winning the French-American Entrepreneurship Award last year.

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During the beta, they saw the deep engagement potential of social polls, says Felix Winckler, Poutsch's chief operating officer. The average number of answers per user was 200. Winckler contrasts this with online surveys, which many users find tiresome and ignore. "If you aren't willing to fill out a full survey, you will be willing to answer one question," Winckler says.

For brands, the benefit of social polling lies in its speed and timeliness and in the potential to reach a vast audience, says independent polling expert John Zogby, who created the Zogby poll and serves as a senior analyst for Zogby Analytics.

"If I've got a client who's in crisis, I'm not going to screw around hiring a few academics to take three weeks to craft the perfect question, and then hire a field team," Zogby says. "I want results now. Give me an overnight."

But social polling is not a replacement for traditional scientific polls. Zogby sees them as complementary, allowing him to present clients with a range of options for taking the temperature of the masses. While traditional polls grant precision, social polls can give a broad representation of the public.

Max Yoder, who started social polling service Quipol in 2011, agrees. "We need barometers for people's opinions, and it's an everchanging landscape. I think there's plenty of room for both."

Among startups in the space, revenue strategies are still uncertain. Poutsch plans to offer promoted questions, similar to Twitter's promoted tweets, at a rate of 50 cents per answer. Winckler also wants to provide premium subscriptions with deep analytics tools that will let brands slice and dice public opinion, for instance looking only at responses from women in the Midwest. Depending on the features, premium accounts will be available at multiple price points, ranging from $50 to $5,000, Winckler says.

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Loop, a social polling startup that launched this month, also plans to sell promoted questions that will sit on everybody's feed. Erin Burchfield, Loop's co-founder, says she sees potential for selling raw data about Loop users to third-party companies another way of making money. Four companies have signed on as Loop partners so far, including ProperFlops, an online footwear retailer, and Eye Kandy Cosmetics, an online cosmetics boutique.

"We would like to monetize it as soon as possible right out of the gate," says Burchfield, though she notes that with $450,000 from angel investors, Loop can last another 12 months without revenue.

Poutsch plans to raise a Series A round in the fall, its first real investment after bootstrapping. Another polling service that chose to bootstrap is Quipol. Yoder says he knew the startup, which now has four employees including himself, was never going to be "a huge revenue generator."

While at first it's difficult to tell the various polling startups apart, their offerings vary in important ways. Seesaw allows only photo-based polls, and Quipol only binaries, while Loop users can create yes/no, multiple choice or photo polls. Poutsch offers the largest number of options. Also, Poutsch users have individual profiles that you can visit to see what users have voted on and whether your answers line up with theirs. This feature makes you "part of a community, a group of people who are willing to give their opinion," Winckler says. Quipol, by contrast, allows people to vote anonymously, with no sign-up required.

There is no doubt that the market for social polling is still nascent. "The majority of investors haven't heard of [it] before," Burchfield says. But that hasn't stopped large companies from taking an interest. Yahoo bought two-year-old social polling startup GoPollGo in May for an undisclosed amount. Before Yahoo shut it down, the startup's service had attracted several major brands, including ESPN, Netflix and Hotels.com.

Yoder is less invested in Quipol than he once was, but the Poutsch and Loop teams, at least, have no plans to sell or shut their doors. Their market has no clear leader yet, and both are confident of their chances. "This is an opportunity era" for social polling companies, Zogby says. "Some are going to make it very big, and some are not."

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Brian Patrick Eha is a freelance journalist and former assistant editor at Entrepreneur.com. He is writing a book about the global phenomenon of Bitcoin for Portfolio, an imprint of Penguin Random House. It will be published in 2015.

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