How This App Is Making Civic Involvement Profitable

How This App Is Making Civic Involvement Profitable
Image credit: Brian Higbee
Brigade’s James Windon (left) and Matt Mahan vote with their feet.
Magazine Contributor
13 min read

This story appears in the February 2016 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »


Months out from the 2016 United States general election, voter discontent has reached a fever pitch: 72 percent say their elected officials can’t be trusted, per a Washington Post / ABC News poll, and two-thirds believe the nation’s political system is dysfunctional. In fact, 21 percent of people want the eventual president-elect to tear down the various levers of government and start over from scratch.

Many Americans express this anger on Twitter. Some start brawls at campaign rallies. A few, well, are running for president. But most people simply unplug. Voter turnout in the U.S. ranks among the worst in the industrialized world: Just 42 percent of eligible Americans voted in the 2014 midterm elections, the lowest level since the U.S. Census Bureau began tracking voter activity in 1978. In the coming presidential election, only 41.2 percent of registered voters aged 18 to 24 are expected to participate, according to Tufts University research.

It is indisputably a problem. But here’s a question nobody has an answer to: Can business solve it?

Savvy entrepreneurs might see all the signs of a good opportunity. A need in the market? Ample room to scale? A ready-made set of early adopters who love politics and, with the right product, might be able to help draw in others? It’s all there. But while many startups have tried, most have failed. DemDash, a self-described “new platform for citizens to engage with their democracy,” tried to get 10 percent of San Franciscans to use it during a 2012 election, but mustered only 2 percent and is now gone. VoterMind made educational apps. Gone. VoteIQ, “the nation’s first major political social networking site”? Gone. Some have garnered a modest amount of venture capital: Votizen raised $2.25 million (it was bought and closed), and Versa raised $1.3 million (ditto).

And then there are the petition sites. People love petitions. It’s why the for-profit (which bought Versa) has pulled in more than $42 million in funding to date. launches successful petitions too, but is a nonprofit. And although both have lofty purposes, their impact is largely around single, hot-button issues -- the kind of stuff that gets people momentarily fired up, but not the stuff that keeps them engaged in the long term.

The track record here is not good. So why the hell would anyone else try to build a business aimed at increasing civic engagement?

“Frankly, there isn’t a lot of clear, measurable demand in the space,” says Matt Mahan. “And yet there is in a kind of diffuse and vague sense, in that everybody has something they care about, everybody has something they’re worried about, everybody has some change they want to see in the world.”

And so Mahan’s going for it.

Mahan is the co-founder and CEO of Brigade, a free app that was launched in mid-2015. It’s a social network, essentially. But instead of seeing your friends’ baby photos, you see their political positions, and you’re challenged to take a stand on issues as well. Brigade has raised $9.5 million in venture funding from Silicon Valley rainmakers such as Ron Conway and Marc Benioff. And it has good pedigree: Mahan headed up another civic-minded startup, Causes, that arguably came closer than anything else to making civics profitable. And its executive chairman is Sean Parker, the social media wunderkind who co-founded Napster and was Facebook’s first president.

They’re up against a steep challenge, yes. But that just means they’ll have to be as creative as possible.

Step #1: Study what worked and riff on it

In 2004, Mahan was earning a bachelor’s degree in social studies at Harvard University. Elsewhere on campus, classmate Mark Zuckerberg was launching a little thing initially called The Facebook. “That’s where social discourse moved, and I quickly became excited about that as an opportunity to insert civic discourse as well,” Mahan says. So he launched what he believes is Facebook’s first political campaign. Harvard’s endowment had recently increased its investment in some oil companies that allegedly propped up Darfur’s genocidal regime, and Mahan organized a student protest. Harvard eventually divested. “That opened my mind to the idea of the internet as the platform for democracy,” he says.

In 2007, at Zuckerberg’s suggestion, Mahan joined a company called Causes. Facebook had just opened itself up to third-party apps -- the decision that, yes, also brought you FarmVille and Mafia Wars -- and Causes turned political action into an easy, viral experience. Critics may call it “clicktivism,” but it had an impact: Across 156 countries, 186 million registered users generated more than $48 million for nonprofits and put 34 million signatures on petitions.

By 2012, Mahan was Causes’ president and CEO. And then he took an extreme risk: He tried moving the service off of Facebook. “We didn’t own the primary relationship with the user; that was Facebook,” he says. “And we didn’t own the primary communication channel between users; that was also Facebook.” But he misjudged how much Causes could do on its own. Over the next two years, activity plummeted from around 40 million monthly active users to between a million and 1.5 million.

There was a bright spot, though: Causes seemed to confirm that young people do want to be more civically engaged, and they’ll do it using a for-profit service.

And so Mahan and some colleagues decided to start fresh. Causes was folded, as was a sister company, the aforementioned Votizen. They relaunched as Brigade. The goal this time: Own the conversation from the start. They couldn’t just be a Facebook feature, a little part of something else. They had to be a brand that stood for something, and that users want to identify with.

“People are generally frustrated, and if they believed that they could be involved in shaping the world and creating that outcome, they would do it,” Mahan says. “They come to Brigade because they expect to take action. You don’t have that expectation on Facebook or Twitter. No consumer is on Facebook or Twitter to be activated to do something concrete. That’s the point of Brigade.”

Step #2: Prove you’re on to something

Civics groups are by nature optimistic. The business community can be far more skeptical. So the Brigade team needed to answer a question early on: What’s the evidence that this will work?

It’s a question they heard frequently from potential funders. “So often the way venture capital is deployed is about pattern matching. It’s about saying ‘This looks like this other thing that was successful and therefore I’m willing to invest’,” says Brigade co-founder and president James Windon. “At a time when venture capital dollars are flowing into this Silicon Valley ecosystem and driving innovation, it’s not necessarily flowing into the civic space because there’s not something you can point to as being massive and successful, particularly from the citizen perspective.”

That’s why Brigade began by building a simple, hopefully addictive service. “When any social network is effective, it’s because it stroked the ego of the user first,” says the company’s head of design, Marc Hemeon.

Here’s what happens when you open the app: You’re asked what you think. Who doesn’t like that, right? You can select from a menu of topics -- abortion, climate change, gambling and so on. Each will prompt a series of statements -- “Gun control is an effective way to reduce violent crime,” for example -- and you can tap “agree” or “disagree.” You could do that all day, if you want. Or you could dive into the comments and debate with other users. Or connect with friends and compare ideas. Or, rare as it is in this politicized age, you could admit you’re unsure on a subject, and Brigade will display other user opinions to help guide you in one direction or the other.

Beta testers took close to a million positions during Brigade’s first week of public release. That was good data for the company: It could now show that yes, people care about issues, and yes, they want to announce those opinions in a social format. Next up: What else will people do?

Step #3: Find other ways to be useful

Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America is a nonpartisan nonprofit with 150,000 members but is puzzling over how to increase its reach. “There wasn’t a seamless way for people to engage in the political and policy discussions surrounding our community,” says founder and CEO Paul Rieckhoff. “And there wasn’t a way for people outside of our community to understand what was going on.” Then Brigade reached out, asking if the IAVA would like to run petitions on the app and get people responding to more veterans-related issues. The organization was glad to participate. “We need tools to help us punch above our weight class and help us amplify our voices,” Rieckhoff says.

There are a lot of groups like this, which are hungry for civically minded, highly engaged people. Brigade is inviting them into what it calls “impact partnerships,” so that it can present users with a curated set of nonprofits and advocacy organizations from across the ideological landscape. The more users find causes they’re passionate about, the theory goes, the more they’ll return to Brigade to stay involved.

This is the beginning of a complex puzzle for Brigade: What brings people back? How can you keep the conversation going once “agree” and “disagree” get old? How can you be a hub for all things politics the way that Facebook is a hub for all things social? Among the kinds of discussions these questions lead to: “I don’t talk politics with a lot of my friends. It’s not worth hurting friendships,” Hemeon says. “That’s one of the challenges facing Brigade: How do you activate around things that you care so passionately about, but you can’t even talk about with your good friends?”

His answer: “We’ll introduce you to new friends.” It’s a puzzle he’s eager to figure out.

Brigade is also experimenting with localized services. There are roughly 520,000 elected officials across all strata of U.S. government, and more than 500,000 of them occupy seats at the local level -- city councils, school boards and all the other officials whose names you probably don’t know. Last October Brigade launched an experiment to see how valuable it could make itself on a hyperlocal level. In advance of some municipal elections, the app rolled out local voter guides to users in California’s Bay Area and Manchester, New Hampshire. They contained detailed information on the candidates and ballot initiatives, personalized voting recommendations, an invitation to pledge who you’re voting for and a handful of other services.

On election night, Brigade got a nice surprise: With the exception of one contested district supervisor race, Brigade users’ vote pledges paralleled the final election outcomes for all San Francisco candidates and ballot propositions. If that can be replicated in other elections, Brigade could make a case that its data is highly valuable to pollsters, lobbyists, brands and many other well-paying entities.

Step #4: Prioritize the problems

Open the Brigade app. Select a subject -- let’s go with Campaign Trail Mix. A card pops up: “Republican presidential candidates have better ideas for solving the country’s problems than Democrats,” it says. Agree, or disagree? Either way, you’ll get the results: Only 26 percent of users tapped “agree” for that. Now try gun control. Abortion. A pattern becomes clear: The people who use this app -- perhaps because 51 percent of millennials identify as Democrats or lean left, compared with 35 percent who identify as Republican or lean right -- are predominantly liberal.

This would seem to be a challenge for Brigade, a company that wants to be all inclusive. But Mahan brushes it aside. It’s a problem, yes, but it’s not the most pressing problem. “For now,” he says, “the goal is to demonstrate the right kind of user behavior and retention.” He can worry about balancing out the user base later.

Brigade’s brain trust knows the app has a lot to overcome. Even its pitch presents challenges because while the company wants to increase voter participation, there’s no evidence that a product like this has that power. Plus, low voter turnout is a complex problem. Forty-three percent of nonvoters report family incomes below $30,000 per year, finds the Pew Research Center. Many of these people have trouble getting time off work to vote or can’t get transportation to the polls. It’s unclear where an app like Brigade fits into their lives, or if it fits at all.

But the way Brigade’s founders see it, there are still many layers of more-accessible voters it can reach. “One of the benefits we have is we’re dealing in subject matter that naturally lends itself to social promotion,” says Windon. “Whether it’s an advocacy campaign for Black Lives Matter or an awareness-raising campaign to change the way we think about campaign finance, the essence -- the purpose -- is to grow. If we can build the type of technology that makes it easy, effective and rewarding for users to pull their friends into campaigns, ideas or issues, we’ll be able to structure interactions that allow the platform and the network to grow.”

Once they’re there, Brigade will have ever-more challenges to overcome. They already have a taste of what’s next: Many beta users said they enjoy taking positions but, Mahan says, “they have a hard time articulating why they’re doing it and what it’s building.” So now he and his team are busily answering that call, wrestling with how to make all those agrees and disagrees build to something something more substantial for each user -- a deeper, richer profile in the app, the digital sum of an individual person’s political will.

“People need to understand why,” Mahan says, an idea that says as much about politics as it does about his ambitious, young company. “They have to have a sense of purpose.”  

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