Policy

Voter engagement as a service: Votus plans a personal touch for politicians

Votus CEO Brandon Harris understands the pitfalls of political messaging platforms. He wants to build communities through social media, not help campaigns send spam.

​​Votus CEO Brandon Harris

"If you're canvassing someone in real life, how would you talk to them? That's how you should message them."

Photo: Courtesy of Brandon Harris and Votus

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If you’ve donated to a political campaign in the past decade, you’re probably familiar with the unpleasant aftermath: email after email after email asking for more money. Then there are the “urgent” subject lines and the random midnight deadlines that seem to appear out of nowhere. Eventually, after becoming an unwitting participant in the 50th A/B test, you might get frustrated enough to unsubscribe. Or you’ll wish you spent that $5 on an actual cup of coffee — but that money is gone, along with any warm feelings you once had toward the candidate.

Votus (it rhymes with “POTUS”) is a subscription software platform that places a particular emphasis on one-on-one political messaging. Which is to say, it’s one of the reasons all those politicians keep sliding into your DMs. But Votus CEO Brandon Harris made clear that he understands the pitfalls of the field: “We don’t want to be just a mass DM tool,” he told Protocol, saying Votus helps campaigns figure out how to “turn chaos into community.”

Votus is still a relatively small operation with only three full-time staff members, but it’s gathered momentum in the last year. Maricopa County Democrats and Florida gubernatorial candidate Nikki Fried both use Votus software. In the summer of 2021, Votus raised funding from Higher Ground Labs, a venture fund that aims to advance progressive policy through technology. And at the beginning of 2022, Votus launched its first full iteration of a SaaS messaging product, after focusing on social listening in the 2018 campaign cycle.

Harris didn’t set out to become a tech founder. In fact, the two-time Howard University student association president always thought he’d become a politician. He played everything right for that goal, too: After graduating from Howard, Harris went on to law school at Vanderbilt. That’s where he started Votus as a side project to help political campaigns leverage social media to build community. And yes, “building community” is sometimes a euphemism in politics for fielding donations — but Harris set out to do much more than that.

In an interview with Protocol, Harris spoke about the politicians growing more receptive to software, how campaigns can avoid veering into spam territory and whether having a political mission comes with revenue trade-offs.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

How difficult is it to sell software subscriptions to political campaigns? Are campaigns generally resistant to adopting new technology?

Everybody is using technology at this point. You can't avoid social media; you can't avoid using data to make decisions on how you're going to do messaging. Sometimes we get too addicted to the churn and burn. Right? So like, “Oh, we want to just DM everybody all the time,” [or] “I want to send six DMs at once.” That's not what we're building this for. And there have been tech founders of political tech companies who have become depressed, because tools they made for real communication become spam machines. It’s not so much that they’re not using technology — everybody is using technology. But are you using it to really build community or is this just always about small-dollar donations?

How would you advise political campaigns to use your software in such a way that it's not veering into spam territory?

The way Twitter is set up, you can only DM a thousand people a day. We have a bot, technically, but we can't do an entire stream conversation because each of those messages counts against the limit and you basically are going to lower the amount of people you can talk to on a daily basis.

If you do send a message, use an open-ended message. Most people want to send a message that is a paragraph long with an ActBlue link at the end. If you're canvassing someone in real life, how would you talk to them? That's how you should message them. Like, “Hey, [I] appreciate you for following me. Would you mind checking out this video or coming to this event or can you tell me what three issues you're passionate about?” That type of communication is really crucial. Because [not] everybody is going to respond, but those people that respond, especially if they respond positively — those are people that are receptive to your message, you're meeting them where they already are. So the messaging you use is a big thing. And then, trying to go deeper and understanding that it's a value-add to do that.

How does software fit into the broader avenues of campaigning? For instance, can it replace canvassing? Or should it only be complementary to that?

I think it has to be complementary. When you canvas and when you meet people in person — you can take that same approach on social media. Because then what's going to happen, especially if you're a more local candidate, is when those same people do meet you in real life, they're even going to be more excited.

People say Twitter is not real, and our whole premise is: Part of it is real and we're going to find that part that is real. There are real people on Twitter because I'm on Twitter; I have friends who I know are real people on Twitter. You can get those real people to speak for you on Twitter and that is going to inform the public square.

I wanted to get your thoughts on being a political tech company in D.C. Does being in D.C. make it easier to attract talent? Are there network effects there?

We started in Memphis and then I came to D.C. because I felt like the opportunity was here. The network effects are definitely here. The thing about political tech is … your total addressable market is much smaller in political tech than in most spaces. But on the flip side, the market is a lot tighter in terms of [it being] easy for everybody to know about you fairly quickly and for you to capture the market. And so I think there's a benefit there. You're not going to necessarily build a billion-dollar company, unless you're like NGP VAN, which is so connected to the DNA of the Democratic Party. But you could easily be a $100 million company or $200 million company. Maybe you had to get less fundraising because there's only so many beachhead customers. People in this space talk so much, we're so connected, there's also so much turnover.

So are you going to [become] a billionaire working on political tech? Most likely not. But you can make a very good living, and do something you're very passionate about. And so I think if you care, and you're passionate, there's definitely a place for you to do it. And you don't have to be in D.C. I think being in D.C., especially [in] getting your company off the ground helps, because you're just going to be able to make a lot more connections. And [there are] just people here all the time. People travel through here, too. So if you live here, people that you need to meet with [who] live in other cities are probably going to be here at some point.

Does Votus have a political mission? And if so, how do you balance having a mission and being a startup that’s presumably concerned with revenue growth? Are there trade-offs?

We don't work with Republicans. We work with progressive campaigns. There are certain things I just don't want to see ever — like, I don't want Blue Lives Matter using Votus. And the other thing with us is: We are a social media tool. You think about Cambridge Analytica and everything [that] happened with it … You have to be very careful with who you're letting use your technology because — we take a lot of precautions to safeguard our systems, but if you have malicious actors using your technology, it can still get very wild.

And in the sector in general — there’s a stereotype that Silicon Valley leans left. Would you say that impacts access to technology on different parts of the political spectrum?

I actually think that Silicon Valley leans libertarian. Most tech CEOs you meet are going to be socially liberal and fiscally conservative. And some are more liberal. It’s rare that you find a lot of social conservatives who are in tech, just because of the way tech is. But you definitely have some [who] are fiscal conservatives.

I think Republicans deploy technology a little differently and they use it differently. There are certain things that I would never do that they might do. They have good technology. Up until the last couple cycles, you could argue that [their] technology was better than the progressive side. The other thing I'll add is, I think, Democrats are more risk averse. That reflects sometimes in how we use technology.

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