BRADENTON -- Andrea Torkelson remembers just a few years ago when even the most technologically savvy could be heard saying, “What’s Facebook?”
Today, Facebook dominates the social media scene, surpassing its predecessor MySpace. And that’s why Torkelson, in the face of massive odds, is confident her company’s newly created VoterBuzz political app has the potential to go “viral” and transform the way smartphones are used by politicians and their followers.
The Bradenton political consultant and her team at VoterBuzz Inc. say they have invested $250,000 into the project, which social media experts say could be either a “powerhouse” or extraneous given the enormous influence of existing social media platforms. The new app, which became available to iPhone and iPad users Thursday and will be released for Androids next week, appears to be the first political app built to serve the needs of both sides of the political equation: voters, and the candidates seeking their support.
Torkelson is poised to contact a database of 10,000 political candidates nationwide once the app is available. She’s already met personally with representatives of the Obama campaign, both parties’ congressional committees, and about a dozen state and national interest groups and candidates. She was in Washington, D.C., this week spreading word about VoterBuzz at a conference devoted to technology in politics and says she has encountered interest from consultants, interest groups and candidates nationwide.
“Luckily, we know a lot of people in the political world, so we’re getting a lot of ‘love’ business from many of them,” says Torkelson, who has worked for a decade as a consultant and database manager for the Nolan Group political consulting firm, which is separate from VoterBuzz. “But on top of that, organizations and candidates have been open-minded enough to try something new. It’s going to take a little bit of time for this thing to build up, but honestly, if this is the one good idea I have in my life, I’ll be satisfied.”
Here’s how VoterBuzz works: Campaigns, committees and groups who subscribe for a monthly fee of $50 to $350 can post events, news, video, requests for volunteers such as sign-wavers and door-to-door workers and contribution solicitation. They can poll followers, spread word about events -- including through “push” notifications, which allow the transmission of messages even when an app isn’t in use -- and interact with established social media sites like Facebook and Twitter.
Voters and followers, to whom the app will be free, can follow as many campaigns and groups as are available on VoterBuzz. Voters can purchase tickets or sign up for events, receive news and share it outside of VoterBuzz through email programs, connect with fellow supporters within and outside of VoterBuzz and make donations.
Voters also can search for who they want to support by using a variety of filters: type of campaign, level of campaign, geographic area and specific elective office.
“It’s such a useful app, and there’s nothing else like it. It’s poised to become a huge success,” says Dan Hoffman, project manager with Tampa’s Momentum Mobile, which developed the app for VoterBuzz. “We work on a lot of apps that don’t really have a shot at becoming a hit. This is just the opposite; it applies universally to all age groups, and all kinds of people.”
One-third of all American adults currently own a smartphone, according to the Pew Research Center. That fact, and President Barack Obama’s groundbreaking use of his own app during his 2008 election campaign, mean mobile technology is expected to play a key role in the next election. CampaignTouch, a company that specializes in applying technology to politics, says mobile apps soon will be the most effective way for candidates to reach voters.
“Refusing to realize the magnitude of the mobile universe is dangerous, as most traditional campaigning is no longer reaching its desired audience,” writes Cami Zimmer, CampaignTouch’s president, in a recent article in the online magazine “Mobility Wire.”
“Today, 30 percent of people don’t have a landline phone ... and 31 percent of people don’t watch live TV.”
VoterBuzz is drawing interest from the candidates and groups who have seen it in demo mode. John Randall, ecampaign manager for the National Republican Congressional Committee, sees VoterBuzz as “something I could see as a valuable tool for members of Congress.” Bill Galvano, a candidate for the District 21 State Senate seat, calls VoterBuzz a chance to “laser focus” on people interested in politics.
“That’s not to say the other avenues I’m using to campaign would cease,” he says. “We’d still have a page on Facebook and other things. But oftentimes when you’re communicating with potential voters, you have to use a shotgun approach and end up reaching those who are not interested as well as those who are interested. With an app like this, you’d know you were being more efficient.”
Ray Pilon, an incumbent candidate for District 69 state representative, also sees promise in VoterBuzz’s ability to help those interested in politics get what they’re looking for “without having to deal with some of the other stuff we see on general social media.”
And Sharon Nesvig, a communications specialist with the Florida Education Association, sees a vast potential in VoterBuzz to reach out to her members quickly and easily.
“It looks like another way to integrate communication to our members in a kind of attractive, cutting-edge way that I think our members would enjoy using,” Nesvig says.
Torkelson also is reaching out to local party leaders on both sides, groups like the American Association of Retired People and the National Rifle Association, Planned Parenthood and the Human Rights Campaign.
“It was my personal decision to be nonpartisan,” says Torkelson.
“I want it to be all-inclusive. Partisanship has caused some issues for people, and we need to look at candidates for who they are and what they stand for, not their party line.”
But some social media experts say Torkelson and VoterBuzz face a massive “Catch-22” challenge in getting the app off the ground: It’s only useful to candidates if the app has followers -- and it’s only useful to followers if candidates and groups are subscribing to it.
Maurene Grey, a fellow with the Society for New Communications Research, also says VoterBuzz needs to connect successfully with existing technology tools to become a success itself. That includes not only having a strong online presence for VoterBuzz, but also an effective strategy to link with existing social media platforms, says Grey, founder and principal analyst with Grey Consulting, which helps businesses make use of social media.
“What matters is if she can leverage the existing applications that are already mainstream and have a huge following on Facebook and Twitter and integrate that with what she’s collecting from a mobile perspective. Then, she’s got a powerhouse,” Grey says.
Another social media expert is more critical: Barb Chamberlain, another Society fellow who is both a former state legislator and a builder of social media communities, says VoterBuzz may just be cluttering the social media landscape for politicians and voters.
“If you’re already involved in the political world, you already have tools that you use, and you’re already using them,” Chamberlain says. “And there are already so many different places you have to maintain. Every campaign and organization only has so much time and staff they can devote to this.”
Torkelson says she’s prepared to address all of the questions emerging about her new app.
For example, the app’s release next week will be accompanied by a strong Facebook and Twitter outreach. Campaigners will be offered their first two months for free and can opt out -- and back in -- at any time.
There are already plans to update the app within a month, and Torkelson anticipates ongoing updates will be needed as she continues to learn more about the needs of candidates and voters. And a functional VoterBuzz website will be launched in about three months; Torkelson already has an informational website about the app.
Regardless of whether or how quickly VoterBuzz catches on, Pilon said he is impressed by the dedication and creativity of Torkelson, who is a former Army reservist and community activist.
“What a great thing to see somebody locally come forward with such an entrepreneurial idea,” he said. “This is another great idea coming forward out of modern technology, and someone looking to break into the business world with something new.”
Christine Hawes, Herald business writer, can be reached at 941-745-7081.
HOW TO USE VOTERBUZZ
If you want to learn about the school board candidates in your area, for example, here’s how it works:
n Select “Candidate” (VoterBuzz also allows you to choose “Issues Campaign” or “Committees”)
n Enter the geographic area you’re interested in.
n Enter “school board” as the office you’re interested in.
n VoterBuzz also allows you to filter selections by political party (including “other” to cover third-party candidates) and election level.