One Company's Plan to Turn Internet Flame Wars Into Campaign Gold

Brigade wants to become the destination for user-driven political discussions on the Web—and gather a gold mine of information in the process.

Once in a great while, if you're very lucky, you'll stumble across an intelligent political conversation on social media in which people actually listen to each other and discuss the topic at hand. The vast majority of the political sparring of Facebook timelines, Twitter feeds, and YouTube comment sections, however, is a debate over who's a "communist," "fascist," "Republican't," "Dumbocrat," or a million other epithets too vulgar to name.

But do these discussions have to be so ceaselessly awful? And if a start-up built a platform specifically for user-driven political discussion, could it make them better—and make a mint in the process?

The creators of Brigade are about to find out.

The Web start-up launched an invite-only beta two weeks ago for the first wave of the app's features.

The crux of Brigade's platform is that it allows users to weigh in on positions via 110-character statements on issues ranging from simplifying the tax code to paying student-athletes. Users can agree or disagree with a position (or mark it as unsure), and then have the option to write an explanation (with no character limit) for their stand.

After users weigh in on enough positions, they can get compatibility scores which compares their views to other individuals on Brigade and the user base as a whole. The hope of Brigade's creators is that even when people disagree on one issue, their compatibility score will show them at least one other issue where they can work together.

"Your given opinion is part of a larger body of opinions [on Brigade] which makes up who you are as a citizen and what you believe," Brigade CEO Matt Mahan said.

The company raised $9.3 million last year from investors, including Sean Parker of Napster and Facebook fame.

So why do these investors see hope of getting a return on their seed money?

Brigade's financial potential comes from the sheer amount of data collected. Since the beta's launch, users have taken more than 1 million positions, according to Mahan. Brigade has not publicly released the number of users in the beta, but Vice President for Communications Andrew Noyes noted in an email that it was "quite a few more" than the 13,000 who registered for its test app Accord, which was used to test functionality and features that would make their way into Brigade. (Accord was shut down with the launch of Brigade.)

One early use of that data has been in Brigade's work with select national advocacy groups. The groups—which run the political gamut from Heritage Action to environmental group Forecast the Facts—can run campaigns on the site to find supporters who agree with their positions.

"[On other social networks] you're competing with a whole news feed of cat videos and jousting hamsters or whatever they do now," said Mansur Gidfar, the communications director for Represent.Us, one of the first national advocacy groups that Brigade partnered with. "With something like Brigade, it is really great because it is people who are there specifically because they're passionate about politics."

Brigade finds supporters for an advocacy group's campaign through a series of screener positions, according to company President James Windon. If the user's positions match up with positions provided by the advocacy organization, the user is invited to support the campaign on Brigade. On the beta, a campaign has its own page where they can post updates to a stream similar to a Facebook page.

Brigade's privacy policy allows the company to share users' personal data with campaigns, but only after interacting with them.

In the two weeks since Brigade's launch, partners have seen users start to engage with their campaigns. Brant Olson, the campaign director for Forecast the Facts, said that people have signed up for their email lists because of their interaction with the organization on Brigade. The company plans on rolling out more analytics on a campaign's supporters and unannounced tools for organizations to connect with their supporters within the app, according to Windon.

Brigade has no plans to monetize their relationship with campaign partners. "We want great campaigns in there for our users and our partners want to find new supporters who want to take action. It is a really great value exchange for both entities, and at the moment we're not focused on trying to monetize from them," said Windon.

The app also has not decided an overall monetization policy and does not serve ads to its users. The company's privacy policy does allow the service to share a user's personal information with "third-party vendors, consultants, and other service providers that perform services on our behalf, in order to carry out their work for us, which may include identifying and serving targeted advertisements."

Brigade plans on ramping up operations as the 2016 election draws closer. Mahan said the company has had preliminary conversations with candidates from federal to local races. Brigade hopes to roll out a half-dozen more tools between now and the election, including tools that let people form groups with like-minded individuals and get individuals involved in issue advocacy.

And if a new political social network doesn't work out?

"Look at what Tinder's done. We're impressed with their business model," said Windon.

"Yeah, Tinder. We can always pivot into a political dating site," added Mahan, as the two laughed.