For Fun and Profit
Meetup.com Web Service Now Seeks Paying Political Customers
Executives at Meetup.com — the online service that brings people with common interests together, such as Chihuahua owners or druids — think Congressional campaigns are a potentially lucrative market, and they’re targeting candidates to help them expand their business.
But there is some question whether campaigns will be willing to buy the wares that Meetup began peddling earlier this month.
Meetup has become a staple of 2004 political Web sites. Visit any presidential campaign home page and somewhere there is an option to meet other supporters of the candidate through Meetup.com.
Smart use of this new tool helped propel former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean’s candidacy for the Democratic nomination into the spotlight early on in the presidential hunt.
Political novices joined the process through this simple, nonconfrontational, online method and gradually built a “community” of avid Dean supporters. Eventually they began regular meetings in restaurants and homes across the country to trade ideas and discuss the candidate.
Even while Dean has slipped a bit, his campaign remains the biggest political Meetup the company has; at last count he had 184,400 on-line supporters who had signed on through the free Web service.
Retired Gen. Wesley Clark is second with 64,900, and Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) is third with 29,400. President Bush, by contrast, has only about 3,000 people signed up for him.
But as Meetup pursues candidates who will pay for additional services, most politicos are taking a wait-and-see approach.
“I’m not sure what you’d get out of it,” says Carl Forti, National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman. “[Candidates] will have to look at value versus cost.”
Meetup wants a minimum of $1,500 a month from Senate and gubernatorial campaigns and $750 per month from Congressional candidates to go beyond the free service it provides.
Right now, political Meetups are driven by voters and constituents who voluntarily seek one another out and attend meetings, company spokesman Myles Weissleder explained. They may be committed to a particular candidate, but they can’t necessarily be controlled by his or her campaign. If a campaign wants a formal relationship with the company and to have the ability to steer its activities and monitor what is happening online, it must go beyond the free portion, he said.
“Platinum level” partners — who would pay $5,000 a month for statewide races and half that for House races — would be given access to members’ e-mail addresses and ZIP codes, and would receive assistance in finding Meetup organizers.
They would also have the ability to communicate with supporters or mobilize them as well as get feedback from members.
So far, no Congressional campaign has taken the company up on its offer, but it only started soliciting business a few weeks ago.
More than 1,000 candidates use the company’s free services, and it’s only a matter of time before they realize how much more they can accomplish with Meetup, Weissleder said.
“We will capture the hearts and minds of candidates everywhere,” he said.
Meetup is encouraged by the willingness of Democratic presidential hopefuls to shell out big bucks — between $3,000 and $15,000 a month — for its services, he said.
According to PoliticalMoneyLine.com, Dean for America has paid the company at least $11,000 thus far, John Kerry for President Inc. has spent $7,500, and Kucinich for President Inc. — Rep. Dennis Kucinich’s (D-Ohio) campaign has 23,100 Meetup members — doled out $5,200.
The Democratic National Committee recently signed up and has made its first $2,500 payment.
The DNC had 3,500 Meetup members in August, a figure that grew to 11,200 in December, spokesman Tony Welch said. It held 168 Meetups in 40 states through November.
“Usually you see a party reaching out to the grass roots but here it’s the grass roots reaching out to us,” Welch said of how Meetup works. “They decide the direction it takes; the people actually run the show. What a potentially important tool.”
Whether that tool will translate into votes is the question on most operatives’ minds.
“Meetup has worked really well for Dean because there’s no control, no hierarchy to it,” one Democratic insider said. “But what good does no control do a campaign? You don’t even know who the people are. [And] that’s why you pay — to get the e-mail [addresses], that’s the most valuable part.”
Whether the political establishment is convinced of Meetup’s value remains to be seen, but candidates are boasting about having popular Meetups nonetheless.
Rep. Pat Toomey, who is challenging Sen. Arlen Specter in Pennsylvania’s GOP Senatorial primary, has the biggest political Meetup after the presidential contenders.
“In fact, Congressman Pat Toomey has attracted more Meetup participants than Rep. Dick Gephardt [D-Mo.] and Sen. Joe Lieberman [D-Conn.],” his campaign bragged before Gephardt dropped out of the presidential race last week.
“It just took off like wildfire,” Joe Sterns, Toomey campaign spokesman, said of the 792 people who joined after a group of Pittsburgh college students launched the group.
Toomey does occasionally drop in on group meetings to connect with the conservatives fueling his online popularity, Sterns said.
Despite the enthusiasm, Toomey has yet to sign up for Meetup’s paid services.
“From the standpoint of connecting people it’s intriguing, but we need to look further into it” before encouraging candidates to pay, said Dan Allen, National Republican Senatorial Committee spokesman.