It used to take a village of volunteers to do phone polling for a political campaign. But this election season, if you get an automated call from a Democratic campaign asking you to take a poll, it probably came from a small startup above Color Me Mine in Santa Monica.

CallFire Inc. runs an online virtual call center that moves mass calling away from giant phone banks and onto the Internet. The company’s clients range from political campaigns to small and medium businesses.

Last month, NGP Van Inc. in Washington, D.C., which makes database software for Democratic campaigns, chose CallFire as the exclusive provider of automated phone polls for the party. Campaigns use the polls to gauge voter sentiments on issues, then use that information to tailor their message. NGP also uses CallFire to send out prerecorded messages for many Democratic campaigns – from President Obama’s down to various city council races.

CallFire’s Internet-based approach marks a change from the physical call centers that campaigns and businesses once had to assemble in order to reach thousands of people. Setting up one of those meant renting out a good deal of office space, buying high-capacity lines from the phone companies and hiring the teams to man the phones.

Deborah Clavadetscher, a telecom adviser for Spiritel Solutions in Vista, said the traditional call centers worked best for companies that were using the service on a permanent basis; they can get phone lines at lower rates because they sign long-term contracts. But campaigns are short-term affairs.

“The phone bills for manning a call center used to be astronomical and the only way to bring that cost down was to sign a long-term contract,” Clavadetscher said. “But that doesn’t work for many campaigns, which run for a limited time. Online services are much better for them.”

Here’s how the software works: When a campaign wants to do a poll, workers will boot up NGP software. In that software, a button can send the numbers and the poll questions to CallFire, which will forward them to the voters. Those who answer the phone hear a recorded message or are asked questions that require them to respond, typically by pushing certain buttons.

Dinesh Ravishanker, chief executive at CallFire, said the company has more than 50,000 clients, which include political phone bank organizers such as NGP, and other businesses. For the latter category, CallFire does mass phone calls. For example, when an airline’s flight is canceled, the software can reach all the passengers to alert them before they leave for the airport.

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