It’s Not Politics, It’s Business — Isn’t It?

With the presidential election fast approaching, a number of startups and entrepreneurs have sought out candidates and political parties as customers. It’s easy to see why: both campaigns are expected to spend almost $1 billion each on reaching voters.

The question is whether working too closely with a candidate or party can also alienate potential customers and threaten a company’s long-term success.

Political strategist Joe Trippi thinks working for deep-pocketed campaigns is worth the risk given the attention that successful campaigns can bestow upon their technology partners.

Trippi points to the media agency Blue State Digital, which was widely credited for incorporating digital tools into the fundraising and field operations of President Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign.

Blue State has since been acquired by the giant ad agency WPP (in 2010), and last year, the Obama 2012 campaign gave its cofounder, Joe Rospars, the lofty title of chief digital strategist.

Trippi also connects the rise of the site MeetUp – now used by 11 million people across 45,000 cities to organize social groups — to the rise of Howard Dean as a serious presidential contender in 2004. Indeed, before the famous shriek that permanently derailed Dean’s run, “You really didn’t know who was growing faster or who was causing whose growth, it was so symbiotic,” says Trippi, who was among Dean’s chief advisers at the time.

Of course, entrepreneurs are also likely looking to emulate the success of Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes, whose pioneering work on the My.BarackObama.com site redefined the decisive role of technology in winning elections and attracted a huge amount of press attention to Facebook and its technology partners.

The Obama camp has been a virtual proving ground for new social media technologies. During the last presidential election, it was the first to embrace social media and took advantage of Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube in a way that the opposing McCain campaign came nowhere close to matching.(Obama had millions more Facebook “fans” than McCain, as well as social media savvy supporters like Will.i.am, whose “Yes We Can”  video, released on YouTube in February 2008, was quickly viewed more than 20 million times.)

Yet if Republicans lagged in the last election, research suggests they’ve since bridged the social media gap, and Tim Schigel, founder of ShareThis, a venture-backed maker of a widely used content sharing widget, is leading the charge.

Schigel joined the Romney campaign last year as a top technology adviser, partly to oversee the development of a Facebook application called Social Victory Center. (It’s now used by volunteers to organize, read up on talking points, and to otherwise engage and promote Romney’s cause.) Schigel is also trying to help the campaign to understand why and when people share content.

Schigel didn’t respond to several requests for comment, but in a May interview with Christian Science Monitor, he sounded very interested in new technologies that could give his candidate an edge. “There’s a lot of learning from the past but … to rely too much on technology that was used in the past…might actually be something that slows down the Obama team because they’ve built so much….We don’t have that baggage.”

If Schigel is proven right, there’s little doubt we’ll be hearing more about him – and ShareThis – after the election. But venture capitalist Bill Gurley warns entrepreneurs and startups about identifying too closely with the campaigns they are serving.

While Gurley observes that plenty of platforms, including Twitter, “frequently see political commentary within their framework,” he says in an email that “any startup taking a stand on a candidate is a risky move,” particularly given today’s highly divisive political climate.

In fact, at least one startup tells me that it’s torn about promoting its work for a political group. Pankaj Taneja, spokesperson for HyperOffice, a Rockville, Md.-based collaboration software startup cofounded by serial entrepreneur Shervin Pishevar, says that it “deliberately decided not to do a major marketing push” around the the Tea Party’s use of its platform.

Asked if the Tea Party’s controversial reputation played a role in that decision, Tajena says that HyperOffice simply “didn’t want to create the impression of giving any one party some sort of endorsement.” He adds that HyperOffice views the Tea Party’s patronage as a “positive validation of our product” and that there was “little hesitation” to work with its members.

Ultimately, such validation should overweigh all other concerns, says Trippi. “I don’t think there’s a downside to participating in either the Romney or Obama campaign,” he says. No matter who wins, “You can always argue that these campaigns could have used anyone and they picked you or your app or your hardware.”

Of course, adds Trippi, “If you pick [the] right [campaign], it’s probably some of the biggest exposure you could ever hope for.”

Image Credit: Shutterstock.com

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