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Startup Signs Boehner, Cantor for Online Town Halls

Online town hall meetings worked so well for the winner of “The Bachelorette” that Speaker John A. Boehner is willing to give them a try.

CrowdHall, a new social media platform that runs Reddit-style online forums, is launching a political arm in January and has won the top two House Republicans as its first converts. Boehner, R-Ohio, and Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., plan to test the tool at the start of the 113th Congress, and if Americans have as many questions for Republicans as they did for “The Bachelorette” winner, the startup will have scored a big victory.

Technology companies, especially social media firms, make hundreds of presentations on Capitol Hill every year in hopes of snagging congressional clients to validate their products.

“The key to the whole thing is a) the volume and b) the nature of the dialogue itself,” said Matt Lira, who manages digital media for the House Republican Conference. “If it becomes an unsavory comment board, then it’s not worth our engagement.”

CrowdHall co-founder Jordan Menzel pitches the service as a digital alternative to the telephone town hall, which appeals primarily to older constituents and costs thousands of dollars per session.

“People try to host Q-and-As on Twitter all the time; it’s an exhausting process, and the content is immediately lost,” said Menzel, who is in Washington this week promoting his company with members.

House lawmakers are relatively free to partner with third-party websites, as long as they have separate accounts for campaign and legislative activities. But a quagmire of outdated Senate rules governing the use of social media makes the sell harder in that chamber.

The Senate Rules Committee has approved the use of YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and Flickr but put the kibosh on Tumblr accounts, which the White House used during the 2012 campaign. Senate offices cannot buy online advertising — although House members can — and are encouraged to avoid posting official content to websites that have excessive advertising.

CrowdHall’s public town halls are free and open to anyone who creates an account. A three-hour forum hosted last summer by Jef Holm, the 2012 winner of ABC’s reality dating game show “The Bachelorette,” generated 100,000 page views, with each user spending an average of 13 minutes on the page, Menzel said.

The firm has no plans to run advertisements on pages featuring political content. It also has sold more specialized features to private institutions and agencies such as Columbia University and USAID. Fees for these services range from $1,500 to $7,500.

Menzel said user responses would help shine a light on politicians who try to evade their questions.

“If he is asked question A and gives the answer to question Z, great. Capture that awkward moment and have the conversation,” he said.

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