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Summary:

Polls generally flow in one direction with an organization looking to find information from a pool of people or a community. But Urtak, a small, New York startup is finding that democratizing polls unlocks a lot of interesting interaction, engagement and new information.

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Polls generally flow in one direction, with an organization looking to find information from a pool of people or a community. But what happens when that organization simplifies the process and allows the community to poll each other? Urtak, a small, New York startup is finding that a lot of interesting interaction, engagement and new information emerges when you enable collaborative polling.

The startup allows websites to drop in a simple Urtak poll widget on their sites that can serve as a basic tool for yes/no/don’t-care questions. That in itself enables fast interaction, because the simple structure invites people to plow though questions in quick succession. But the real interesting thing about Urtak is that it invites people to create their own polls on the fly and add it to the existing Urtak poll.

That allows users to not only answer a pre-set list of questions, but by introducing their own inquiries, enables a site to figure out what else their community is thinking about — things the site didn’t even know to ask. Urtak organizes this new information into structured data that’s easy to digest. So what starts off as a very basic conversation can turn into a mound of valuable data that can yield new and sometimes actionable insights.

Urtaks have a long ways to go before they get usage like Disqus or PollDaddy, which are already successful in engaging communities and extracting opinions. But Urtak co-founder Marc Lizoain, who started the company in 2008 with former Harvard buddy Aaron Gibralter, believes their polls have the ability to prompt more engagement than traditional comments and can gather more information than discrete polls and surveys.

“The model of polling and surveying is limited,” said Lizoain. “What we’ve shown is that it’s possible to ask questions, get all this information you want plus all this extra data about what people are thinking with no extra effort.”

A recent Daily Beast/Newsweek Urtak poll conducted on Facebook on the topic of women in the world received back more than 16,000 responses. But it also spawned about 100 questions that explored related areas not covered in the initial poll. Urtak works in the background to serve up the right questions using an algorithm that distributes the questions asked while surfacing better questions more often. Urtak’s polls are extremely popular in Colombia, where the local media and even local politicians use them extensively for quick polling and engagement. It’s also getting more interest in the U.S. and Canada from publishers.

Urtak co-founder Marc Lizoain

Lizoain said he believes Urtaks can be a supplement or alternative to comments, especially for sites looking to create more interactivity with users. Kevin Rose recently used Urtak on Diggnation to figure out what kind of motorcycle to buy and got back more than 11,000 responses as he narrowed his choices. Lizoain said in polls with 10 or fewer questions, more than half of people answer all the questions.

Right now, Urtaks see far more answers than questions in part because it takes a little time for people to realize they can add question to a poll. But a new release of Urtak launching in the coming days will also encourage more questions from users by changing the current ask tab into a permanent button.

Urtak as a business still has to figure out how to make money. It’s also a question of how defensible the concept is and whether others could easily replicate it. But I like the idea because it encourages light weight, almost addictive interaction that is still useful in a lot of ways. It reminds me a little of Opinionaided, a mobile Q&A app that solicits opinions based on images and questions by posed by users. The app has caught on with users because of its simple design, which has prompted 50 million responses to 600,000 questions since it began last year.

I think publishers could see similar engagement online with a tool like Urtak. The polling service could also be really popular with national brands as a form of research. A beverage company could throw out a poll and see what flavors might work but could also receive back responses on flavors suggested by the respondents. Opening up polling to users can invite some messiness and useless responses. But I still like the idea of democratizing surveys and seeing what happens.

“Our goal is that anyone should be able to not only access opinion information but also create it,” Lizoain said. “So many questions that affect people are not being asked and reported. You will never know what you don’t know to ask.”

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  1. The irony is that Urtak provides an easier and more playful feedback mechanism, it’s not used here, and I’m the first comment after 3 months.

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