Do You Want Politicians Texting You?

Vice President Joe Biden may not have helped President Obama carry any states, but the frenzy that surrounded his selection helped the Obama campaign rake in roughly 3 million cell phone numbers and propel mobile technology to the front of politics.

But are average Republican voters really ready to give a campaign something as intimate as their cell phone number?

One of the first things I was tasked with on the McDonnell campaign was finding a mobile vendor to use for the campaign. Mobile was not being pushed onto the campaign, but the campaign and candidate had a strong interest in becoming the first Republican campaign to successfully integrate the use of mobile through all aspects of the race. I spent countless hours calling vendors across the country and spoke with more than a dozen firms offering mobile services, and boy, did their prices fluctuate.

The large cost associated with the use of mobile is not set up costs, nor sending messages, but the monthly fees associated with a unique “shortcode” or short group of numbers attributed distinctly with the purchaser. In Governor McDonnell’s case, our short code was “GOBOB” or “46262.” The process to acquire a short code is neither easy nor quick. The large carriers must approve your request, which can literally take months (in Bob’s case it took about two months). Once a shortcode is acquired, campaigns must pay a monthly rental fee to keep it, and there of course set up costs.

I know what you’re thinking: why not use a “rented shortcode”? A “rented shortcode” is a shortcode that has been acquired by a firm or vendor that they control and pay the monthly rental fee on. They can then let you use the code without having to go through the 2 month process of getting your own. The big issue with rented shortcodes is the duplication of “keywords.” In short, a “keyword” is the word or set of numbers that you text TO the shortcode. In McDonnell’s case, we encouraged people to text “Jobs” (the keyword) to “GOBOB”(the shortcode). Keywords can be created instantly, and their beauty lies in the fact that they make the user feel special. For example: college students at James Madison we were given their own shortcode “JMU,” and people from Fairfax County could text “Fairfax” to 46262. Keywords are also beneficial to the sender, because targeted messages can be sent to lists of subscribers who opted-in from specific keywords. In the case of the JMU student, we could send information about when Governor McDonnell was going to be in Harrisonburg for an event, or perhaps send a message to every college student in the state.

Now, the problem with mixing a robust mobile campaign filled with keywords, and a rented shortcode is that only one user of the shared shortcode can use a keyword at a time. To explain further, lets say that Campaign A and Campaign B are both choosing to save money and use a shared shortcode. Both Campaigns A and B are likely to want to use similar keywords such as “JOBS” or “VOLUNTEER” or say “INFO.”  Well, only one campaign can use each distinct keyword, and there is potential for the other campaign’s auto-replys to be sent to the sender. If you’re sticking with me, let me explain further. Campaign A and Campaign B are both very active with their mobile list. Campaign A decides they want to use the keyword “Info” and they set up an auto-reply to be returned to the user whenever someone texts in “Info” to the shared shortcode. If someone from Campaign B or ANY other client on the shared shortcode texts “Info” to the shortcode for ANY reason, they will receive the auto-reply that Campaign A has set up.

Further complicating the shared shortcode mess, is the fact that campaign’s cant always be sure what other clients are using the shared shortcode. A quick Google search will show you some examples of campaigns that have ended up on shared shortcodes with….shall we say….less than desirable groups that have gotten them into trouble.

For campaigns that have the ability to get a unique shortcode, there are many pluses to running a robust mobile program. Open rates on text messages are exponentially higher than e-mail lists, guaranteeing that whatever information you’re sending is reaching the subscriber. Unique keywords allow campaign managers and political directors to hold their staffs accountable by tracking the number of opt-ins on a keyword, with different keywords being able to be given out to staffers.

It seems by reading stories across the country that simply having a mobile program all but ensures that the press labels the candidate “tech-savvy,” and who doesn’t want more good press?

Looking at the McDonnell race as a case study, I am not sure if I would bet for or against the success of SMS marketing in political campaigns. In McDonnell’s case, it would seem that we did everything right to gain the maximum number of mobile numbers possible. We encouraged opt-ins via our large, statewide television buy, on our website and yard signs, and through direct mail, t-shirts, and web advertising. Heck, even Governor McDonnell pushed mobile at countless stops, and he made it a constant topic of discussion.

The campaign actively engaged potential opt-ins with different contests and offered prizes (including giving away free Redskins tickets). Despite pushing mobile through ads and on the stump, the majority of our numbers came in via website sign-ups, with people giving us their cell number when they filled out a volunteer form, or a web-based petition.

A concern that I have yet to see addressed is the ability for campaign’s to monetize their mobile list. With the McDonnell race, we used live-callers to follow up on pledges taken via text, the Perry campaign in Texas and Whitman race in California are acting similarly. Subscribers will be asked to text “Pledge” and a donation amount to the shortcode, and (sometimes hours later) a live-caller follows up via phone to take credit card information.

When the ability to instantly take money off of a phone bill is more readily accessible to every organization and campaigns can work out the campaign finance law concerns with doing this, I believe we will see more of an engagement via mobile, but we’re not there yet.

In summary, integrating an SMS component to a campaign offers a great way to push message out to voters, activists, and press. Still, it seems that people cling to their mobile number much tighter than their e-mail address, and it will be a constant challenge building an active, new list of mobile opt-ins. Campaigns and businesses should be cautious about pricing as the market is so new, often vendors will shoot very high.

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