Harris Media

In 2012, Campaigns Target Voters Through Their Phones

“Classes are all-consuming for college students,” Veazey said. “We don’t have a lot of time to watch TV.”

“What would have caught her attention? Ads sent directly to her smartphone. “I would definitely have clicked on an ad texted to me,” she said. “That’s a perfect way to reach college students. We always have our cellphones in our backpacks or in our hands.”

“That’s what digital political guru Vincent Harris was counting on when he sent the campus conservative-themed text ads for former House Speaker Newt Gingrich before the Alabama primary. He says his ads typically said things like “Stop Obama’s War on Religion” or “Newt Gingrich: a Man of Faith.” Some were as simple as “Bulldogs for Gingrich,” with a clickable “Help the Campaign” button.

“In the industry, Yahoo will tell you that a 0.2 or 0.3% click-through rate for ads is considered successful,” Harris told CNN. “With the Samford campaign I created, those ads were getting a 4% click-through rate. That meant the people we needed to mobilize were seeing our message. It was an enormous success.

But in 2012, voters don’t even need to opt into campaigns to receive these kinds of political texts. Technology is so advanced that campaigns can target anyone who has enabled geolocation services on their smartphone, and pinpoint their location within a three-yard radius, said Harris, who also ran digital operations for Texas Gov. Rick Perry during the 2012 primary campaigns.

Many people, he said, don’t even realize they’ve made their cell phone findable, although they’ve downloaded apps like Fandango or Yelp to help them locate the nearest movie or restaurant.

For a conservative client, Harris will target phones on conservative campuses, as he did with his Samford University campaign. Or if his candidate in Plano, Texas, wants to get his message out to one particular neighborhood, Harris will set the text to ping only phones in the local Panera restaurant at lunchtime, for example.

His latest trick? Target people who have downloaded apps that are philosophically in keeping with a conservative message. For the Perry campaign in Iowa, he sent an ad to everyone in the state who had downloaded a Bible app.

“Folks who got those texts were signing up to support Perry at a fantastic conversion rate,” said Harris, who heads Harris Media, a digital marketing firm. “That’s a very successful campaign, I can tell you.”

Overall, mobile outreach seems to be connecting with voters. After the 2010 midterm elections, a Pew Research Center poll found more than a quarter of the American adults they surveyed had used their mobile phones to learn more about, or even to participate in, the elections.

And as phones become more sophisticated, the number of people who learn about elections on their phones is sure to grow.

“There is no excuse as to why candidates are not doing this,” Harris said. “It’s that easy.”

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