Mobile campaigning: using text messages

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If you’re a follower of US politics, you’ll know that the Republican candidate for Governor of Virginia, Bob McDonnell, has won a resounding victory over his Democratic rival. While the campaign seems to have been run mainly on local issues (rather than national issues like health care), there is an interesting debrief taking place on sites such as TechPresident, about the McDonnell campaign’s use of new media and new campaign techniques, especially the use of text messages.

McDonnell bought into the idea early on, putting some of that campaign expenditure towards buying a dedicated short code rather than going the “dirt cheap route,” says Taylor, of sharing a code. That dedicated code of GOBOB or 46262 allowed the campaign to set up custom keywords — like “women,” “life,” “taxes,” or “UVA” — that helped segment the list they were building into different interest and geographic areas.

(The full article is worth a read, as it is an interesting case study of how to powerfully use text messaging for political campaigns.)

As I understand it, using text messaging has been relatively slow in uptake in the United States, principally because of the relatively high cost per text message. In Australian (and other countries), where SMS is relatively cheap, text messages are used extensively, from real estate agents, banks, political parties, and yes, trade unions.

In my work, I’ve used SMS quite a few times, and reading about how the McDonnell campaign utilised it (even mimicking the Obama campaign) caused me to reexamine if I could improve my own use.

Currently I’m aware of several unions routinely using text messages to get information to members and supporters.There seem to be two methods:

  1. Purchase use of or subscribe to a corporate SMS broadcast system (fairly expensive); or
  2. Purchase of a phone and SIM card dedicated to broadcast text messages.

I’m not aware of any union that has its own dedicated system, software or hardware for sending broadcast text messages.

At the NTEU, we use SMS notifications and reminders for important events. For our rounds of industrial action this year (in May and September), members received SMS reminders about details of strikes, pickets and so on. They also received SMS reminders to vote in the ballot for industrial action in April/May. Similarly, at another union I worked for, the LHMU, we used SMS as reminders to activists for important meetings and actions.

However, these were fairly crude tools – although we can target different demographics of members, we are nowhere near as sophisticated as the political campaigns. I’m also not aware of unions registering a mobile code, or using key words.

Techpresident’s follow up story about the Virginia Governor campaign suggests that although mass media advertising (television and radio) were decisive, the use of text messaging for mobilising supporters was also crucial to McDonnell’s campaign success. Over US$130,000 was spent by the McDonnell campaign, compared to just over US$20,000 by his opponent.

I certainly see it as useful in mobilising volunteers, and turning out the vote. Sending direct messages to supporters, without the filter of the media, is also very powerful.

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