Text messaging is the newest way to communicate since e-mail. And this technology will soon affect the way we live, shop, learn—and run campaigns.
Barack Obama’s team understands the power of text and reportedly built a list of more than two million cell phone numbers by announcing his vice presidential candidate via text. Smart campaigns next cycle will do the same.
For anyone who doesn’t know about texting, if that’s still possible, they are messages written on a cell phone keypad and sent to a recipient’s cell phone screen in real time. It’s akin to instant messaging—an easy and personal form of communication with friends, clients or prospects. Each message is currently limited to 160 characters, which helps explain the proper name for text: SMS or short message system. But that capacity is expected to expand.
More than 29 billion text messages were sent last month—more than the number of cell phone calls placed. And no one believes we are anywhere near the tipping point. That simple fact should tell consultants with vision that it’s time to add this new tool to their communication arsenal.
Text messaging is surrounding your life in virtually every arena. At professional sporting events you are asked to text to vote for your favorite player. The network news wants your opinions via text. U.S. Airways even has a text number on its drink napkins. Some 92 million texts were sent as votes to select the most recent winner of American Idol; by comparison, only 62 million people voted for George W. Bush in 2004.
Yet there is no phone directory for cell numbers, so the race is on to build lists of these numbers for corporate and political use—and both the RNC and DNC have thrown themselves into the effort.
The DNC lost a solid six months because it was slow to understand the potential of text, while the RNC was quick to embrace the new technology. But the DNC made a major effort at its national convention and is continuing the push on a daily basis.
And while text is an easy call for candidate campaigns, it may be even more effective in referendums and grass roots efforts. My firms, Strother-Duffy-Strother and NextNow, are using text in the realm of grassroots and advocacy. The Teamsters just started using text to stay in closer touch with their union members, including polling them regularly. That allows them to text canvassers, updating them on news so no one is surprised by a question at a door.
The National Rural Electric Co-Op Association (NRECA) is creating a program that could potentially have many of its 40 million co-op customers (members) text in for energy saving tips. The co-ops can then alert members of potential legislation that could drive up the cost of energy and ask that they contact their member of Congress to encourage a vote for lower energy costs. NRECA is creating a revolutionary wireless effort that will be a first.
It’s expected that Congress will soon start accepting constituent communication via text. Until then, people can click on a phone number in the body of a text to directly call their elected official.
So what are some other ways the political industry can catch up with the corporate world in using this new technology?
1. Acquire a shortcode and put it on everything a campaign disseminates. (A shortcode is five or six letters or numbers that are, in essence, a phone number for text.) Just as with a URL, the shortcode should be included on television and radio spots and on all mail pieces. Allowing potential supporters to contact a campaign in every possible way only makes sense.
2. Begin building a list by growing the network organically. Host a contest by asking supporters to forward a text message to as many people as possible. The monthly winner gets recognized on the website.
3. Use the list of phone numbers you’re building to send getoutthe-vote text messages on Election Day. A recent Pew study indicates people are 8 to 10 percent more likely to vote if reminded to do so via text.
4. Have the candidate hold up her or his phone at all events and encourage people to text in. Dennis Kucinich implored people to text to the shortcode PEACE during the CNN/Youtube debate and 12,000 people did so immediately. A message asking those people to forward the text to five friends who believe in peace brought another 5,000 numbers in two days.
5. Use text to drive people to the campaign’s website as a way to raise money.
6. Deliver talking points from the campaign any time someone may be having a debate with a friend. Simply text the topic name to the shortcode and facts can be sent immediately.
7. Raise money by texting people who have used a credit card to contribute and ask if their credit card can be charged again for a specific amount of money.
I live in Washington, D.C. and run national political campaigns. Everyone in my world has a BlackBerry, iPhone or some other PDA. But less than five percent of America currently has a PDA, and with the monthly data charge at some $30, it will be quite some time before Americans are armed with e-mail around the clock.
So text is “everyman’s” instant e-mail. We spend more time with our cell phones every day than any person, computer or object. And text is still in its infancy. Consider today’s text the Internet of 15 years ago—remember those 1,200 baud modems and people swapping recipes and Grateful Dead set lists?
For years I sat in meetings encouraging candidates and clients to put their website URL on the television spots I was producing. The answer was often the same: “Seniors don’t use the Internet, rural America doesn’t use the Internet, and the Internet is a fad.” Hmm.
Today, the meetings mirror those. “Only kids text, rural America doesn’t text, it’s a fad,” clients protest. Hmm. “People don’t want spam on their cell phones.” But about 50 percent of people under the age of 50 have sent a text message. And by simply replying “stop,” a cell phone number is removed from a server.
So what should you expect next on the screen of your cell phone? By the next presidential election, we will be getting video over our phones. The ability to send clever video spots organically could make broadcast television even less effective.
But only those companies, political parties and associations with the vision to begin creating lists today with standard text messaging will be in a position to grow with wireless technology. The race is on.
Dane Strother is a principal in the Democratic media firm Strother-Duffy-Strother. He is also CEO of NextNow, which focuses on text and new media.