It’s hard to beat the personalized appeal of phone banking, canvassing or email outreach. But these efforts are often expensive, ebbing in their effectiveness or require an army of volunteers to organize. Now, SMS is emerging as a cheap, effective alternative for organizing, managing volunteers, advocacy and fundraising.
Personalized SMS messages offer intimacy, a sense of urgency and, in many cases, a better response rate than other channels. How can such appeals be scaled to reach thousands of voters? How can volunteers be harnessed to help with such outreach? Here some tips on how you might incorporate SMS into your next campaign.
Learn the lessons of the past
SMS outreach campaigns aren’t new. President Obama’s campaign used it effectively for fundraising in 2012. Bernie Sander’s campaign used SMS effectively for mass organizing in 2016. Anti-Trump groups are now using it to organize.
Each of these efforts offer lessons in best practices. Some experienced firms, including Mobile Commons, have published helpful case studies to give groups and campaigns a road map going forward.
Run the numbers on all the channels available
The response rates to SMS messages is around 30 percent. Keep in mind, that’s the number of people who respond to a text. Meanwhile, roughly 33 percent of advocacy emails are getting caught by spam folders.
When it comes to a phone bank, a volunteer can send 10 times as many messages via SMS than through a phone call. This makes a well-run SMS campaign over 30 times more effective than phone banking. (Response rate is three times more effective with SMS and 10 times as many message are sent).
Personalization holds the key
SMS is similar to email in that they both need personalization in order to be most effective. With an SMS effort, campaigns first prepare a list of the cellphone numbers of people to be contacted. Volunteers are provided with short scripts that they text to people on the list, along with possible answers based on the response they get. On the other end, voters receive a customized SMS from a real human which improves the response rates. And like email, organizers can tweak the SMS messages based on which ones perform best.
Understand the technology
Many of the platforms for mass, SMS-based interactions used Twilio as the underlying platform. It provides the ability to send out SMS messages through an API. This is coupled with the equivalent of a CRM (Client Relationship Management) system that stores voter details, messages to be sent, responses received and stage of the interaction. It also tracks the effectiveness of different messages and the productivity of volunteers.
Deepak Puri is a Silicon Valley veteran and co-founder of Democracy Labs, a San Francisco-based non-profit that connects technical and media experts with progressive campaigns.