C&E: Let’s talk about some of the developments and innovations in phones and mobile technology as they are being used in campaigns.
Taylor: We are in the third cycle using mobile technology. SMS [text messaging] came into the United States in 2002 and was mastered in 2008 by the Obama campaign. SMS is the bread and butter of mobile, and mobile web is going to continue to get bigger and bigger, but it is not there right now.
C&E: How many campaigns are using it?
Taylor: I would venture to say 35-45 percent are using it [text messaging].
Stone: It used to be “got to get me some of that internet.” Now it’s “got to get me some of that text.”
Taylor: I think some campaigns are overlooking it. Text messaging has a 100 percent open rate, email has 4 percent. Text messages are read within 4 minutes. Emails may not be read, phone calls may not be answered, direct mail may end up in the garbage.
Stone: I was fine until you said that phone calls may not be answered.
Taylor: Phone calls may not be answered!
Stone: May not be answered. For me, there are only two places in politics from where real innovation is coming. And in all deference to our friends who are media consultants and persuasion mail consultants (I used to be a media consultant), the playbook is pretty well written on that kind of stuff. The innovation is happening on the internet side and the phone side. The internet is a new medium; the phone is a very old medium. It’s happening in telephone town halls, new turnout techniques, other new technologies—like variable voice which allows you to do an automated call but insert the voters name, insert the voters city, insert specific information that your polling tells you that voter may go for.
C&E: But it’s not just personalization, it’s actually content.
Stone: Yes, highly personalized content. You can have it set up with 15 or 20 different variables and put those into scripts. Kind of like how persuasion mail started in politics, it was all about inserting variable paragraphs. I’ll give you an example. Meg Whitman used it in California. My mother, who is a huge Democrat, got a call from Meg Whitman that said, “Hi, Naomi,” and she kept it! And she’s telling people about it. So even if she is not voting for Meg Whitman, she is telling people that Meg Whitman reached out to her, and that is a huge part of Meg Whitman’s message, that she is reaching out to people.
C&E: Nick, tell us a bit about the telephone town hall technology you are pioneering.
Unger: Sure. In the spirit of reaching out to people, Marty talked a lot about innovation and then there is application. You can make it a little more user friendly, you can dial a little faster, use bigger events. There are so many different ways to target the audience and the time of day, and the message and the types of information that you want to get back and the data you want to analyze. There are all sorts of applications like right now that let the influencers tell the other ten people around them how to vote. [Telephone town halls] give them the tools to go tell their friends what to say.
C&E: Studies show that landline phones are disappearing and people are becoming mobile-only. How does this affect your businesses?
Unger: Actually we reach a lot of people with landlines.
Stone: We call people with landlines “voters.” I have an iPhone and I get text. But I also have two landlines at home, and we’re getting a ton of calls right now during the aryland primaries from candidates. Let’s face it, phones have a diminished reach along with TV, due to the multiplication of channels and peoples’ viewing habits and Apple allowing you to stream shows now without commercials for 99 cents….Mobile may be on the rise though.
C&E: Are we talking about competing technologies?
Taylor: No. I think campaigns will never stop using phones.
Stone: I actually think that Nick was underselling telephone town halls. I venture to guess that over 50 percent of Republican campaigns use telephone town halls. I know 90 to 100 percent of Republican member of the House use telephone town halls. On the Democratic side it’s probably 30-40 percent of House members who use telephone town halls, and on the campaign side it’s probably around 20 percent. The Obama campaign stands as the technological wonder on our side, but in terms of willingness to accept technology, it happens much faster on the Republican side. It just does. If you go walk around and see who uses Apple computers, there’s tons of Republicans, very few Democrats. There are lots of Republicans using iPhones, very few Democrats. Our side just moves slower on technology. That said, Obama showed we can catch up. I think we will see a leap frog from Republicans this year on their technological expertise.
On the town halls, we’ve been doing stuff that has just amazed me on its impact. We did Joe Sestak against Arlen Specter. We did a series of 4 telephone town halls days before his first TV ad went up. So the campaign did one piece of direct mail to 600,000 voters introducing Sestak. He was only known in one congressional district and he was 22-points behind and we’re 5 weeks out. We did 4 telephone town halls to an average of about 150,000 people in each telephone town hall, using super fast dialing speeds.
C&E: What is the dialing speed?
Unger: We can dial 9,000 numbers in a minute. We can conceivably dial faster. What we really try to do is optimize the dialing speed for where you are calling.
Taylor: The operating system we work off is the same one that Barack Obama used to send out a text message to 2.9 million people. We can send 1,000 text messages per second.
C&E: What are the challenges for campaigns using your technologies?
Stone: [The key is] active engagement with [voters]. Don’t just send 30 second messages; have them do something tactile. “Press this button if you agree with me.” We are also trying to capture peoples’ real words. Too many campaigns use words people just don’t use.
C&E: There is a sense of interactivity on the phone that may be more difficult to achieve in the mobile sphere.
Taylor: We have to offer some kind of value to anything that we text. The main question is “how often should I text?” “What should I text?” The answer is not what you should text or when you should text, it is, “Is this valuable to the people I’m texting?” Our highest opt-in rates come from incentive-based optics. Hey, we’ve got a new bumper ticker; hey do you want to win a t-shirt, hey would you like to get a picture with the candidate. When you’ve got thousands of different incentives out there that basically cost nothing for the campaign, people opt in…
Unger: Sometimes you can have a conversation, and sometimes you can send your message one way. Getting back to telephone town halls, I think everyone focuses on the technology and they think, “Oh, we’ve got a really big conference call.” And one of the things we’re trying to tell people is, “No, you don’t. You’ve got a private talk radio program.” You’re reaching tens of thousands of people, take your time. Figure out your message. And you get to pick the audience. You’re deciding who you are talking to.
We did a technique that we started in 2005 and perfected for the Obama campaign, which was instead of calling again and again the irregular voter of the household – the one that’s voted one out of four times—we called the perfect voter of the household, so we’ll pull up the wife or the grandma or someone like that who has voted four out of four times. We’ll say: “We know you support candidate X. If there is ever anybody in your household that misses an election…” and they think, “Oh, yeah; my son, my grandson, my husband.”
C&E: You’re leveraging social pressure.
Stone: Right. We’re trying to think a little bit smarter about it.
C&E: How are these technologies being adopted in down-ballot races?
Unger: I can’t think of any more cost effective way [than telephone town halls] for someone down the ballot to reach their entire electorate. Telephone town halls are affordable to where they can reach every voter, probably multiple times, while TV isn’t even part of the picture. Direct mail is probably not a part of the picture. [Campaigns] can have a conversation, test a message, get feedback.
Stone: In the old days, you sent your candidate knocking on doors. Now you sit them down for an hour and say “let’s call everybody.” And we have probably done 1,000 telephone town halls since we started doing them in ’05. When you get to the real local level, that’s when the questions become really personal. Because the candidate potentially knows the caller, they certainly know the issues. We start even small-panel campaigns now with what we call “auto-focus groups.” Again, trying to collect the real words that people might use in a location.
The beauty of Obama and the Tea Party, to add up two extremes, is the distributive nature of the campaigns. The fact that they said to the grass roots, here are all our tools, you employ them.
C&E: It was decentralized.
Stone: It turns out that voters are really smart. Activists are really smart. When we stop thinking that all of us in the game know exactly how a campaign should be conducted and exactly how to talk to peoples neighbors…
C&E: Have people do it themselves.
Stone: One of the failings Democrats have had is we distributed all this stuff and then we’re centralized again. One of the benefits the Republicans have had is they saw this competition and said, “You know what? Let’s stop being top down. Let’s trust these people.”
C&E: Lets beyond the electoral politics sphere to the governing process and advocacy and how these technologies are employed in the governing process.
Stone: The big one on our side is patch-through calls. But it’s quality versus quantity. So, on the healthcare debate it was “can we get 5,000 patched though in a day?” “Can we get 10,000 patched though into a specific Senator?” And we rejected that because that shouldn’t be the objective. All that’s happening is the front desk is making hash marks, or they’re not even recording this. So what we’ve been counseling clients on is how to be smart about this. If we’ve got an effort that we know is going to happen in 4 months, let’s do patch-through calls well before the issue is up. We expect the patches when the issue is up from the groups, but don’t expect it when they’re not.
C&E: The key is to understand how the politics as well as the technology.
Taylor: The other side of what I see mobile doing is passing text message and voice calls to mobile web. Erick Schmidt, the CEO of Google, said that by 2013 over 50 percent of web usage worldwide will be via mobile device. I think that advocacy groups understand that and campaigns will quickly learn.
C&E: Do either of you work in technology like iPad applications and stuff like that?
Taylor: My thoughts are that mobile devices are starting to wrap all of our technologies together.
Unger: For a growing part of the population, it is all going to converge onto one very intelligent device. But not everyone. [It will] still come down to the mix and the profile of the person.