Texting’s political triumph

New media came into its own during the 2008 campaign with the successful use of the Internet for organizing, communicating and fundraising. Many proclaimed the new age of digital campaigns was upon us. Well, we haven’t seen anything yet. Phones are taking over as the cutting-edge political communication device — and I don’t mean those old-fashioned phone banks with their push polls, voter ID and GOTV calls that interrupted so many pleasant dinner hours or favorite TV programs in the past. Those anonymous rooms filled with rows of paid phone operators with their voter registration lists are being pushed out of the game by mobile media.

Mobile phones deliver a reach never before seen by any medium. Eighty-six percent of the U.S. population has a cell phone, providing more reach than cable TV, home Internet access and personal computers. There are more wireless devices in use than televisions and computers combined — and those numbers are growing most rapidly among Latinos, millennials and Americans over 30 years of age.

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Of the 262 million cell phones currently subscribed in the U.S., over 95 percent are SMS-capable. Americans using those phones send some 70 billion text messages each month. That is a lot of communication going on out there. Most frequently, text messages are sent and received by younger Americans. Over 75 percent of 18-to-29-year-old mobile phone users are frequent users of text messages. But it’s not just a young person’s game. The fastest-growing group of texters is “soccer moms” who have figured out the best way to reach kids who don’t return calls to their cell phone is via text.

As those moms have become more familiar with texting, they’ve used it to reach their peers, creating a viral growth in text messaging among adults, in particular opinion leaders who are so valuable to an issue advocacy or political campaign. They have quickly adopted texting as a quick, easy and reliable way to communicate throughout their busy days. Research, admittedly conducted by mobile marketers, shows that 94 percent of text messages are read. About five times as many people respond to mobile messages as compared to traditional, off-mobile call-to-action campaigns.

Public officials have now begun to endorse mobile media as well. The number of members and senators on Capitol Hill using social networking sites like Facebook or Twitter is growing dramatically. These politicians find that when they Tweet (Twitter-speak for sending a message) with constituents, they open up a constant flow of information that keeps them in touch with those they represent. San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom joined the Twitter universe about a month ago with 55 “friends.” He now has over 40,000, generating enough Tweets about potholes and city services that he’s creating a new protocol in his office to handle the traffic. Still, the mayor is enthusiastic about this new connection with voters. It’s “like having a perennial focus group,” he says. Except this focus group knows exactly who is behind the one-way mirror — and how to reach him.

Recently, in my day job, my consulting firm has been increasingly using mobile marketing to build coalitions, ask people to sign petitions and send communications to elected representatives demanding action on a particular issue. The texts are inexpensive to generate, with posters, point-of-sale materials and transit cards in public transportation vehicles. It is difficult to send an e-mail from a Metro car, for example, but simple to text one word and four digits of a short code. The person sending the text gets an immediate response and an invitation to join a movement for change.

In the 2008 presidential campaign, Republican nominee Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) experimented with pages on Facebook, MySpace and other social-networking sites, without great success. Now-President Barack Obama did a better job by producing great content and engaging visitors in a dialogue. Obama even used text messaging to announce Delaware Sen. Joe Biden (D) as his vice presidential choice and to promote some events.

In the few short months since the Obama/McCain campaign the technology has become more sophisticated and the users more engaged. The potential uses of mobile media are virtually unlimited. Look for more and more cell phone messages in the 2010 campaign and in issue advocacy efforts in the months ahead. The technology is opening up whole new communication channels. But, as always, the tool is only as good as the message it carries. The challenge for political practitioners will be to devise creative messages that make best the use of all those phones.

Goddard is a founding partner of political consultants Goddard Claussen. E-mail: ben@gcsa.com