Online Advocacy Tools: Cell Phones and Text Messaging

Updated January, 2011

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Cell phones, and particularly text messages, are the next political tool we’ll consider. If you’ve spent the past few years building up your thumb strength and agility while keeping up with which bars have good drink specials (as I wrote the original version of this article, I was looking at a friend’s message from the previous night that said, and I kid you not, “CcCome to bedinbl” — Jen had maybe been at a barstool a little too long…), you already know that text messages are an efficient way to get a brief burst of information in front of a lot of people at once.

Their limitation lies in the brief part — text messages are too short to include much persuasion, so they’re best used in triggering an action that you’ve preplanned. Particularly outside the U.S. (creative cell phone uses have lagged in the States), organizers have used mass text messages to alert people to the location for a rally or demonstration and give authorities little time to counter them. You might use them for similar purposes or to spark an immediate cell call to a campaign target, for instance a Congressmember or corporate CEO. You’ll need to have educated your activists beforehand through other means, probably via email, but the text message can generate an immediate action when you need it. The trick will be getting the right target phone number to the right activist, but that’s why you hired a top-notch vendor (hint). And of course, individual activists can always use texts to reach their friends and other organizing targets.

Probably the most immediate use of text messaging in the U.S. will be for election-day Get-Out-The-Vote efforts, though you can also use them as a two-way tool by soliciting information from supporters through polls and such. If you’re really ambitious, you’ll use them to announce your vice presidential pick! But the really interesting uses of mobile technologies are probably still a couple of years away (hmmm, they ALWAYS seem to be a couple of years away), and savvy campaigns are gathering supporters’ cell numbers now for applications that haven’t yet been dreamed up. Note that one good way to build a cell list is at live events, if you’ve set up the capability for people send you a short text message to sign up at that moment.

One particularly interesting use of cell phones for fundraising in the 2008 election cycle: the John Edwards campaign contacted list members via text, urged them to call a number and listen to a recorded message, then connected them to operators to take donations right away. The results were said to be good, though the campaign did not repeat the attempt that I know of. Otherwise, cell phone-based fundraising has primarily been used for disaster relief and similarly high-profile and immediate purposes.

Location-Based Services

Foursquare, Gowalla and similar cell phone-based location-dependent services were all the rage in the commercial marketing world in 2010, though they haven’t seeped over much into the political space just yet. Plenty of folks see advocacy potential in location-based tools, so we’ll keep an eye on them and see what pops up in the years to come. Also see the chapter on Political Advertising for a brief discussion of mobile ads, which tend to be location-based.

Grassroots Organizing

Perhaps the next frontier for cell phones in politics depends on the spread of “smart” phones — in 2010 we saw the first significant use of iPhone and other “apps” as well as specialized mobile-optimized websites for field organizing and block-canvassing. The best of these applications would provide canvassers with directions to the next houses to visit, offer talking points and videos for persuasion, and give the ability to sign people up for a supporter list on the spot. I suspect that the potential of tools like these is just beginning to be tapped, and that phones will play a major role in field organizing moving forward.

Next: Political Databases

Written by
Colin Delany
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1 comment
  • SMS can also be used in a back and forth exchange, such as a quick survey or information gathering device. Remember, you could also tell supporters to SMS messages about opponent activity that they see.