How Mobile Technology Will Change the Way You Organize Campaign Volunteers

Guest article! The inimitable Susan Finkelpearl of Free Range Studios has written up a Politics Online panel discussion on the promise of mobile technology as a tool for campaign organizing. Pull you up a chair and chew on THIS for a little while:

Mobile-izing Volunteers

By Susan Finkelpearl

When I first started working in technology, each time I met with a new “guru,” I asked this question: “What is Web 3.0?” The answer I often got was, “mobility.” The March 15th tutorial on raising volunteers through mobile technology at the 2007 Politics Online conference shed some light on how this new era is coming into being.

The panelists were:

  • Eric Gundersen, Senior Web Designer & Programmer of Development Seed
  • Stuart Shapiro, President of iConstituent
  • Dan Weaver, Co-Founder & COO, Mobile Accord
  • Justin Oberman (moderator), Founder, MOpocket/ Rave Wireless

Here are the highlights of the their collective wisdom and experience:

Why Go Mobile?

  • Backup. Take Lieberman and his Internet debacle during the ’06 primary. If he had had mobile, he could have organized even when his site went down.
  • Emergency help. For instance, an “oops” happens and you need emergency birth control, but the pharmacy turns you away or is out of inventory. Planned Parenthood could set up a system that you could text and get a message back of what other pharmacy has stock.
  • Reminders. For instance, thinking of the above example, a message that reminds you not to forget to take a pill.
  • Getting messages to volunteers who are on the go. I.e., you’re at a rally and need to tell volunteers to go to a specific location.
  • Add excitement and fun gimmicks to your campaigns. Say, you have a happy hour at which people who opt-in to your list can get a free beer. Or you have a concert and people can text messages that show up on a screen. Dan Weaver talked about how one radio promotion got 11,000 opt-ins for a ticket giveaway in 10 days.

Getting Started:

Gundersen: Don’t try out SMS in the heat of a campaign. Try it when things are slower and you have more time to test things out.

Gundersen: Get a short code by going to a co-op (Like Mobile Accord) that has done all the legwork to acquire them and rents them out to groups. (Getting a short code that works across phone systems on your own will require several thousand dollars and months to set up.) Sometimes multiple groups will share a code, but by using keywords, your constituents can opt in to your specific campaign. For example, if a short code is 12345 and your campaign is for Donald Duck, your volunteers would text 12345, and enter the keyword “DonaldDuck.” This would sign them up.

Gundersen & Shapiro: Start collecting cell phone numbers months ahead of your campaign. Do this by adding a field to your regular registration page for people to enter their cell phone number. As you send out print pieces, add a short code to invite people to text your organization and opt in.

Shapiro: Try and put your own spin on mobile communications. What new twist can you put on it?

Shapiro: Think of cross-pollination. Use text messages to convert people to email too. So, if you don’t have a text messaging campaign ready to go, you can still use it to collect more folks for your email list. (This would work if you have an event and you ask people to text you.)

How to Write An Effective Mobile Message:

Gundersen: Gave the example of Chris Dodd going on John Stewart. Imagine that his camp sent out an email saying that Dodd was going on the show. The email says that he’s going on John Stewart and describes all the ways you can see him — getting ready before, in the green room after, etc. How do you boil this down to 160 characters?

Option A: “Join Chris Dodd and get a backstage pass for the activities,” and a link.

But when writing these messages, you need to think about your main audience and the realities of the medium you are working with — the tiny screen. A better option:

Option B: Daily Show with Chris Dodd: Get your backstage pass at and tune in to the program at 11.

Everyone’s interested in the Daily Show. This is more likely to catch them.

Working with Mobile in the Legislative Arena

Shapiro: You’ll need to get the activists to understand the process of opting-in, and you’ll have to start now so that next year you have your list. You’ll have to coach volunteers and staff to remember to say, “sign up to get text messages.” Your members need to see that SMS is part of everything they do with your campaign.


  • Give people information they need and can’t get elsewhere. Don’t send message after message to them or you’ll overload them. So for example, if you are running a conference, don’t just send people messages about everything that you’ve already given them in a program.
  • Make sure your opt-out feature is clear to the user and that it works!
  • Avoid “shortcuts” that can hurt you in the long run. I.e., don’t go buy a list of mobile numbers. Build your own list over time.

Thanks Susan! Now, what’s your next article about?

See also — Cell Phones and Politics: Republican Mobile Activism in the 2006 Elections.


Written by
Colin Delany
View all articles
1 comment