Colin Delany June 24, 2007

Edwards Campaign Circumvents Limits of Mobile Fundraising — For Now

Cross-posted on techPresident.

Toward the end of last week, the John Edwards campaign pulled off a bit of a technological coup — they got around the inherent limits of raising money via cell phone text message. But here’s the rub: the tools they used may not work as well again for Edwards, or for anyone else for that matter.

Here’s what happened. As Justin Oberman ably described at techPresident on Friday:

Last night over 13,000 supporters who have already opted into the Edwards text messaging campaign received a text message telling then the following:

John Edward wants 2 talk 2 you! Hit Reply. Type “CALL” & hit Send. John will call YOU right back! OR call 202-350-9749. txt STOP 2 unsub

After following those directions my phone starting ringing. I picked up the phone and heard ringing myself as if I was making a call. Suddenly I heard a message from John Edwards telling me the following:

“I’m calling to remind you that with just over a week before the end of the quarter the time to act is now. I’m not asking you to help us out-raise everyone else. I’m only asking you for what we need to get our message of real change out to voters in Iowa, New Hampshire, and other key states nationwide.”

After the message was played, users had the option to either press 1 or wait to be connected to a phone bank where an Edwards operator would be ready to take down your credit card number 🙂

Justin says that, according to the Edwards campaign, the results were good, though I haven’t seen any exact numbers. And as Justin again points out, “what most impresses me about this campaign is the fact that it is the ONLY WAY to contact people on their cell phones to solicit financial donations” because of the limitations of the medium — no unsolicited calls, high vendor fees for donations-via-text message, etc.

Okay, excellent tactic, right? I have to say, I’m damned impressed as well — vendor Mobile Commons (formerly PoliTxt) seems to have come up with an excellent application. So why do I think it might not work as well the next time?

That “unsubscribe” part Edwards’s original text message gives a hint — most people are going to be very careful about who they allow to text them and how often. Because we have our phones with us most of the time — usually somewhere in our clothes or (God forbid) strapped to our belt — we tend to take messages on them a little more seriously than some random email on a desktop computer.

Consequently, just as many people are more reluctant to give out a cell number than a home number, we’re going to tend to be super-conscious of how often we’re being contacted by a campaign via txt and of what the content of that contact is. Hit people too often? Unsubscribe! Hit people with information they don’t want? Unsubscribe! Balancing message frequency and coming up with relevant content are already critical parts of email list management, and I think they’ll be even more so for SMS advocacy lists.

The Edwards campaign’s early success may be a factor of:

  • Novelty. This was the first such message from the campaign; future ones may not be so well received (“Another damn message from John Edwards? Delete!”).
  • Selection Bias. At this point, only the most dedicated supporters are likely to give out a cell phone number, and they’re also the most likely to want to contribute. Supporters are likely to see joining an email list as less of a commitment than agreeing to receive text messages, so an SMS advocacy list may naturally slew toward the responsive.
  • Novelty, Part 2. Wait until every advocacy campaign, senatorial campaign, congressional campaign, city councilmember campaign, et cetera ad nauseum, discovers mobile advocacy. Man, that’ll get annoying fast — just as email fundraising donations rates have dropped as people grow weary of being asked and asked, give-me-money text messages may get old real quick.

A couple of specific questions for the Edwards campaign: what was the unsubscribe rate for this campaign? For an advocacy or fundraising email, particularly the first to a given population, the unsubscribe rate often exceeds one-quarter or one-half of one percent of the list; I’m curious what the equivalent rate for a txt campaign is going to be. And, why no “forward 2 a friend” ask in the message? They were still a few characters short of the limit, unless I can’t count.

All that being said, I do believe that mobile advocacy has a place in modern campaigning, just that for the next election cycle or two, its utility is still going to be limited — its best use is going to be as a Get Out The Vote tool. As more phones add rich features such as video and Internet access, we’ll have more room for creativity, but one message I picked up loud and clear at Friday’s Digital Media Conference was that most people people don’t even use the full feature set of their CURRENT phones, though iPhone-inspired user interface changes may help with that. In any case, as Jen Wu of M:Metrics pointed out in a DMC presentation, limitations in download speed and image quality are going to keep video and ‘net access from being more than a small niche applications over the next couple of years. For now, text is what we got.

For more about the strengths and limits of mobile advocacy, see this article on Republican mobile activism in the 2006 elections.


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