Avoiding the Backlash from Political Texts and Calls

Peer to peer texting for political campaigns

New contributor! Mukundan Sivaraj is a political and nonprofit communications expert at CallHub, an outreach platform that connects organizations with their supporters through voice and text messages. Today he takes on a big question for 2020: how do we mobilize voters by phone without turning them off in the process? Let’s find out:

Annoyance and frustration are the last emotions your volunteers want to hear from the people they reach out to during an election campaign. It either means that contacts have gotten one too many messages from the campaign or that these contacts aren’t the ones you should be reaching out to.

Let’s talk about that.

Why do people get frustrated by text messages and phone calls?

Colin’s post on peer-to-peer texting in 2020 gives us a few cues. People get annoyed when they’re:

  • Contacted multiple times on the same day
  • Not ardent supporters of the candidate or issue
  • Contacted through a channel they aren’t comfortable with

Now, how do you avoid that when you contact your base?

Democrats Abroad, the official overseas arm of the Democratic party, offers us a good example.

In 2018, they used phone calls to reach contacts around the world to help them register and vote for the midterms. They were successful, reaching over 150,000 members spread across 190 countries and helping raise turnout by 8 times in certain states.

But the most interesting data point to come out of their outreach was that a whopping 90% of their phone conversations with voters were positive. That’s a clear outlier from the lower double-digit figures you’d find in most campaign outreach.

The number was a direct result of targeted voter outreach fine-tuned over multiple voter touch-points.

Democrats Abroad only made calls to identified supporters who were invested in the election and their message. The knowledge of who those supporters were was a product of having a lot of useful data on the people in their list to segment their messages.

Using data for meaningful communication

It goes without saying that you need to know who you’re texting or calling, and why.

Sending last-minute GOTV reminders to contacts who don’t support your candidate will backfire, and repeatedly messaging people when you don’t receive a response is going to be a huge drain on campaign resources.

The most prominent way to gather the data you need to run targeted campaigns is to run a voter ID campaign to clean your list and fill in knowledge gaps. With every phone call or text message your volunteers make, they can fill in gaps in your database, so that future outreach efforts can be targeted towards voter preferences.

Most calling and peer-to-peer texting tools on the market let volunteers capture data on survey forms during a conversation and sync it with voter databases like NGPVAN or NationBuilder where you can do advanced segmentation. But even without a central voter database, you can do basic filtering with the tool itself to make sure your messages reach a receptive audience.

How should you contact the people on your list?

The answer to that depends on:

  • Who’s on the list
  • The information you have on those contacts
  • The purpose of the message you’re sending out

If, like DemsAbroad, you have a list of people who have explicitly registered on your website, and are open to relevant communications from volunteers, then you’re already ahead of the curve in terms of ID’ing your list.

Here’s another suggestion: Diversify.

For GOTV campaigns, It’s true that people who are contacted at multiple different touch-points are more likely to get out to the polls. But instead of sending five text message updates in a day (à la Beto), include channels like emails, social media, and ads to add some variety to your communication. You have a chance of reaching voters who might be better swayed by these other forms of communication.

Being personal doesn’t have to mean being annoying

Studies suggest that the channel and the manner in which your messages are delivered to voters (for example, if they’re personal and engaging) makes more of an impact than the message content, especially when it comes to turning them out to the polls.

You have a better chance of having positive interactions with contacts if you can make sure the communication going out from your campaigns is:

  • Highly relevant to the target audience
  • Timely—They go out when it makes the most sense
  • Engaging and personal

The first two of those points can be achieved by cleaning your contact list and getting the information you need from voters (for example, their level of support for your candidate or the issues they care about). As for having engaging and personal conversations, it largely depends on the channel and the framing of the message.

For example, door-to-door canvassing, phone banking, and peer-to-peer texting are channels that are considered more personal because volunteers get to have conversations with voters.

With peer-to-peer texting being relatively new on the block, campaigns might not be sure what constitutes an “effective” peer-to-peer effort. While effectiveness can vary from campaign to campaign, there are some best practices to follow to get off to a good start.

How do you send effective peer-to-peer texts?

Know that not everyone appreciates text messages

Is your campaign bringing in young new people into the political process? Texting is the way to go. But be aware that older voters might prefer getting on a call instead.

Make sure that when contacts call into a number they got a text from, they reach the campaign office or a volunteer. And vice versa, you should be following up your phone calls with a text message or email.

Initiate a conversation

Unlike a text broadcast, peer-to-peer text messaging is about having a conversation with an audience and getting them interested in follow-up messages. That means an initial text message that’s conversational, like:

Hi John, Senator Ford is rising in the polls. Do you want to donate and help us win?

Is going to work better than a message that’s informational, like:

Senator Ford is tough on crime! Donate to Senator Ford’s campaign here: bit.ly/34gh54.

Have contacts expect a follow up from you before they get one.

A personalized initial text

These are the subconscious questions people ask themselves when they receive a text message:

  • Is it for me?
  • Who is it from?
  • Is it worth my time?

If your first text message can answer those questions, you are off to a good start. Take this GOTV text message, which ticks all the boxes.

Hi Mark, I’m Sara, volunteering for Mayor Clark’s campaign. Are you all set to vote on Aug 15th?

Map a conversation flow

A lot of the time, the conversations you have with contacts are going to be predictable. Which is why scripts are such an obvious asset for phone banking campaigns. They give volunteers a structure to their conversations and help them collect the right data points.

For peer-to-peer texts, conversational structure comes in the form of templated replies. Map the conversation flow you expect volunteers to have with contacts and provide a templated reply at each point of the conversation that they can send out like this example from the Ron Nirenberg Mayoral Campaign.

Test your tone

Determine the nature of your audience and set a tone for your messages. For example, VOTE.org found that for their audience, an authoritative text that had a link to a voter registration page performed 50% better than a text that just asked people to register to vote.

While you might want to go with what worked for others, It’s always a good idea to try out different types of messaging and see what sticks with your audience.

It’s understandable that most campaigns won’t have the resources or infrastructure to do extensive testing or take contacts through a full-fledged Voter ID->Persuasion->GOTV funnel.

The answer to that is not to blast people with messages in the last leg of the race, but to exercise caution, lest you risk the same inbox blindness with texting that has taken over email communication (especially now that peer-to-peer texting is no secret).

To the best of your ability, gather relevant data points from contacts, target your messages to make them highly relevant and follow best practices for the channels you are using in order to have positive conversations with the people in your contact list.

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Mukundan Sivaraj
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  • It’s good to know that peer-to-peer texting tools use survey forms to capture data. My brother is thinking about using peer-to-peer texting to engage his customers more often. He should find a good tool that can provide the data he needs.