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PdF Network: How Obama did mobile, text messaging and SMS

BY Nick Judd | Thursday, December 17 2009

Revolution Messaging CEO and Obama campaign External Online Director Scott Goodstein took an hour Thursday to be the guest on the latest PdF Network conference call, where he dished some advice on mobile messaging and gave people a glimpse under the hood of the Obama campaign's SMS and mobile communications efforts.

Unlike most of our calls, this one wasn't recorded — but I was listening in and taking notes. Here's what I took away from the call, hosted by Micah Sifry:

Goodstein gave tips on mobile usage ranging from the practical (like how much easier it is to grow the mobile list at events than at any other time) to the strategic (like how mobile communication was great for issue-based messages and calls to action, but — at least for the Obama campaign — not an effective fundraising tool).

The live conference call was also a chance to hear another perspective into the Obama campaign's inner workings. The campaign's use of mobile communications was constrained by a mix of technical shortfalls, mobile carrier regulations, budget considerations and the inability of many Americans to understand how things like text messaging actually work, Goodstein said.

Among the core things to take away from the call, Goodstein gave these tips:

  • Text messages are immediate. When they reach a supporter watching Sunday night football with his friends, that's a chance to generate word-of-mouth for your issue or candidate. When your candidate is going to make a late-night TV appearance, an SMS message a few hours before will be seen more often than an e-mail that list members might not get a chance to read until hours or days after the show is over.
  • Events are the best way to grow a list. It doesn't matter if the candidate is a rock star — what matters is that at every event, someone is asking people to take out their phones and send an opt-in message to the campaign shortcode. Don't underestimate the power, Goodstein said, of “using a little bit of good ol' fashioned guilt in a small room.” And if you've got a short code, use it — the Obama campaign found capturing information about supporters was far more effective through SMS messaging than the good ol' fashioned clipboard.
  • SMS is a great way to get people where they need to be. Goodstein offered field offices as an example — oftentimes a campaign's staging area is a storefront or a parking lot with no Internet access. Internal SMS messages could cue organizers in to a conference call — and even include the correct 1-800 number to dial in. In northeastern Ohio, when polls were kept open two extra hours in response to a snowstorm, text messages informed phone banks to keep calling and voters that they had extra time to cast their ballot.
  • Text messages are expensive. America is the only country in the world where mobile users must pay to receive text messages as well as send them, Goodstein said. Because carriers are very sensitive about spam and will take two to three months to get your campaign on a whitelist if complaints about too many messages shut down your shortcode — and because it's not a good idea to have your volunteers associating your campaign with higher phone bills — it's best to keep the number of texts to a minimum, or to let people choose how many texts to receive.
  • Technology is hard to understand. Long keywords might be trivial for some 15-year-old somewhere, Goodstein said, but not for most people who still pound the same keypad to type texts as they do to dial phone numbers. And while shortcodes are de rigeur for younger folks (and the rest of the wired world), those five- or six-digit special numbers would be a turn-off for less tech-savvy voters here in the states. So in order to have extended interactions, it'd be a better idea to use SMS as a gateway. For example, the Obama campaign sent out texts that asked recipients to call a 1-800 number. The 1-800 hundred number used interactive voice — a technology most Americans understand by now — to take the actions the campaign needed.
  • Text messaging is part of an integrated strategy. Using SMS to organize people and disseminate urgent messages allowed the e-mail list to be used more often for fundraising asks and other calls to action, Goodstein said.
  • Like everything else in a modern campaign, text messaging is driven by data. He called the Obama campaign's data integration team the “unsung heroes” of the operation, and said it's crucial to get everything that a campaign captures into a single, expansive database.

Goodstein also revealed some of text messaging's limitations. In the United States, carriers keep an iron grip on traffic. But their networks, at least for now, are geared for trickles of one-to-one conversations, not blasts of high traffic among thousands of people at once. As a result, messages don't always reach their destinations, and carriers — who are, in the view of Goodstein and some others who provide similar services, kind of touchy where this is concerned — will decide to shut down a shortcode if it looks like it's sending spam. Then they'll take two to three months to restore the code to service, even if there were no unscrupulous communications.

When the Obama campaign announced that the first people to find out the name of his vice presidential nominee would be the people who signed up for his SMS list, that list grew dramatically. People love to get breaking news via text, Goodstein said. But not everyone who signed up got the message. (Sifry was on the list, he said during the call, and he didn't get the text.)

It was late in the campaign when the Obama for America iPhone app launched, but it was still downloaded 500,000 times and was used to make at least 50,000 phone calls, Goodstein said. (That number, he said, is conservative: people also downloaded the app to their iPod Touch devices, and would have had to use a different device to phone bank for Obama. Those calls couldn't be tracked via a leaderboard as the ones generated directly through the app were.)

But there's no One True App for the future of mobile, Goodstein said — instead, the future will be in tools that will be widely available across phones and carriers, like video is certain to be. Most people won't have what he called “premium” devices, he said; most people will be using stuff with logos closer to “LG” or “Samsung” than the Apple apple or “Google” in friendly and colorful letters.

The thrust of his argument was this: To capitalize on the future of mobile, stick to what people will use, and more importantly, easily understand.

There was a lot more content to the discussion. Normally that meat would be online in perpetuity for PdF Network members to go back and revisit at their leisure, as part of our archive of past conference calls.

That didn't happen this time, at Goodstein's request. But the mobile expert has posted additional resources on his Twitter feed and the conversation left a Twitter footprint with the hashtag #pdfnetwork.

To get in on the next conversation — on Jan. 7 with Patrick Ruffini and Mindy Finn, about the online component to Virginia Governor-elect Bob McDonnell's online campaign — you can join the PdF Network.