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Hey, Baby:'s Text-Powered Teen Pregnancy Campaign

BY Sarah Lai Stirland | Wednesday, September 26 2012

Last January, Alysha Bologno, a digital engagement associate at the teen social change nonprofit got a new assignment: Create a new campaign around the issue of teen pregnancy.

The issue is one of the top three that the 995,694 members of care about, according to the group's internal polling. (The other two top issues, in order, are animals and hunger. To be a member of the organization you have to be under 25.)

Public health authorities report that the United States has a teen birth rate of 37.9 births per 1,000 people between the ages of 15 and 19 as of 2009 -- that's almost twice times the rate found in Britain, three times the rate of teens having children in Canada, and a staggering 10 times the rate of teen pregnancy in Switzerland. Experts say that many of these kinds of unexpected pregnancies have additional social effects on the life of the parents, including their ability to advance through higher education, as well as on the health of the children who are born to those parents.

"I was beating my head against a wall thinking about what kind of action I could get a teen to take around teen pregnancy? It's a sensitive issue," said Bologno in an interview.

The organization had just started to focus on texting instead of emailing its membership because recent experiments had shown that their members were much more responsive to text messages than to email. Their internal numbers showed that texts have a 90 percent open rate. Also, members were responding and sending texts back.

Research over recent years from the Pew Research Center back up those internal numbers. Research published this March indicates that teens exchange a median number of 60 texts a day, up from 50 in 2009. In addition, Pew reported that 77 percent of teens own a cell phone.

So someone in the office joked that Bologno should "put a baby in the phone." Bologno said that she thought that notion actually made sense: What about giving the teens an experience of what it might be like to take care of a baby through text messaging?

"What about putting a baby in someone’s phone, and waking them up at 6.30 and [contacting them] at other annoying moments throughout the day?" she said. "It’s like a Tamagotchi."

So Bologno set up a "game," wherein members were asked online and through text to join the campaign and text "baby" to the shortcode 38383. Within the next 12 hours, they would then receive texts putting them in a variety of real-world new parent situations.

Here's one sample text: "OMG, you’re up too?!? I thought I was the only one who likes to wake up at 630 AM! Well since we’re both awake now – let’s eat! Bring baby breakfast in bed." And here's another: "What’s that smell? Oh.. it’s me. We've got a situation downtown. I need to be changed ASAP. Stop what you're doing, answer the call of doodie & freshen me up!" used Mobile Commons to manage the campaign.

At the end of the experience, teens were directed back to a resource page on's microsite.

The messaging campaign was reviewed by The National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, The Healthy Teen Network, and Advocates for Youth. Officials from the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy did not respond to a call and an email seeking additional information about the impact of the campaign. In an e-mail note responding to a query for further information about their perspective on the campaign, Bill Albert, the National Campaign's chief program officer, said: "Information and conversation alone is necessary not sufficient. That is, getting young people talking about the value of delaying pregnancy and parenthood, delaying sex, and using contraception is absolutely important but alone, not enough."

He added: "Of course, this is not a surprising notion given all that we know about human behavior. People know smoking is not good for them yet they continue to smoke. Behavior is a tricky beast and to move the needle needs something closer to a kitchen sink approach rather than simply stuffing people full of facts, figures, and bromides and hoping for the best."

For their part, Bologno and her team set a goal of 10,000 people engaging in the game, which took place between May 14 and June 19th. Members who chose to engage in the campaign were given the chance of winning a $2,000 scholarship. Ultimately, more than 100,000 people ended up signing up to engage in the campaign. ( has 600,000 people on its text-messaging list.) also received 171,000 unsolicited incoming messages -- which meant one every 20 seconds during the duration of the campaign. Half of the teens surveyed by afterwards said that they intended to talk to friends and family about the issue.

"In terms of success, that was a big one for us," she said in an interview.

So successful from their perspective, in fact, that has just launched another texting campaign, which just went live Wednesday. It's called Bully Text, and is meant to raise awareness about bullying in schools. is encouraging the public to sign up for the campaign themselves, as well as to get five of their friends to engage. Again, they're offering the chance to win a $2,000 scholarship just for engaging.

The difference this time around is that people who sign up for the campaign are asked explicitly to engage and interact with their phones by texting words to's short code to engage in an unfolding story, sort of like a choose-your-own-adventure book.

Bologno says that plans to do another teen pregnancy campaign next year, and that with more funding, the next iteration the campaign could be more elaborate.

"We don’t really talk about teen pregnancy that much. What made it really effective was that they started talking about it," she said.

This post has been updated with a comment from Bill Albert.