Low-Cost and Low-Barrier: Five (Grassroots) Ways to Get Started with Mobile

Posted by KatrinVerclas on Sep 19, 2008

What does it take for smaller organizations to adde a mobile strategy to advance the work?  What are some ways in which small organizations can get started in mobile, and get what they need for free or at very low cost to try the mobile medium for their work?

We were recently at the Institute for Nonprofits organized by the Bay Area Video Coalition to help a select group of organizations develop their social media strategy.

Lots of the groups at BAVC were interested in exploring how mobile phones fit into their work. Many work with constituents of color and lower-income communities in America that are more likely to be on a mobile than on the web. And of course, this is true around the world already. 

In that same vain, a reader asked recently: "How can I get started in mobile?" He wrote:

I belong to a Community Organization which has made use of bulk SMS in order to mobilize workers in a labor organizing drive.  Most of these workers are low-tech and our "opt-in" system is basically paper sign-in sheets where it is made clear that their sign up will be used to send them SMS alerts.  Shortcode opt-in is not practical for many of our workers. What we are trying to do should be very simple-but I am unable to locate a suitable service that WORKS. 

No asking too much, is it? 

A caveat: This is not meant to be a comprehensive review or survey. It is a compilation of some ideas.  It is a list that is infinitely expandabable so we hope you use the comment section for other ideas and tools!

So then, my far-from-complete list of how very small organizations can get started in mobile. Please, add yours!

1.  Twitter  and Twitter clones: Much has been written about Twitter and the many Twitter clones elsewhere. Twitter is a good way to communicate as a group and with constituents with timely messages. There are more and more organizations that use Twitter as an outreach strategy to let people know in real time what they are doing.  You can use several twitter accounts - one for regular updates and one for urgent alerts that users can subscribe to with their mobiles (Twitter can deliver a text message to a user's mobile in the US, UK, and India.) For users with mobile web and data plans, m.twitter.com is a way to follow you as well. Reuter, the news service, has, for example, a regular twitter account, and a special one for top news.  Nonprofits are experimenting with twitter, and some with some success, but there is no hard data on how many of the constituents of these groups receive updates on their mobile.  There are some other drawbacks to using twitter and other like-tools. Users have to register on twitter.com and then "follow" you to receive your messages.  This may be a barrier for your constituents if they are not routinely online.  Additionaly, while you can see your followers, their mobile numbers (an essential piece of information if you want to build a mobile list) is not accessible to you. 

The low-down:  Good tool to get started in expending your message reach into the  mobile world but you'll likely reach only a somewhat elite and limited audience. Not a good way to build a mobile list if you plan on growing a mobile engagement program.

2. Txtmarks and like-services in the US -- free, low volume messaging services.  Textmarks and other services like it are a great way for small organizations to send text message updates to groups and even have interactive SMS (text message) group-chats.  Taking textmarks, an American company, as an example, an organization can set up a keywordfor its mobile group (say, 3fifty, for example, a climate change organization) and then drive constituents via an online widget, for example, to subscribe.  As with any mobile strategy, services like this need to be thought through by you to be successful. How are you going to get subscribers to the mobile group -- how are you marketing it?  How are you planning on using it?  How does the mobile list related to your other messaging and outreach?  Many of these services allow you to see your subscribers' number, though not many have an export functionfor you to extract that information, and none provide you with the user's name -- just their number.

Once you have decided on your strategy, you do have to consider some of the drawbacks.  Free services like this may insert ads to your messages. Are you willing to live with that, especially if you do not have control over the content of this ad?  Many of the free services offer premium, paid options to avoid ads.  Additionally, you have to live with a shared shortcode (the mobile equivalent of a URL) rather than having your own (which is expensive) which means that you have to educate your users to include a keyword every time they text you.  

The low-down:  If you can live with the drawbacks, these free services are a great way to try out the medium, pilot different approaches, measure some results, and then migrate up to a paid platform when you need more (and can pay for) enterprise-leve services that better integrate with your constituent database. 

3.  Desktop bulkmessaging SMS applications - texting your supporters the bootstrap, do-it-yourself way.  There are a variety of desktop bulk SMS applications that are suitable if you send a low volume of messages to small groups.  These tools are expecially useful in countries where there are no reasonably priced or available SMS vendors that cover you area.  It's not a set of tools we recmmend in America or Europe as many of the carriers in those countries frown upon non-sanctioned 'guerilla' type of bulk text messaging.  We have reviewed different tools previously here.  

The low-down:  Good for small campaigns in developing countries; best with GPRS modems rather than a mobile hooked up to your computer. Tools are getting better and the cost is just the costs of an SMS wherever you are in the world. 

4.  Getting your constitutents to interact with you via mobile with Poll Everywhere and other tools like it (and gather their phone numbers..)  Poll Everywhere lets you set up free or low-cost polls that allow your audience to interact with you via text message (answer a question or vote, for example) and for you to gather information abot them -- namely their mobile number. Plans are low-cost and on a monthly basis so a good way to try out some things with your auudience at an event, for example, and begin developing a mobile list.  Poll Everywhere has number around the world, a nice feature.  On the down-side, the free version on the site does not let you download the mobile information about the respondents or choose a customiozed keyword for your poll, but the available plans that allow you to download data and better customize are very reaonably priced. There are web widgets available to promote an SMS poll or vote, and the tool displays real-time results, giving users feedback. 

The low-down:  An easy way to get started and begin developing a mobile list - all the while intreracting with your audience.  Low cost, and low commitment.  We can't think of a downside with this one.

5.  Get your user to follow you via their mobile on social networks like Facebook, MySpace, or Hi5.  All of the major mobile networks around the world have made their sites accessible via mobile.  While not a personalized way to reach individuals in a 'push' manner, it's worth reminding your constituents that they can see your Facebook or other social network updates on the go.  There are a few Facebook widgets that allow your user to text to you (though you wil not get their mobile numbers) if you have a page, and there is one app that lets you text to up to five supporters.  These are not efficient tools to do an SMS marketing, of course, but if you run a campaign that uses a variety of social media, including social networks, tell your users to check them out on their mobile as well. 

The low-down:  Not a way to reach your constituents through a push campaign but if your audience is mobile-savvy and on Facebook or another social network (i.e. likely to be younger) promote the fact that they can access your pages anywhere, anytime. 

And a bonus idea:

6. Do you know what your site looks like on a mobile?  Check it out on one of these mobile emulators. If you shiver at the look, making your website mobile is easily done. There are lots of free tools and plugins to bloggin software that allow you to make yout site mobile-friendly in little time, let you embed a small script to automatically detect a mobile browser, and display a mobile-friendly site. Mobile web browsing is increasing around the world and is, in fact, the main way in which the majority of the world accesses the web. Mobiforge has some great guides on its site to get you started, and for a list of tools see this article on WAP Review.

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