Mobile Advocacy: A Primer

Posted by CorinneRamey on Jun 25, 2008

Note: This primer was written for the NTEN newsletter, targeted at a US audience and thus focuses on America.  For more on mobile advocacy in many other parts of the world, see here.

Mobile phones are more prevalent in the U.S. than ever before. Today, over 86% of the US population ages 13 and up owns a mobile phone. Although Americans say that the mobile phone is the device that they hate the most (it even beats the alarm clock and the television!), the cell phone is here to stay. In the past decade, mobile users have grown from about 34 million to more than 203 million, and growth is expected to continue to increase exponentially.

Mobiles are becoming increasingly intertwined in Americans' daily lives. A 2005 survey by BBDO marketing found that 75% of Americans have their mobile phones on and within reach during waking hours, and 59% wouldn't lend their mobile to a friend for a day. Fifteen percent of survey respondents even said they've answered their mobile phone during sex.

Given these kinds of statistics, advertisers quickly realized the potential for mobile marketing, especially because mobile marketing campaigns have been found to have a higher audience response rate than other kinds of media. According to IDC, a research firm, SMS campaigns with common shorts codes -- a string of five or six numbers that is basically an SMS phone number -- get response rates of up to 10%. This is much higher than other types of media -- email campaigns get a 3-5% response rate, and direct mail is less than .1%.

If mobiles have been this successful in commercial marketing campaigns, the mobile landscape truly is primed for NGOs. Nonprofits can tap into the power of mobiles and learn from many of the mobile marketing techniques that are already being used in the commercial sector.

Here is an overview of mobiles as a communications vehicle for advocacy.

Text messaging, or SMS, is perhaps the most common means of mobile advertising. According to an August 2007 survey, 69% if consumers between the ages of 13-69 use text messaging and 44% use it daily. An SMS can have text of up to 160 characters and can be transmitted instantaneously. Much mobile advertising is done by encouraging users to send a common short code to the company in order to receive content or information. The codes are called "common" because they work across all major carriers.

Some phones can also be used for MMS, or multimedia messaging. MMS also allows the incorporation of sounds, video, and other multimedia content.

Nonprofits have used SMS in all kinds of ways, from keeping in touch with constituents to having supporters sign petitions via SMS. SMS infolines allow users to text-in questions and receive immediate responses. For example, SexInfo in San Francisco provides teens with information about sexual health. "if u hve sex, u can get an STD + not know it. Chlamydia, gonorrhea=no symptoms most of the time Dropin get chcked FREE," reads a text message from the infoline, which is funded by ISIS and the San Francisco Department of Public Health.
Mobile Web

Internet usage on mobiles has also become increasingly popular in the U.S. According to a report by the Kelsey group, 44.7% of U.S. mobile phone users want to upgrade to "better" Internet access when buying a new phone. Currently, only 26% of mobile subscribers have mobile web access. Revenues from mobile search in the U.S. are also expected to rise, the Kelsey group states. Over the next five years, mobile revenues are expected to increase from $33.2 million in 2007 to $1.4 billion in 2012.

Mobile web advertising includes advertisements seen when a phone user is browsing the web, and includes the banner ads and search functions. Mobile search advertising is particularly powerful because the call-to-action can be immediate. For example, if a user searches for "pizza," one of the paid search results could include location-specific results and coupons. Mobile Video Ads are short ads -- between 10 and 30 seconds -- that are placed before, during, or after video content that is designed to be viewed on mobile phones. Although nonprofits have not taken advantage of mobile web, this is becoming increasingly popular for for-profit advertising.
Downloadable content

Downloadable applications and other content can include everything from games and ringtones to applications. Many applications are available for download on a mobile phone -- everything from Google Maps to social networking software to software that allows the user to make mobile payments. The disadvantage of this technique is that the software must actually be downloaded onto the phone, which can incur extra charges to the user. The user must also know how to download content on to their phone, making this technique less universally accessible than SMS.

Ringtones have become one of the most popular types of downloadable content, and have the added advantage of reminding the user of the organization each time they hear their phone ring. For example, the New York Philharmonic sells ringtones of live recordings by the orchestra, the Obama campaigns offers free ringtones on, and the Center for Biological Diversity offers endangered species ringtones.

Text to Screen

Text to screen can function as a unique way for advocacy groups to use interactive media to build a database of mobile phone numbers for future use, show the opinions and demands of a constituency/the public to decision makers in a highly visible manner, and generate media and public attention. Individuals interact with the screen by sending an SMS to a short code. The SMS is then displayed on a so-called jumbotron, as well as on a web screen. This allows people to see the message both locally -- on the screen -- and all over the world -- on the web.

In October of 2007, California activist coalition It's OUR Healthcare! (IOH) ran a text-to-screen advocacy campaign that allowed people to text in messages about health care to a screen set up in front of the California Statehouse in Sacramento. The campaign was designed in response to a health care proposal by California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The screen, about 9x12 feet large, was set up within viewing distance of the building. The IOH campaign also used a webcam to film the screen, publishing it as a live feed on their website. IOH encouraged people to "text message the governor" an SMS with their thoughts or personal experiences regarding California health care.

How do you do it?

There are several mobile vendors in the U.S. that can help NGOs set up a mobile campaign. Vendors usually charge setup and monthly fees to consult with the organization to craft the campaign strategy, set up the platform to fit the specific needs of the organization, and manage the outbound and inbound mobile messaging campaigns. Most vendors provide nonprofits with a web setup that shows metrics such as response rates, times, and allows the nonprofit to tailor their mobile strategy. There are tools available that can help to create a do-it-yourself mobile campaign, but this is much more complicated -- although cheaper -- than working with a vendor.

When running a mobile campaign, it's important to realize that the Mobile Marketing Association (MMA) has strict rules on mobile advertising in order to prevent spam. Unlike emails, which can be sent to anyone, people must opt-in to a mobile list and choose to receive messages. The Mobile Marketing Code of Conduct, enforced by the MMA, dictates that individuals specifically opt-in to a mobile campaign. Acceptable methods of opting in include voice consent, website registration, an SMS or MMS opt-in process, or other means. All SMS sent must also contain an option to opt-out of a campaign as well. The MMA requires that the opt-out process be accessible from every message and an explanation of the opt-out process be included frequently.

However, despite the regulations, mobile is quickly emerging as a worthwhile channel for nonprofits and a powerful and personal way to reach constituents at any time of day.

Photo credit to Moritz.

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