Mobiles in Advocacy Redux -- Tips and Advice

Posted by KatrinVerclas on Jan 27, 2009

Allyson Kapin from Women Who Tech asked me to respond to some excellent questions about mobile campaigns for advocating for specific social issues.  As I just received two  text messages from NARAL and the Planned Parenthood Federation of America promoting two campaigns they are running, I thought I take the opportunity to answer Allyson's questions publicly, drawing on my experience and observations of the last few years of mobiles in advocacy, illustrating what works and what is better avoided in using mobiles in advocacy campaigns.  This is, by nature of the question, somewhat US-centric.  A follow-up article will focus on mobile campaigning in the Global South to differentiate some of the key issues. 

How can integrating mobile technology benefit online advocacy campaigns?

Mobile phones are an integral part of more and more people -- some 85% in the United States, with equal numbers in Europe, and growing numbers, especially among middle-class individuals, in Latin America, Africa, and Asia.  If your campaign requires just-in-time action, mobiles are worth considering as part of your overall strategy. The key word in this question is indeed "integration."  As with all campaigns, clear goals and a well-thought-out strategy and knowledge about the target constituency are key.  Mobiles - as any other technology - are only as good as the overall strategy, and if the campaign strategy is unclear, unfocused, and not considering the target constituency, mobile deployment will be flawed. so when then are mobiles useful?

  • When you want to reaching people when they are away from their computers -- on their commute, at an event, on short notice.
  • When you want to reinforce your brand or campaign issue across multiple channels. See, for example, the Health Care campaign last year that had members text in to a public jumbatron and then live-streamed the screens to their website and to Facebook, as part of a day of action. 
  • When you want to involve individuals high up on the activist 'ladder of engagement' - your super acivists that you know will do what you ask them to do.
  • When you want to engage a high-mobile-literate constituency -- younger people, Latinos, African Americans, professional women. 
  • When you want you want your activists to make a phone call - which, arguably, is easiest from a number sent to a person's phone. 
  • When you want to build a mobile list and grow your mobile activist base.

I am going to pick a bit on two campaigns from the last couple of days and suggest, in the context of these questions how they could have done a bit better.

Two examples: NARAL and Planned Parenthood

Both were from US women's organizations - NARAL and Planned Parenthood.  Both were focused on thanking the new American President for his swift overturn of the so-called gag rule, a Reagan-era policy that prohibited foreign nongovernmental family-planning groups from receiving U.S. funds if they provided abortions, borth control, sex education, or lobbied for abortion rights in their country.  

NARAL sent a text message to its mobile list that stated: 

Obama just reversed the global gag rule! Tell him we'll stand by him when he does the right thing - reply "call" or dial 202-684-8507 to say "Thanks!"

When calling that number, you would listen to a recorded message from NARAL's president Nancy Keenan and then would be rerouted to the White House switchboard.

This was a very nice campaign - timely, well-worded, with a clear ask, multi-media, easy to act upon, and positive and informative. 

NARAL also overall does well integrating building its mobile list into its online outreach, asking for mobile numbers on all of its online actions.  If you fill out any kiond of form on the NARAL website, you are asked for the mobile number with the disclaimer:

By entering your mobile phone number above, you are opting in to receive urgent and timely text messages on your phone. Simply text "STOP" to 49609 at any time to unsubscribe.

I have also seen NARAL's handcards and wrtten materials that ask for mobile numbers and provide a way to for people to text in to join the mobile list. We conducted an interview with NARAL's mobile campaign manager (and advocacy expert) Kristin Koch a while back here.

Unfortunately, however, the SMS was sent just after business hours on a Friday evening - at 5:03 pm, precisely.  Everyone trying to call the White House to leave a thank-you message for the president was informed that the White House comment line closes at 5 pm and to call back in the morning.  While it is not quite understandable why a comment line should ever close, NARAL campaigners should have tested the message and should have known this -- and send out the SMS alert much earlier. As a result, I got a text message today -- four days later -- that said:

Sorry, White House comment line was closed on Friday when you called.  Pls thank Obama for reversing the global gag rue - reply "call" or dial 202-684-8507.

Too bad for the missed opportunity -- though I did call again and left my message; this time to an available White House comment line.

Meanwhile, Planned Parenthood opted for a text-to-screen campaign -- as you can see in the picture and here.  By texting "Obama" to 69866, followed by a thank-you message, you can see your thank-you displayed ona website.

Sadly, while a cool idea (I am a fan of text-to-screen campaigns), it was very poorly executed and had many things wrong with it.  I am on the PPFA SMS list but never received a text message -- the action alert to text the thank you was sent via the email alert list, according to a colleague. The site with the thank you messages is not linked from anywhere on the main PPFA site -- no mention, no messages, no links, no celebration of the thank yous (and a way to get more mobile numbers) anywhere on the main website. In fact, I never found a link -- the only way I found the 'thank you, Obama' page was through a friend on twitter. If you can not find it, the page does not make much sense.  

Additionally, as with most text-to-screen campaigns, the messages are moderated, which means that unless someone pays attention on the receiving end, the same eight messages keep scrolling through the site, without any variation. 

To its credit, however, PPFA does have a nice little widget on its Facebook page saying:

President Obama overturned the Global Gag Rule! Join Planned Parenthood & women around the world in thanking him with a text message. Enter your phone number to say thanks! (ex: 555-555-5555)

It would just be great to see the answers there as well and stream them semi-live to the fan page, and PPFA website. And while we are at it, why do none of the sign-up forms on the PPFA website ask me for my mobile? 

So, all in all, these two mini-examples of campaigns show that mobile advocacy is still a way off to be succefully integrated and strategically planned by even some usually very savvy advocacy organizations. 

What kind of results/outcomes can non-profits expect to see?

Excellent question, and hard to answer.  Metrics are still elusive. The Direct Marketing Association's Nonprofit group was working on a joint test for metrics in mobile marketing but either it failed in some way, or the results were so abysmal that they did not want to release them, the project was never heard from again, even after some probing.  We compiled a while back a little primer on what we know about text messaging effectiveness which is on our wiki here.

We may want to consider doing more here - something like M&Rs email metrics - except for mobile campaigns to start developing some baselines. 

Non-profits are worried about the economy, is integrating mobile technology expensive?

A full-blown mobile campaign is nt cheap. Developing a strategy, hiring a reputable vendor, developing a mbile opt-in list, paying for SMS costs -- all of this takes some time, effort, and money. 

We are often asked what it takes for smaller organizations to adde a mobile strategy to advance the work.  So 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?

Here is a typical question: 

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, 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 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. 

More on using mobiles in advocacy is here:

Mobile Advocacy Primer

Low-cost and Low Barrier Ways to a Mobile Campaign

And lots, lots more at the MobileActive wiki pages on mobile advocacy


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