Lessons in SMS marketing from the Obama campaign

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During his victory speech on Nov. 4, President-elect Barack Obama told supporters that “change has come to America.” He was, of course, referring to the obvious political and historical implications of his win. But the statement could just as easily have been applied to the topics of campaigning and voter communications.

The first presidential campaign to leverage the power of text messaging and other mobile technologies, Obama ’08 revolutionized the way politicians engage voters. “Future campaigns will have to integrate text messaging into their strategies in order to be successful,” said Francoise Galleto, senior account manager for grassroots services at Aristotle, a Washington, D.C.-based political technology firm.

Recognizing this shift and its potential impact on commercial marketing, “Straight Line” spoke with several short message service (SMS) marketing experts to find out what marketers could learn from the Obama ’08 campaign. Here are their top lessons:

1. Get your own short code. One of the first things Obama ’08 did was secure a dedicated short code: 62262 or “Obama” spelled on a telephone dial pad, said Kevin Bertram, CEO of Distributive Networks, the Washington, D.C.-based company responsible for the campaign’s text-messaging platform. The alternative—a shared short code—saves money and time. But it means the code can only be used with the brand’s designated keywords. “You’re not controlling the messaging that might be occurring because other people have keywords on the short code,” said Bertram. “And you’re missing all of the free response messages that come in.”

2. Build a permission-based list. The highly personal nature of cell phones means commercial text messages are more than just advertisements. “You are creating a trusted channel with customers,” said Jed Alpert, CEO of Mobile Commons, a provider of mobile applications software.

Accordingly, marketers should follow the Obama campaign’s example of diligently collecting permissions and explicitly telling consumers what they are opting into. “Don’t just buy lists,” said Bertram. “You’re going to have a terrible response. … and, if you’re sending them unsolicited messages, you’re going to harm your brand.”

3. Offer compelling incentives. Just because you build an SMS marketing program doesn’t mean consumers will come. “There should be some incentive for users to participate,” Bertram said. “If they’re getting something—maybe it’s a coupon, entry into a sweepstakes or mobile content they would find desirable … you get a much greater response rate.”

Obama ’08 offered a special bumper sticker to individuals who texted in, as well as ringtones, phone backgrounds and issue-driven content. The vice presidential announcement via text was also a major draw. Though the media scooped the SMS blast, “lots of people signed up and … still to this day are continuing to receive messages,” Bertram said.

4. Get focused. “Targetability” of mobile messaging is increasing. “Operators are now able to tap into more demographic information than ever before. Political campaigns have utilized these features to target voters in particular cities, regions or with specific issues in mind,” said Chris Lennartz, VP-product marketing for mobile applications provider Airwide Solutions.

The Obama campaign frequently targeted voters by geographic location, informing them about rallies and other events in their areas. “That notification of when things are occurring locally … has been a very effective use of text,” said Bertram. “I don’t think I’ve seen even any commercial brands use that level of sophistication to make sure people get relevant information.”

5. Make messaging timely. Relevance is not just about getting the right information to the right people. It also requires delivering the information at the optimal time. Bertram said the Obama campaign leveraged such timeliness, especially when tapping text messaging’s power as a “get out the vote” tool.

“As the campaign [went] into its final days, it was very important to let people know when particular deadlines in their states came up—whether it was the deadline to register, when you could engage in early voting or different administrative things like that,” Bertram said. “That’s extremely helpful for people because those deadlines can pass very easily.”

6. Establish a dialogue. It might be called “short” message service, but SMS can still be used to cultivate meaningful conversations with consumers. “The [Obama] campaign’s mobile outreach … not only had an eye toward distributing the information but also continuing a dialogue and establishing ongoing relationships between the campaign and supporters,” said Laura Marriott, president of the Mobile Marketing Association.

Obama ’08 used text to direct voters to more in-depth information sources. “If Obama was going to publish a new paper or have a speech on a particular topic, they would let people know how that was available by text message,” said Bertram.

The campaign also routed text messages that didn’t conform to preordained keywords to an in-box. Staff could then review the messages and reply.

For SMS success, such responsiveness and continuity are key. “Once you’ve got [consumers’] interest, continue to provide the information they’re looking for,” said Marriott. “Don’t just do a one-time interaction.”

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