How SMS Text Messaging Won the 2016 US Elections

Ever since the Federal Election Commission (FEC) approved the use of fundraising via SMS text message, SMS has become a main engagement tool for all presidential candidates. During the 2012 elections, Obama became the first presidential candidate to capitalize on the new “text-to-donate” option. In addition to fundraising, this 2016 election has witnessed the most extensive use of SMS by candidates including reminders of registration deadlines, key event highlights, and even helping voters find nearby polling stations.

This is not surprising since millennials have been a key voter subset in this year’s election and a overwhelming 88.7% of them check their text messages almost instantly. A study by Dynmark International, a digital marketing agency, shows that the average open rate of a text message is 98%, almost three times the open rate of emails.

SMS has been the preferred communication tool for both volunteers and voters. Unlike phone calls, volunteers don’t have to sit through awkward and stressful rejection calls and voters no longer need to be disturbed by campaign calls. Here what worked and what didn’t work when both Democrat and Republican candidates leveraged SMS text messages. Some campaigns succeeded in boosting voter engagement, increasing donations, and driving voter registration. However, other campaigns have neglected subscription bases and even violated SMS regulations, which can have significant consequences.

What Has Worked

Although Bernie Sanders was not selected as the Democratic nominee, the runner-up ran one of the most successful SMS text messaging campaigns to date. Sander’s campaign used third-party apps like Hustle to connect directly to millennials, a key voter sub-set that rarely feels connected to presidential candidates. In some rallies during his campaign, 95% of his supporters showed up to his rallies through text message notifications.

The campaign even went as far as to creating the Bernie Messenger. The interactions with users were personalized and prompted three calls to action including getting your friends registered to vote, inviting friends to volunteer or attend campaign events, or invite a friend to install the Bernie Messenger. As a result, these calls to action gained him over 50,000 mobile subscribers since launching his refer-a-friend campaign.

At the end of his presidential campaign and in light of leaked emails that suggested Hillary Clinton’s nomination was an organized effort within the party, Bernie even used text messaging to urge his supporters not to protest during the Democratic National Convention.

Following in Obama’s foot steps, Hillary Clinton’s campaign has been capitalizing on SMS since the very beginning. In 2015, gifs and memes sent from the “Texts from Hillary” campaign during the GOP debate went viral and became an internet sensation. Even Hillary’s top digital strategist, Teddy Goff, stated that texting has been a key tool for swaying voters, raising money and organizing volunteers (Text VOLUNTEER to 47246). Text messaging has been such a strong engagement tool that Hillary announced her choice for VP through a text message to her supporters.

Most recently, the Clinton campaign has also launched an SMS bot that texts subscribers Donald Trump quotes. Not only can you have conversations with the SMS bot, you can also reply with the keyword “SOURCE” to receive the link to the referenced article, video, or transcript. But bots aside, Steph Hannon, CTO for Hillary for America, has stated that SMS has been “a key component of our digital program to keep supporters in the loop about breaking news.

Throughout the campaign, Hillary has also been using SMS as a way to gage voter sentiments on key issues including student loans. As well as delivering personal messages regarding endorsements from Dolores Huerta (Text DOLORES or HUERTA to 47246) and attacks on Republican contenders including Jeb Bush (Text INSULT or INSULTO to 47246).

As we get closer to the elections, SMS has become a battleground for gaining voter share. Just last week, Hillary’s campaign launched an SMS hotline dedicated to protecting Spanish-speaking voters. By texting VOTA to 47246, voters can report voter intimidation and suppression and get connected to poll observers and attorneys within 24 hours.

Not only can you receive text message updates from Hillary by signing up on her website or by texting HFA (Hillary for America) to 47246, supporters can also download an app that can help influence your friend’s votes. This new app syncs iPhone contacts with all of your Facebook friends and sends a personal text messages to try to sway potential voters. According to Clinton’s campaign, the app has been a huge success and has already been downloaded over 150,000 times.

What Has Not Worked

On the other hand, Republican nominee, Donald Trump has been using SMS in a more traditional sense; as a one-way notification tool for campaign updates. Even though Trump has implemented short code SMS into his campaign (text Trump to 88022), he is making limited use of SMS for engaging subscribed voters. Instead of gathering more data points about his subscribers by asking targeted questions, Trump’s campaign is treating SMS like another social media platform to broadcast duplicate content. Surprisingly after the success of other text-to-donate campaigns, Trump’s campaign is also currently not taking donations through SMS.

SMS has powered many campaigns, but for Donald Trump, it could actually cost him much more. In April, a massive and unsolicited text message campaign went out to thousands of unsubscribed recipients, who in response joined together in a class-action lawsuit that could cost his campaign millions of dollars. This is because text messaging in the United States is one of the most heavily regulated SMS services in the world. As part of the Telephone Consumer Protection Act, SMS text messages in the US require strict opt-in and opt-out procedures. Any deviation from the stated regulations can result in unsolicited text messages, which then gives consumers the right to sue.

Likewise Republican Nominee runner-up, Ted Cruz, kicked off his campaign by telling supporters to text GROWTH to 33733 during an initial speech, which helped him gain over 16,000 new SMS subscribers. He also used SMS campaigns to collect donations, which saw about 80% of donors complete text contributions compared to a mere 30% completion while filling out credit card forms.

However, since keywords are important to subscriber engagement through SMS short codes, Ted Cruz’s misread of the opt-in keyword, likely caused a lot of missed opportunities. More specifically, Cruz had instructed supporters to sign up to his SMS campaign by texting “Constitution” to his short code 33733. However, the short code was only setup for the keyword “Imagine”, therefore those who texted Constitution to 33733 would not have been added to the campaign at all.

What We’ve Learned

Thus far, the 2016 Elections has taught us how powerful SMS can be to survey subscriber data and engage with supporters. However, unlike other communication mediums like Twitter and Facebook, strict telecommunications guidelines must be followed.

For example, automated messages on a large scale such as the one from political candidates should be sent via a Short Code instead of a regular 10-digit phone number (i.e., a Long Code). This is because long codes are only reserved for Peer-to-Peer communication, a one-on-one exchange of text messages between two mobile subscribers. While short codes are designated for businesses that send Application-to-Person (A2P) communication. A2P communication is what you’ll typically experience with SMS purchase alerts from banks, flight notifications while traveling, and even password authentication for logins, just to name a few.

However, even when all the guidelines are followed, there are still a lot of best practices for getting the most our of your subscriber experience but if the suggestions of the right opt-in mechanism, memorable keywords, personalization, and engagement are used, it can be make a large positive impact on any campaign.

  • Easy opt-in mechanism: There are many acceptable opt-in mechanisms including website signup, physical form filling, and texting. But to make it available to all users, it’s important to assess how and what your users are familiar with. Websites and SMS will likely give your campaign the largest reach and can be a mechanism to engage in a younger subscriber base. However, if physical form filling is the only mechanism available, it’s critical to ensure that the subscribers understand what they’re signing up for, or else reports of unsolicited messages can shut down your campaigns.
  • Memorable phone numbers: Short codes with repeating digits are a great way to make your phone number memorable (e.g., Chipotle’s 888222). However, you can also purchase a Vanity Short Code, which allows you to choose the phone number you want instead of getting assigned a random short code upon purchase. Even though Vanity Short Codes can be more expensive, it could be worth the money if you can select a memorable word as your short code. For example, Coca cola’s short code is 36569 (ENJOY) and Sprite’s short code is actually the name of their product 777483 (SPRITE).
  • Memorable keywords: This incredibly important part of your brand should be both memorable and related to your campaign. The easier it is to remember and opt-in for your campaigns, the more potential subscribers you can acquire. For example, Target had a coupon campaign which asked customers to text “OFFERS” to 827438 (TARGET) to subscribe. Chipotle also ran a campaign and asked customers to text “GOLD” to 888222 to learn more about their “Gold Standard” for food and ingredients.
  • Regular two-way engagement: Amassing subscribers is only the beginning. Active and regular engagement when used sparingly can be a key piece in getting customer feedback and even expanding on your customer base by leveraging existing subscribers. Bernie Sanders used this mechanism well when his campaign launched a mechanism to share campaign and rally details with friends.
  • Engage them in other ways: Starbucks have also been using SMS as an additional mechanism to sign up for their email offers. One advertisement asked store customers to text their email to the Starbucks short code 22122 to subscribe to their rewards program where they will send you custom offers, give you free drinks on your birthday and even allow you to pay via SMS.
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