Will SMS make a difference in who wins the U.S. presidential contest?
For the first time, wireless goes beyond the Rock The Vote initiatives to incorporate
SMS into a candidate’s choice of running mate and beyond.
When Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama announced Joe Biden as his vice presidential running mate, one person in the wireless industry was particularly close to the action.
|Bertram: Got the early morning call from the Obama camp regarding the text message.|
Kevin Bertram, CEO of Distributive Networks, didn’t get any inside knowledge about when the message was going out or what the message contained. But he did receive a call at 2:45 a.m. on Aug. 23 from the Obama campaign letting him know the most widely anticipated text message was about to go out. As CEO of the company responsible for setting up the texts, he wanted to make sure his part of the process went smoothly.
Text messaging is a popular medium around elections, but this year, it rose to new heights when Obama announced his running mate via SMS and e-mail. Such high-profile use of SMS and mobile marketing is triggering questions about the impact of SMS on voting, how this political season might bode for future campaigns and even whether SMS is a viable and secure means for the masses to cast election votes, similar to how it’s done for “American Idol.” But even if it is technically feasible, supporters of SMS voting note that a lot of election rules and societal behavior must be addressed before that ever happens.
No doubt about it, Obama is winning the prize as the most digital and wireless savvy of the two primary presidential candidates. It’s been widely reported in mainstream press that Republican Sen. John McCain is somewhat of a “technophobe” and doesn’t regularly use the Internet. He uses a Motorola RAZR, but Obama has been tapping into the Internet going back to his days in the Illinois State Legislature, and regularly uses his BlackBerry, plus other devices. Obama’s campaign also is busy collecting friends on Facebook, offering tweets from Twitter and distributing ringtones and wallpaper.
|Democrat Barack Obama is known to use multiple wireless devices including his BlackBerry.|
Obliviously, you could argue that McCain doesn’t run the risk of annoying voters by sending so many SMS messages. Likewise candidates’ use of technology doesn’t necessarily dictate their policies toward technology. Obama reportedly has raised more money in Silicon Valley, but McCain’s supporters include Meg Whitman, former chief executive of eBay; John Chambers, CEO and chairman of Cisco Systems; and former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina. Former FCC Chairman Michael Powell is a McCain telecom policy adviser. Interestingly, McCain’s Website states that he opposes higher taxes on wireless services, an issue that has been high on CTIA’s priority list.
The McCain campaign declined a request to comment for this story, while the Obama campaign didn’t respond to requests for comment. Meanwhile, Obama’s campaign is getting all of the attention for its savvy use of wireless, an initiative said to be led by his texting guru, Scott Goodstein. Announcing his vice presidential choice was just one of the Obama campaign strategies – one deemed “brilliant” by some onlookers, if only for the media attention and interest generated by being the first to announce a VP candidate in such a way. But it doesn’t end there. The Obama campaign launched a mobile Internet site (http://m.barackobama.com) enabling supporters, the media and the general voting public to receive the latest news, campaign developments and Obama multimedia content through their phones.
THE BRAND CLOUD
Designed with help from iLoop Mobile, the site represents iLoop’s first foray into politics, and iLoop Executive Vice President of Business Development Michael Becker is impressed with its scope. “It’s really embracing the multimodal aspects” of messaging, e-mail, mobile voting and more, he said. The Obama campaign has demonstrated that it understands how to manage the brand cloud. “They fully embraced the concept,” he said.
|Republican John McCain has a number of Silicon Valley supporters, including Meg Whitman and John Chambers.|
It’s not just Obama supporters who are being targeted. Sure, someone supporting Obama might be more inclined to sign up for his news, but the undecided voters can go to his mobile Website and get position papers e-mailed to them and read about his background, Becker said. Mobile features include opt-in to SMS alerts for appearance schedules; a viral “Tell-a-Friend” component that allows users to forward the site to another person’s phone; a Meet Barack section with biographical information; a news feed from the Obama Website; voting polls to get users’ opinions on issues and more.
To participate in the Obama HOPE Campaign, mobile device users text the word HOPE to 62262, which spells out OBAMA on the phone, or register at the Obama mobile site. While the campaign is powered by Distributive Networks, messages and downloads are delivered in partnership with aggregator SinglePoint.
Distributive as the applications provider will remain exclusive to the Obama campaign and won’t entertain the possibility of working with a competing candidate, according to Bertram. SinglePoint as an aggregator can work with other candidates. “We remain neutral,” sort of like Federal Express in the world of package delivery, said SinglePoint President and CEO Rich Begert.
At the same time SinglePoint was handling the VP announcement, it also was sending out alerts about the Olympics. “Quite frankly, this doesn’t task our system like live television does,” Begert said, adding the company has fine-tuned its platform over the last couple years to maximize efficiencies and handle all of the millions of messages that are pouring in at the same time.
|Begert: Olympic and national election have kept SinglePoint hopping.|
Jupiter Research analyst Julie Ask signed up for text messages from the Obama campaign earlier this year. Getting a reminder three hours ahead of a speech was useful for those on the East Coast, but not so much when she was still at work on the West Coast and unable to remotely control a Tivo to record an appearance. But overall, “they did a pretty good job for there not being much precedent, no guidebook on how you use this,” she said.
Text messaging skews toward the young and urban demographics and usage is high among Hispanic and African Americans, she noted. Penetration is about 85% among 18- to 24-year-olds and 71% for 25- to 34-year-olds, according to Jupiter Research. But wireless industry professionals also point out that text messaging isn’t just for the youth market anymore. After all, their own parents are using SMS.
Earlier this year, Limbo released a report showing how voters’ attitudes and behaviors are influenced through mobile advertising. In January, Limbo ran SMS ad campaigns for the leading Democratic presidential candidates, Obama and Hillary Clinton, delivering more than 1 million SMS impressions across the two campaigns. After seeing the ads, 6% of those surveyed said the ads had changed their voting intentions significantly. Another 22% said their intentions had been changed a little.
|Fit 2 Vote is an Apple iPhone and iPod Touch game that presents quotes said by each of the 2008 presidential candidates and asks players to choose who said each one. If it’s an Obama quote, players are told to lean their phone to the left; if it’s a McCain quote, they lean their phone to the right. Fifty correct answers translates into the “Fit 2 Vote” honor.|
Limbo also asked recipients of the campaign how happy they were to see the candidates advertised through the Limbo service, and only 13% said they would have preferred not to see SMS ads from political candidates, said Limbo Chief Marketing Officer Rob Lawson.
Limbo CEO and Co-Founder Jonathon Linner figures that about 40% of people will probably vote Republican and 40% will vote Democratic, but 20% might be undecided and influenced in some way. Using SMS to share messages about candidates or using mobile applications to learn more about them could influence those undecided voters to some degree. If a voter gets a message from a friend, he or she might be view it as a better endorsement than if it just came from a marketer.
As for whether SMS should be used as an official means of casting votes for candidates, even professionals who work in the SMS industry every day differ there. Enhancements can be done to ensure security and eliminate fraud, but just because it can be done doesn’t necessarily mean it should be, Bertram said.
That said, deployments using SMS are only going to get more creative. “It took a couple elections for the Internet to become integrated into the elections,” Bertram said. The same is likely for wireless, where fund-raising might become more widespread if done in a reasonable way. In terms of what can be done with SMS, “I think we’re seeing the tip of the iceberg here,” Begert said.
|NUMBERS ADD UP|
Even though news outlets reported Sen. Joe Biden as Barack Obama’s vice presidential pick before it went out via text message in the wee hours of Aug. 23, a lot of industry insiders are calling the campaign a success. After all, 2.9 million people received the text, according to Nielsen Mobile.
“This wasn’t just about announcing the VP nominee,” said Nic Covey, director of Insights at Nielsen Mobile. Equally important is the relationship the Obama campaign developed with the owners of all of those mobile phones, the numbers of which it now has in its database.
Covey reviewed a number of mobile campaigns that have occurred in the past couple years, and none of them matched the Obama volume. As of presstime, the
Obama campaign wasn’t saying how many text messages were sent. Some people never got the message.
Still, the lesson for marketers is to figure out what they can offer that will drive consumers to sign up for their texts. “It’s the only medium we can be almost certain that the recipient is going to look at,” Covey said, in part because of the pristine and private nature of SMS.
Guy Vidra, head of 2ergo Americas, which offers a platform for news outlets to manage their election-related mobile alerts, said the novelty aspect of SMS probably will dampen as mobile campaigns grow. That said, SMS is unlikely to see the type of spam and clutter that e-mail fosters; carriers approve short codes and content providers must play by their rules. His company is seeing interest in SMS campaigns from political groups that span both Democratic and Republican parties. “I think it is at the tipping point,” he said. “There’s definitely a big uptake all across the board. Things are heating up.”