Text Messaging in U.S. Politics

Lollapalooza, the alternative music festival, conjures up all sorts of associations. Oil policy is probably not among them. But one energy nonprofit is looking to use this year's festival to lobby its cause—and is hoping to connect with music lovers using a very Gen-X technology: the text message.

As bands like the Red Hot Chili Peppers perform on stage this month, representatives from the Natural Resources Defense Council Action Fund will peddle their policy, encouraging people in the crowd to use their cell phones to send the text message "MABO"—for Move America Beyond Oil—to a special number, or short code. The phone numbers of text-messagers will be compiled with specialized software, and NRDC Action Fund will follow up with those enthusiastic texters to enlist support for its MABO petition, which lobbies for specific policies aimed at reducing American oil dependence.

While NRDC Action Fund is ahead of the tech game here in the United States, text messaging, or SMS (for Short Message Service), in politics is hardly new elsewhere in the world. Opponents of Philippine President Joseph Estrada mobilized their supporters via text message as early as 2001, and a massive texting campaign was credited with boosting youth turnout in Spain's 2004 presidential elections. More recently, Mexico's president-elect Felipe Calderón launched millions of text messages in the days immediately preceding his narrow win over Andres Manuel Lopez Obradór.

American political groups seem to be catching on. Person-to-person text messaging was credited with rallying runaway support for the nationwide immigration protests this spring. It was so successful that activist groups have expanded on the concept—Voto Latino, a nonprofit that seeks to register young Hispanic voters, recently launched a nationwide text-message outreach program. "When we came up with the proposal, the funders thought this was sort of out of left field," says Maria Theresa Peterson, the group's executive director. "But we did the homework. These kids are texting in record numbers."

Can a teen trend be turned into a weapon of choice for politicos hoping to energize their constituents? Some strategists are betting it can: "Where 2004 saw the great blog campaign, we're likely to be talking about the great text-messaging campaign of 2008," says Joe Trippi, who, as Howard Dean's 2004 presidential campaign manager, was a pioneer in the use of the Internet as a fund-raising and organizing tool. "The technology is right on the cusp of becoming very big."

If this sea change does take place, Jed Alpert is likely to be riding the wave. Alpert is the president and CEO of Rights-Group, a wireless entertainment company which runs POLITXT, a service aimed at helping politicians and interest groups tap the potential of the text message. Until about a year ago, Alpert worked exclusively in entertainment marketing, using cell-phone services to promote the likes of Justin Timberlake and Britney Spears. In one popular promotion, fans could provide their phone numbers and pay to receive text messages and voicemails from Spears—"Next time I have a party, you're totally invited," the singer might say.

Alpert soon realized the political potential of this kind of marketing, particularly in its capacity to gather names. Names, Alpert says, are the new currency of political mobilization. The advantage of text messages when it comes to name gathering—over, say, e-mail—lies in the likelihood they will be opened. While 15-25 percent of solicited political e-mails are opened, the open rate for text messages is nearly 95 percent. When Alpert translated his Britney-model of text-marketing to the political circuit, he met with instant success. The lobby group People for the American Way (PFAW), where Alpert volunteered his service on a trial basis, reported that 25-30 percent of people asked to call their congressman via text message responded, as compared to the 2-3 percent success rate they had been getting with e-mail requests.

Those kinds of numbers quickly drew the attention of other lobby groups, not to mention political candidates. "Over the course of a year, it's just exploded in popularity," says Alpert. As a number of Alpert's clients point out, the value of POLITXT lies in its ability to successfully gather information, as much as to disperse it. You can't send a text message unless you have a number to send it to; the trick for any political organizer, then, is getting people to hand over—or text over—their numbers.

Getting that contact info was key for the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW). Earlier this year, the group was in the midst of an effort to petition the Canadian government to ban seal hunting. Cassandra Koenen, IFAW's manager of marketing and online campaigns, found POLITXT on Google. Within 10 days, and with Alpert coordinating, IFAW's United Kingdom field team published print advertisements asking people to text the message "BAN IT" to a specified short code. An automatic response, set up by POLITXT, then asked respondents to forward along their e-mail addresses, their phone numbers having already been recorded in POLITXT's database. The IFAW compiled over 50,000 names in one month. When the British Parliament reconvenes in September, the IFAW plans to send text messages to each respondent from the U.K., requesting them to contact their representatives at strategic times leading up to a vote.

The first American politician to sign on with Alpert's company was former vice-presidential candidate John Edwards, whose One America political action committee is currently launching a trial text-message campaign. "John Edwards will be giving a speech, and he'll say, text the word 'HOPE' to this short-code," explains Ryan Montoya, the One America Committee's technology adviser. "Then whenever there's an issue where [we] want them to take some action, we will say [via text message], here's the number for a particular congressman." Nor is the committee limited to text messages, Montoya adds. "If we have their phone numbers, not only can we text them, but we can also call them. They could get a voice message from Senator Edwards."

Other high-profile politicians have undertaken similar texting campaigns. Rick Santorum, a Republican senator from Pennsylvania, announced in June that his campaign would be employing the technology in his uphill fight for re-election. "Through the use of cell-phone text messaging, we are ensuring that even the busiest of voters have access to information about my record where and when they seek it," explained Santorum.

With so many mass texting campaigns in the works, one inevitable question arises: Is this just glorified spam? Is the honeymoon of 95 percent open rates doomed to dwindle as more and more activists move into text messaging? Alpert points out that people sign up for text messages voluntarily and argues that spamming is unlikely, even if registries of numbers did manage to get into the wrong hands. "Phone carriers like Verizon and Cingular have ultimate control on who sends bulk messages," he says. "If someone sends a spam via text, the carriers will just shut them down."

Even so, the technology has limitations. The American telecom infrastructure is still developing, and a number of campaign managers say it will be some time before enough of their constituents use text messaging for the technology to meet its full marketing potential. "You're talking about an evolving technology," acknowledges Trippi. "[SMS usage] is certainly not ubiquitous." Montoya echoes this point: "In a few years, we could, for instance, send people video messages, but we're not there yet."

Furthermore, there's the issue of cost. Blogging, of course, is free to anyone with Internet access. Text messaging is not. "Most vendors charge a setup fee and then a monthly maintenance fee," explains Jordan Kessler, the Web-site manager for the Natural Resources Defense Council Action Fund, which has also contracted with Alpert. These fees have come down significantly over the past year, Kessler notes, but they aren't nominal. IFAW paid POLITXT $15,000 to license its software, and $500 to $1,000 a month in maintenance fees.

"The economics is still being worked out, particularly here in the States," says Trippi. The most successful SMS campaigns abroad, including the ones in the Philippines and Spain, were essentially word of mouth, person-to-person messaging campaigns. That is, they were not coordinated by messages blasted from a central source. It remains unclear how well a blast model will translate, particularly given the fees.

Still, those backing the technology are sanguine. "The advocacy application of text messaging is going to get bigger and bigger as the [2008] election comes up," says Alpert. Trippi, who recently signed on to Kweisi Mfume's 2006 Maryland Senate campaign, says he plans to test the text-messaging waters: "People are moving away from just television to blogs and text messaging, and I'll experiment with all of that. The party that doesn't master these techniques over time is going to falter."