Over a decade ago, a political science professor decided to conduct an experiment involving texts and politics. Her goal was to determine if campaigns could use SMS messages to encourage voter participation in a county in California. While it was a success, Professor Melissa Michelson confesses to regretting her decision at times.
Why? On the surface, encouraging politics via SMS should be considered a breakthrough. Billions of these messages went out to voters. You read that right, billions, and therein lies the problem.
The “Text Election” of 2020
During the last elections, many people complained about receiving hundreds of unsolicited texts, and Michelson feels personally responsible for the “monster” she created. Although politicians were hesitant to jump on the technology initially, that’s no longer the case.
Today, campaigns use SMS messages to contact supporters and encourage them to vote and make donations.
Why Are SMS Messages a Popular Political Campaigning Tool?
There are several reasons why political campaign texting is gaining so much traction. First, it’s much cheaper than holding a rally or running a televised advertisement. Second, it’s easy to use and a quick way to grab voters’ attention. Most importantly, SMS messages are almost always read within minutes of being delivered.
As a result, campaigns flooded supporters and opposition with messages. The texts ranged from simple updates to polls, countdowns, and requests for support. Others made voters feel guilty or obligated to donate.
During the 2020 campaign, one political student decided to sign up for texts from both parties. According to Jennifer Stromer-Galley, the messages inundated her inbox, with the Republicans sending three times as many as the Democrats.
One text read, “Do you not care that Donald Trump is running for re-election? Donate now.”
Unfortunately, as the number of messages increased, so did the complaints.
The Legal Loophole
Several privacy laws dictate when you can use a text message for marketing purposes, and when you can’t. Unfortunately, there’s a gaping loophole that political campaigns are using to their advantage.
Federal law states that campaigns can send personalized messages to voters, but there’s one critical condition: a human being needs to be on the side that presses “send.” However, “robotexting,” the practice of sending large numbers of unsolicited texts, is illegal.
Despite the law, many voters received SMS messages without signing up, and unsubscribing wasn’t possible.
Campaigns started using peer-to-peer texting applications to get around legal barriers. While they were a novelty in 2016, they’re a staple today and are used to send billions of messages during elections. In short, volunteers use these apps to send massive numbers of texts, one at a time.
After all, there’s a real human being at the other end, pressing the send button to support their candidate.
Unfortunately, not everyone is smiling about this “political marketing breakthrough.”
The Current State of the “Text Election”
Should campaigns stop using SMS messaging to promote candidates or encourage voter participation? Not! When used correctly, these texts can be highly effective.
Some voters claim that, if they’d received a solicited text from their candidates, they might have donated or even volunteered. According to the statistics:
● Political SMS messages are read between 70% and 98% of the time.
● 40% – 50% of people respond to the texts.
If people read the messages and respond, why are there so many complaints? The answer is simple: it’s the method and the exploitation of loopholes turning voters against political SMS messages. Voters want to be contacted by their candidates and the parties they support.
Unfortunately, campaigners don’t selectively send texts to their supporters and those who support the opposition. Instead of turning them into new donors or voters, the messages cause frustration and anger.
Is there a right way to use texts to communicate with voters? Yes, there is, but it’ll require more responsibility and better campaign management.
There’s a Right Way to Use Political SMS Marketing
Even though there’s been a lot of negative feedback surrounding unsolicited political texts, there’s also been a positive and quantifiable response. If campaigns can generate these results using the wrong methods, how much more interest could they generate if they adopted better practices?
Peer-To-Peer (P2P) Vs. Opt-In Messages
Currently, campaigns are sending obscene amounts of texts via P2P methods. While the reach is significantly broader, it’s a classic case of quantity versus quality. You’ll contact a lot of voters, but the quality of the interaction is low. Even worse, using this method can damage how people view the campaign and the candidate.
Permission-based messages require people to opt-in before they’ll receive anything. The result is a high-quality subscriber list that’ll offer better engagement, donations, and interaction. It also allows the campaign to segment voter data and send customized and relevant texts to its supporters.
Here are a few ways campaigns can use political texts:
● Campaign fundraising: Instead of using short messages with a simple donation link, tell voters how the campaign will use the money. Knowing where the funds are going may make some donors feel a little more generous.
● Get Out the Vote (GOTV): The message must focus on a concern for the voter or their district. According to the statistics, people who received a text addressing valid issues were 8.2% more likely to vote.
● Polls, information, and deadlines: These informative messages give voters critical information and generate engagement.
These are just some of the many ways campaigns can use texts to interact with voters and supporters.
The Vote Is Still Out
Texts are redefining how campaigns and political candidates communicate with voters and collect donations. While the current processes could use improvement, the technology is solid. People are responding to the messages they receive, even though not all the feedback is positive. Regardless, it’s still an excellent political marketing tool with a lot of unexplored potential.
Will you ever be able to cast your vote via SMS in an American Idol-esque way? One day, perhaps. After all, it’s a quick and easy way to pick your favorite performer. Until then, let’s hope that the state of political text marketing improves by 2024.