Obama Campaign Exploits Text Messaging

Or, How to Win the Battle in Battleground States in 160 Characters or Less

The just-concluded presidential election included many historic aspects, and not to be forgotten was the role of technology, particularly text messaging. People typically have their cell phones with them at all times, which makes texting to those phones an effective way to reach them with a message.

Although using text messaging isn’t new to politics, the extent to which it was used in this election was unprecedented—particularly how it was used by the Obama campaign. Starting during the early days of his campaign, Obama strategists offered things such as free bumper stickers and ring tones as a method of collecting cell phone numbers. The campaign also chose to break the news of Obama’s vice presidential running mate as a text message, giving them the opportunity to collect more mobile numbers.

The Obama campaign released a free iPhone app called Obama ’08 at the beginning of October. You could use the app to get up-to-date information about the campaign, but it also organized your contacts to highlight numbers in key battleground states so that you could call and network with those people. And, of course, the app also let the Obama campaign collect more cell phone numbers.

The Obama campaign used its sizeable database of numbers to target messages to areas with early voting, sending special messages to notify people in those areas and give them information about polling locations. They also texted reminders to vote throughout Election Day. For example, here’s a message sent to Missouri cell phone numbers: “1 hour until polls close in Missouri! Tell all friends they have the right to vote if they are in line by 7pm. Help make history, fwd this msg to everyone!”

The McCain campaign also used text messaging, though certainly not to the same extent by all accounts. According to Andrew Rasiej, a founder of TechPresident.com, within the McCain campaign, “there wasn't a culture of belief in technology” (as reported at Bloomberg.com).

I don’t know how much effect these text messaging efforts had on the outcome of the election, but I think it’s fascinating to see how a technology—especially one commonly associated with teens and college students—can be used in such a far-reaching way. And as opposed to traditional methods of advertising, text messaging is essentially an opt-in model—through one method or other, you have to provide them with your mobile number to get their message. And although text messaging isn’t free, it’s more cost-effective than the printed political mailers that have flooded my mailbox in recent weeks—and a greener alternative, too.

Still, I’m a little fearful of text messaging. As a writer and editor, I can’t help but cringe when I see a message such as this:

Register 2 vote @dmv or local library. 2 wks left, n it takes 5 min,
tell your fam n friends, practice your right 2 democracy.

I know it can be hard to use those little cell phone keyboards, and you’ve only got a max of 160 characters for your message. But using proper spelling and grammar would ensure a clearer message to all:

Register to vote at the DMV or a local library. Two weeks left; it takes 5 minutes.
Tell your family and friends. Practice your right to democracy.

And my rewrite is still only 147 characters, including spaces.

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