Mobile Politics USA: Stuck in First Gear

Mobile Politics USA: Stuck in First Gear

BY Justin Oberman | Monday, January 30 2006

At the (PFAW)'s Save the Court the website there is an option that allows you to "get Mobile Text Alerts" to help block Samuel Alito's nomination to the Supreme Court. The corresponding web page asks you to join "The PFAW's Mass Immediate Response Team (MIRT) which allows supporters to turn their cellphones into an activist tool by signing up to receive important information and calls for action concerning Alito's nomination via text message the very second it's needed. People who sign up for PFAW's Mass Immediate Response receive updated important information, as well as their local Senator's number via text message, thus, as the website claims, "turning supporters cellphones into a real time tool for activism." On the sign-up page, PFAW boasts:

Our Massive Immediate Response program will allow us to slowly roll out calls to our targets, keeping a steady pressure over the course of a day or a week. The essence of MIR is speed: this new technology enables us to contact tens of thousands of cell phone users – and enables them to call the Senate – within seconds.

I signed up for the service two weeks ago and have not received a single text message since then. Nor is this service being pushed anywhere else on the PFAW website or on any other relevant sites. Which is odd when you consider just how successful MIR has been in the past, especially with PFAW related causes.

The technology behind the project was provided by POLITXT, the political division of the wireless entertainment company Rights-Group, which focuses exclusively on mobile marketing services for advocacy and political campaigns. It was originally used and developed by Rights Media back in 2001 for a promotional marketing campaign involving Samsung and Britney Spears. For about 20 dollars a month Britney Spears fans could sign up to receive text messages from the pop star. Embedded in each SMS was a link that led subscribers to a recorded message from Spears herself or a member of her "posse."

The beauty of this Wireless Fan Access (WFX) technology is that it can deliver customized messages to subscribers that are based on personal identifiers such as a user's address, birthday and personal tastes on a plethora of entertainment mediums such as music or film. In the case of Rights-Group's Britney Spears campaign, for example, users were able to receive a text message that led them to a recorded message of Spears reading their horoscopes.

WFX's creator (as well as President & CEO of Rights Group), Jed Alpert, was volunteering at a People for the American Way phone bank during the filibuster debate over judicial nominees last spring when he realized how his wireless technology could help solve some of the inefficiencies involved with voice P2P organizing over landlines.

"I instantly realized that we could use the same wireless technology, that worked so well on a commercial level, to mobilize thousands of activists instantly," Albert told me. Only this time, subscribers would have to be divided and sorted based on location and Congressional representation instead of how their birthday related to the movement of the planets. Embedded in each text message is the telephone number of the subscriber's Senator in Washington with a brief message as to what to call about. Using the WFX technology that Alpert created, PFAW has the ability to send out several thousand text-messages in one moment to the activist subscribers that sign on for the service.

The nomination of John Roberts to the Supreme Court was the first test of Alpert and PFAW's collaboration. "We got an opt-in rate that was 5 times better then any opt in rate our commercial entertainment campaign ever received," says Alpert. "Simply put, we got an opt-in rate of 27 percent, which is unbelievable." PFAW saw it as a huge success as well. According to PFAW's Online Product Manager Matt Pusateri "nearly 25,000 people signed up and used the tool before and during his nomination."

This proves something. Members of PFAW are generally not the teenagers that most people in the business of text messaging services cater to. Alpert never dreamed he would have such a high mobile technology success rate with middle aged users. It proves that people, of any age group, can adopt the psychology behind the mobile medium much faster than anticipated. "Once you get somebody to use text messaging -- that is, once you give them the incentive and motivation to use it for something they find extremely useful or important -- they will keep using it," says Alpert.

The proof is in the messaging. The political clients that Politxt has been pulling in have been the fastest growing part of Rights Media's business. Text messaging is easy to do, Alpert points out, and it fits most political groups' organizational needs in that it is extremely easy to integrate into already existing marketing and out-reach strategies. He explains:

We found that there is a place for this in campaigns right now. It's incredibly economical for contacting members or people who are interested in what you have to say and it's two way. In a call to action or for anything like that it's been extremely effective.

Recent clients have included the ACLU, the SEIU, national unions, advocacy organizations and of course political campaigns all of which have found Politxt's tools extremely simple and cost effective to integrate into their campaigns and objectives.

Oddly, PFAW hasn't promoted the Mass Immediate Response this time around as a major tool in its efforts to challenge Sam Alito's nomination to the Supreme Court. According to Pusateri "we had a link on the site but no big push for actvists to use it." When asked why the PFAW did not use a tool that seemed to have real value, Pusateri was unsure. "The numbers we received for Mass Immediate Response during the Roberts campaign were good," he admits, "but it still doesn't compare with the numbers we could reach by email and via other forms of online activism. But I don't know, it's a really good question."

PFAW's inaction is hard to understand. If 25,000 people signed up for Mass Immediate Response during their Roberts campaign, then that's still 25,000 people more people that they can reach via a different media. Plus, there are the things SMS can do that email and other online campaigns cannot. Unlike e-mail, SMS messages are much more likely to be read at any one time, since the majority of people have their mobile phones at arms reach 24 hours a day. And unlike a phone call, SMS messages are automatically stored where they can be re-read.

Also, it is important to remember that a mobile phone, unlike the PC, is a communication device from its origins. A person is thus more likely to use it as a communication device for social activism, such as immediately calling a relevant congressional office, when prompted to do so.

But political campaigns and organizations are typically cautious when it comes to adopting new technology. And unlike the Philippines, South Korea, and parts of Africa and the Middle East, where mobile phones have already taken center stage in numerous political battles, here in the United States mobile politics is still stuck in first gear. Sooner or later, a political group will come along and do with mobile technology the same thing the Dean campaign did with the Internet. Perhaps the PFAW did not think that this was the time. There will be a moment in American politics that will push the mobile medium into the limelight. When or what that will be I cannot say, but it will happen.

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