American Culture

Campaign mobile: it’s 1996 all over again

Every time a new medium catches our attention we have to endure this awkward period where people who have decision-making and spending authority but no understanding of the medium at all treat it like it’s the old media they’re used to. Old assumptions, old practices … failure. It’s like in 1996 when ad agencies discovered the Internet. “I know, let’s digitize our print ads and use those!” Remember how much fun that was on a 9600 baud modem?

Now it’s 1996 for mobility, and nobody is not getting it quite as dramatically as the political sector. Witness this piece from With a name like “” you’d expect some think-forward savvy, but you’d be disappointed.

The article certainly appears to have a grasp of some important issues and it presents itself as being very knowledgable and on top of things. And it is on the money about some key issues. For instance, the Edwards campaign did find a good strategy for getting around the carrier rules and addressing premium SMS limitations – in essence, they did the best they could given market restrictions.

However, in reality it’s captive to old media assumptions. It’s what a dire lack of imagination looks like, and it’s the sort of thing that happens if you don’t take the time to talk to mobile professionals who know the possibilities of the technology.

I mean, there was a time when nobody could make money on the Internet, either. How did that turn out?

The problem here is in this sentence: “The easiest way to raise money over the mobile phone is by means of Premium SMS (PSMS) (SMS = text messaging).” Well, that’s both true and misleading. Yeah, it’s the easiest method – under the right circumstances. But easiest doesn’t mean best or most appropriate. There are a lot of ways to make money with mobile. Instead of asking for donations over the phone, how about signing them up to a subscription service for a message of the day? You sign up for, say $5 a month – that’s $60 a year you’re donating to the campaign. In return, you get a message from John or the campaign every weekday. It could be a quote, a bit of advice, a counter-message to something another candidate said, a reading list idea, a recommendation for a CD you might like, a Republican joke – anything. It’s fresh content and it engages you with the candidate.

Know what the profit margin on this is? The cost of offering this service (once you get past some minimal set-up charges) is somewhere around $1/month (assuming 5 messages per week – retail is maybe 5 cents per message per person, and at that volume you could negotiate a hellacious discount; and that’s if you’re using a third-party provider like my company – bring the whole operation in-house and the per message cost drops even more, although the associated IT and management costs might make this a bad move, depending on the situation). So that’s at least an 80% return – $4 per subscriber per month – and while it doesn’t make you rich, it damned sure pays for itself. This is just one of the SMS plays.

And there’s also another troubling old world assumption in here – that the goal of mobile has to be fund-raising. There are other important goals for media activities – like, you know, getting people to vote for you. Message dissemination. Image and branding. Information. Event promotion. Organizing. Instead of seeing mobile as a fund-raiser, why aren’t we seeing it as one of the things the fund-raising enables? TV ads, for instance, certainly foster the flow of money, but the message is “vote for me,” not “donate to me.” You do it right and your fund-raising picks up as an indirect result.

Mobile represents an insanely powerful tool for doing a lot of things that campaigns need to do, especially with the socially active youth/Millennial Generation voter. Want to know what people are thinking? Hit them with a quick poll. (No, it’s not scientific, but then again most surveys are a lot less scientific than we’ve chosen to believe. It gets you a certain type of response that’s useful, if limited.) It’s a great organizing, community building and social networking tool – via a robust WAP deck it essentially allows you to put your Web site in people’s pockets no matter where they are (and this doesn’t require a BlackBerry or SmartPhone – most handsets in the stores right now do “Mobile Web 2.0,” and that’s what a WAP deck serves). Now an excited young supporter doesn’t have to say “go home and check” Instead, she whips out her enV and shows Edwards to you on the spot – in a bar, at the pool, between classes, in The Gap, wherever. Another nice thing about launching a WAP deck is that visitors to the site could then use credit cards – and that re-opens the door to some of the revenue issues noted above.

We have three Dem frontrunners whose campaigns lack knowledge, insight and vision into mobile. As best I can tell the GOP frontrunners haven’t heard that you can take a telephone out of doors yet. The candidate who figures it out first is going to have a big advantage, but right now I feel like it’s my first year in grad school again and I’m trying to convince my professors that no, this Internet thing is real and it’s important and it’s not like legacy media.

:xpost Black Dog Strategic: Thanks to Elizabeth Gazda of RazzberrySync, Inc., who contributed to this article.

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5 replies »

  1. You’re right about the Mills. 100%. And they’re feckin’ HUGE, as you say. Some estimates say it could be the first 100M+ generation. Social networking is everything – they’re instinctively herd animals. Great at connecting, great in teams. And they’re the most socially engaged gen ever – their volunteerism numbers squash even those of the Baby Boom at the peak of Flower Power.

    And guess what – they skew heavily progressive. As I’ve noted before, they’re not great critical thinkers so they may not fully grasp all the issues as they should, but they’re energetic and committed.

    If you don’t do all you can to tap that on its own terms you’re too stupid to be President. (Not that stupid has disqualified anybody for the job in the past seven years or so…)

  2. According to CNN:

    Mrs. Edwards followed up with an e-mail to supporters Wednesday morning that included a clip of their exchange and a donation request. The campaign also sent a text message to supporters’ cell phones, asking them to call to hear a recording of the clip and an appeal from Mrs. Edwards to donate.

    I have not received the mobile message. They are continuing to spam me with e-mail I didn’t sign up for, though.

    Their communications people are also continuing to ignore my offers to explain what’s going wrong and help them correct it. Apparently it’s better that I pound them in public.

  3. Jesus on a stick – Brandon, you and Obama are just killing me here. There’s certainly no reason not to have ringtones and wallpapers – if I were running the campaign I’d insist on it – but if that’s all you have you’re in trouble. It’s like “hey, look at my new Web site – it has an animated gif!”

    Meanwhile Hil and John continue to spam me (but neither have sent me any of the mobile I signed up for). And the one thing Barack sent me began this way:


    Turns out there was a debate on TV and apparently my watching was so feckin’ important that he had to begin the message the same way he would have if his house were on fire.

    If I get the time next week I’m going to call some of the comm directors (yes, I have their numbers). I’m going to be polite but honest – they’re all missing the boat badly. Very badly.