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Heidi Bucheister 7 min read

3.5 Billion Mobile Phones Can't Be Wrong.

Source: Flickr Creative Commons. By powerbooktrance

It looks like text messaging is here to stay.  Sure, costs are still high and while it's difficult to measure ROI, it seems that only major players like Amnesty International, IFAW and Oxfam can pull it off (bigger campaigns achieve better economies of scale).  But with billions of phones in use internationally and increased adoption of mobile messaging by for-profit marketers, the pricing pressure may reduce costs substantially. While mobile messaging won't replace email, it will certainly become an important component of some campaigns. At its current rate of adoption, SMS in particular, is set to become the first major mobile technology to change the landscape of nonprofit communications.  Already used by organizations like Get Out the Vote, the New York State Democratic Committee, and the Republican National Committee, text messaging is becoming one of the easiest and fastest ways to reach people. For stats on text messaging usage see Jordan's article.

Organizations use SMS to keep their members informed and up-to-date on their activities, to fund raise, and even to recruit people to sign petitions.  Here are a few examples of SMS in action in the nonprofit world:

  • On January 12, 2007, Amnesty International ran a full page ad in the New York Times asking that Americans text a phone number in order to sign a petition urging Congress to close Guantanamo Bay. It was the first major US based text campaign.
  • Last year, the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) placed ads in newspapers in the UK asking people to sign a petition, which would ban the killing of 300,000 seals in Canada. After a month, IFAW expected to receive 400,000 texts from this campaign. 
  • The RNC has an option on their website for subscribers to sign up for breaking news and updates via SMS.
  • AIDS Walk Los Angeles 2006 received free text messaging services from CellItMarketing, allowing for registration information for the walk to be sent.

A great resource for information on all things mobile advocacy is MobileActive, "a global network of activists and campaigners using mobile phones for civic action and engagement."  They just published their second Strategy Guide entitled, "Mobile Phones in Advocacy." The guides focus on using mobile phones toward increasing voter turnout and in advocacy campaigns.  MobileActive's blog, run by Katrin Verclas, is a must read.

Companies, like TXTmob, allow for SMS to be used to arrange protests and communication among large groups. On TXTmob's website you can create a mobile network so that text messages are sent to groups rather than just to individuals. This program assisted the protests at the Democratic and Republican National Conventions. Protesters easily  communicated information about gathering places and police activity.  This rapid flow of information enabled the protest to be much more successful.

There are 195 million cell phones users in the US, of which 95% have texting capabilities. This new campaign tool is now very much available to non-profits. The costs of running text messaging campaigns remain relatively high, since they are clearly not as inexpensive as e-mail. However, many organizations find that the responses they receive balances out the higher costs and makes this type of campaign very worthwhile.  Sending text messages from computer to mobile phone, may also help keep costs low. In addition, many mobile phone plans now include text messages, so  consumers aren't concerned with the cost of each text message they send.

Of course, there are some risks. The United States is way behind in the world of texting.  In general, Americans are not accustomed to being contacted by organizations via text, or on their mobile phones in general.  As mobile devices hold more and more features, it will most likely become the norm that people receive all kinds of communication on their mobile devices. I'm sure we've all heard of a Blackberry. For this reason, it is increasingly important for the non-profit world to better understand this form of quick communication and how best to use it.   

Organizations may find specialized businesses to be helpful in assisting in the design of these text messaging campaigns. Some helpful sites to visit for information and text campaign development are:
Mobile Accord
Unwired Appeal
Mobile Voter
Frontline SMS
Working Assets
Cellit Marketing