The double-edged sword of political mobile ads

The 2008 presidential campaign was in full swing when I received a robocall on my home phone from John McCain’s camp that told me about Barack Obama’s ties to “domestic terrorist Bill Ayers,” warned me of the Democratic candidate’s “extreme leftist agenda” and then simply hung up. Within a few days of that call, I got a text message from the Obama campaign telling me that Joe Biden was coming to town.
Obama’s message — one of a series I had signed up to receive — was part of an ongoing conversation. The McCain campaign’s robocall, by way of contrast, didn’t allow me to respond or otherwise act upon it in any way. It was a dead end.
I was reminded of those calls earlier this week as I read this AdAge post documenting how Republican presidential hopefuls are leveraging mobile to woo voters in the early primaries. Mitt Romney and Ron Paul have already run mobile advertising efforts during their campaigns, as have former candidates Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry.
The recent political use of mobile highlights the opportunities the platform offers to create ongoing local, mobile conversations with voters. And those opportunities extend beyond the political realm to the larger world of mobile marketing and advertising. But because mobile phones are such immediate, personal devices, those opportunities must be pursued carefully and thoughtfully.
The dos
Mobile advertising revenues are expected to surge over the next few years, according to new projections from Gartner, growing from $1.8 billion this year to $13.5 billion in 2015. And while politics will surely account for a small fraction of that, mobile is a particularly effective way for campaigns to communicate with supporters as they market themselves to undecided voters. The Romney camp, for instance, runs mobile search ads through Google AdWords that include a click-to-call feature, encouraging users to contact a campaign office with a single keystroke. And Obama’s text messages were effective at making supporters feel like they were actually part of the campaign in an unobtrusive, uncommitted way. Indeed, Obama’s text-message introduction of Biden as his running mate reached 2.9 million users, according to Nielsen, creating a watershed moment for mobile marketing.
Location and timing can be crucial for political mobile advertising, also, especially when it comes to getting out the vote. Romney’s campaign targeted ZIP codes with high concentrations of his supporters in Iowa and New Hampshire, delivering ads that enabled users to watch a video or access information about where and when to vote. Perry’s campaign targeted users within just a few miles of several colleges in South Carolina, then delivered ads featuring each school’s color schemes and mascots to encourage users to volunteer. Such efforts take a page out of the emerging space of location-based deals, where players like Google and eBay entice consumers with come-ons when they’re within a certain proximity of a retailer. While its impossible to know just how effective these efforts are in politics yet, Bachmann’s ambitious click-to-call campaign may have helped propel her victory in the Iowa straw poll in August.
Also, campaigns should embrace a variety of tools and technologies when courting would-be voters. SMS should be the foundation for any political advertising effort, because it is accessible from almost every phone in the market (more than 75 percent of the world’s 4 billion phones are SMS-enabled) and it enables users to sign up to receive messages. But campaigns should also embrace QR codes in marketing materials and should cross-promote mobile campaigns through social and traditional media — just as Quaker Oats did last year with a campaign integrating Facebook. Also, political campaigns should establish secure ways of letting supporters donate money over the phone, a feature that is getting a lot of attention this election cycle.
The don’ts
But because the immediacy and personal nature of mobile provide a valuable way to reach voters, those qualities can be abused. Just as mobile consumers don’t want to receive countless messages about location-based deals on their phones, even the staunchest political fans want limited outreach from the campaigns. Messages should be sent only occasionally, and ideally they should always include something of value, whether it’s event information or a bit of breaking news. (That strategy applies to the broader world of mobile marketing as well, where delivering a valuable discount offer, ring tone or video clip can reward your customers for engaging with you.) Also, campaigns should constantly be aware of how and when those messages are being received: Last month, some voters in eastern Iowa were awakened in the wee hours by unwanted political text messages they never signed up to receive in the first place.
Political mobile advertising is a double-edged sword: It can be an enormously effective tool in swaying voters and keeping supporters in the loop, but it can also alienate potential voters. The keys to success lie in making voters aware of the campaign, encouraging them to be a part of the conversation, and keeping them close as you draw newcomers. That’s true for all sorts of mobile marketing efforts, of course, but politics is a personal world where voters have strong convictions about their causes and candidates. So the stakes are higher than they are, say, for pizza chains and car dealers looking to leverage mobile.

Question of the week

How big will mobile’s roll be in this year’s political elections?