From Obama to Brands: Leveraging Participatory Engagement

“Offering value” has become a cliché with no real meaning in the marketing blabosphere. Everyone talks a good game of making that QR snap really matter or landing a mobile Web click-through on a truly informative experience. But the reality is that “value” is usually defined implicitly by mobile prompts as a minor discount, some mobile optimized site (if you are lucky) -- or a video (cuz we don’t get enough of those) of some ad we’ve already seen five times on TV.

What if brands stand back from the discounts, the promotions, and the free content and instead wonder what they might do with their loyal customer? That is one of the interesting insights that comes out of the work Mobile Commons does with political and social causes (Obama 2012, Center for rights) as well as with major Web publishers (Tumblr, Reddit) and even healthcare brands. Maybe these users have aligned themselves with you through opt-ins because they want to be part of something. Using its own mConnect tool that can make a highly targeted and localized call when someone responds to a text message, Mobile Commons helped generate over 200,000 calls to users’ own Congressional Representatives on January 18th to oppose the pending SOPA and PIPA piracy legislation. Over a month’s time, 500,000 calls went through the system.

Their client Tumblr wanted to activate its millions of users to resist the bills, but somehow had to convert its massive Web traffic into direct action that matters. Mobile Commons created an easy Web form that sent a text-to-call link to the user’s phone, parsed by their ZIP code to call the right representative.

“This showed the tremendous appetite of people on Tumblr to participate with the brand in something they cared about,” says Mobile Commons CEO Jed Alpert. But as the messaging provider for Obama 2012 and many other social and political efforts, Alpert argues that the lessons of social and political activism are also applicable to brands’ relationships with consumers. If a customer has opted in to persistent mobile communication with a company, it is an invitation to think harder. “Take away the economics of a discount and think about what the relationship is that brand has with the customer anyway,” he says. “What do they like about you and how can you participate in something together?”

The idea that brands can use messaging to do more than just broadcast sales offers and perhaps engage in things that matter to the user can be compelling. Nike doesn’t just sell shoes -- it creates fitness regimens. A pharma brand surely can help its customers stay on a drug regimen with text reminders, but it can also offer exercise tips and encouragement. “Then you and the brand are having a conversation that is not just around ‘buy my product,’ he says.

Alpert believes that after a brief love affair with apps, marketers are re-embracing text as the most important channel for maintaining contact with consumers because SMS is the way people communicate with the people in their lives who matter about the things that matter.  “It seems to me that brands will realize that not having a shortcode or text channel to communicate with customers is like a business in 1937 deciding they don’t need a telephone.”

Shortcodes are the point of entry through which a customer should be able to get information from the brands they like or rely on. In New York, for instance, a text message to the mass transportation service from a bus stop can tell the rider how far away the next bus is from the stop. Planned Parenthood has a code that allows teens to ask health questions of a professional.

Alpert says that communications integration is critical to leveraging SMS. It may be the best and quickest way to communicate, but companies need to tie it into other modes of communication as well. Planned Parenthood has integrated SMS with call-in service centers so that support personnel have a unified console to respond to phone calls and SMS queries. “This doesn’t require any new support staff,” he says. “The results have been phenomenal in how engaged people are and how open they are. It would be great if cable companies did this.”

For the Obama campaign, the text opt-ins are tied directly into one of the most sophisticated CRM systems of any political operation on the planet. Once a user joins by shortcode, Obama 2012 immediately asks for email and ZIP code. This triggers an email message where they collect home addresses, which in turn goes into the database that informs subsequent SMS messaging. They can direct people to their nearest volunteer opportunity. And ultimately, it helps to drive live participation and donations. The text messages can drive them to maps to show and direct them to events, and they can even remind the follower to look for an upcoming email or direct mail with important longer-form information.

“It is incredibly localized,” Alpert says. The accumulated data helps pre-populate forms and directions to make action that much less of an effort. But the key is integration, where the SMS is only a part of a larger communication system that lets the user interact in the channel they prefer.

And with great integration of messaging comes a keen awareness of the distinct precious nature of SMS. This is a channel that many users reserve for their family, friends and most trusted contacts. For most marketers, that means being reserved and infrequent about text communications.

But Alpert advises that frequency is not the issue. Relevance and urgency is. “If someone gave you permission to message them, then they should only get messages that need to be sent on mobile phones that require action,” he says. “The message should have a reason and need an immediate response. It should be something you need to know or do now.” The reason for your contacting them should be immediately apparent to the user. Eight text messages a day might be appropriate from a pharma company that is helping you implement a new medication regimen.   

If the message does not require immediate action or its purpose is not instantly obvious, then use email, he recommends. In fact, even that channel is the main beneficiary of SMS opt-ins. Alpert says that open rates for emails from companies that have secured that user’s SMS opt-in are high. SMS is a signal of high trust in a brand and a willingness to do more things with the marketer -- not just get things from the marketer.   

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