Mobile phones aren't our industry's greatest challenge

Mobile phones aren't our industry's greatest challenge
The political phone industry will have to innovate to maximize the effectiveness of phones.

Matthew Parker is founder and CEO of Front Porch Strategies, a Republican telephone voter contact firm. Marty Stone is a partner at Stones’ Phones, a Democratic telephone voter contact firm.

The end of the 2012 election cycle finds the phone industry facing a number of challenges which could change the way phones are used in campaigns in the near future. Taking stock of the work done over the past year, we feel that phone strategists serving both parties have lessons which must be learned in order to maximize the effectiveness of phones as a campaign tool going forward.

One of the most discussed issues affecting the industry is the increasing number of voters who use mobile phones as their primary or only phone, and the regulatory difficulties involved in reaching them. One-in-three American households and six-in-ten voters age 25-29 now have no landline.

In October, the FCC issued an enforcement advisory prohibiting autocalls to mobile numbers without a prior recipient opt-in and threatening violators with stiff fines. Voters with only mobile phones will continue to become a larger segment of the electorate, and it will become more and more critical for campaigns to reach them.

The phone industry will have to adapt and innovate tactically and technologically so long as over-zealous federal regulators make it difficult to reach these voters.

However, too many campaign managers and candidates have started to assume that every voter has a mobile phone and that their phone programs would therefore become irrelevant. Work done by our firms in the recent campaign cycle shows this isn’t the case. After scrubbing out lists for mobile numbers, 80-90 percent of the landlines remained, and our contact rates did not fall. We were still able to reach the vast majority of voters with our Telephone Town Halls, live ID and GOTV calls, and automated messages.

At the moment, we do not believe that the shift to mobile phones is the most severe problem facing the industry. We feel there are a number of other areas where the industry can and should take steps to improve the effectiveness of their phone campaigns.

One serious problem is that many campaigns have de-emphasized obtaining hard voter IDs and messaging on key issues—both tasks phones are well-suited for—in favor of leaning solely on microtargeting data. In 2012, Democrats and Republicans alike used microtargeting to pinpoint their messaging. At the presidential level it worked very well for President Obama. However, we’re seeing microtargeting overused on races that aren’t at the top of the ticket and aren’t capturing the daily attention that presidential campaigns do.

When down-ballot campaigns overuse microtargeting, the message doesn’t get through. For these campaigns, if you’re not talking about the top issues driving the conversation, you’re not being heard. Microtargeting has its place, and has been one of the important innovations in campaigns in recent years, but it is not a substitute for getting hard IDs—which are still best obtained by phone. This cycle, we also saw candidates on Telephone Town Halls try to push microtargeted messages to a wide audience only to get too far “into the weeds” and have their audience react with disinterest.

Another challenge affecting the industry is that phone services, and direct voter contact in general, are not being thoroughly and accurately considered in campaign budget plans—or being short-changed when those plans are suddenly altered. This often occurred as a response to involvement from a Super PAC. When Super PACs started spending money on TV early, campaigns felt forced to respond, and phone budgets were often the first to get the ax.

Spooked by the entrance of a Super PAC into their race, campaigns would react with a big buy on a quick ad only to have the Super PAC go dark. We saw too many campaigns abandon their campaign plan too early and spend money recklessly. When money was spent on phones, it was sometimes not spent as efficiently as it might have been. Much of the spending done on voter contact is done piecemeal. We think campaigns could get more for their money if they made realistic advanced budget projections for robust voter contact rather than making expenditures on a reactive, ad-hoc basis.

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