James: Speaking for myself and my firm, we go to great lengths to make sure we follow a very high ethical standard. If a client has a really dumb idea, we tell them it’s a really dumb idea. If they still want to go ahead and implement that idea, we tell them we won’t be their vendor. I think we have to police ourselves and make sure our reputation is outstanding. When there are fly-by-night folks out there, they just make us look better.
Stone: I’m about to suck up right now, but one of the great things about Campaigns & Elections is that you actually talk to the professionals in our industry. When we were all involved in the AAPC efforts to ensure auto calls remain legal across the country, we did a quick Google search and found 109 people offering auto calls. In reality, there are probably only 10 or so real consultants on each side of the aisle doing this, but then you see all of these other people out there offering calls for a penny.
Gosselink: I think one of the reasons for that is the anonymity of a robocall. The barrier to entry is so low. If you want to do some mudslinging, it’s very easy to do it with a robocall versus a piece of direct mail. That’s why robocalls often get a black eye.
Cupit: The fly-by-night guys who don’t have as high of an ethical standard are just not going to be around cycle after cycle. These types of things catch up to you.
Stone: This is where clients have to look at what they’re paying for. If they’re paying too little, there’s a problem. I can’t tell you how many people tell me that some auto call company told them to just call everyone. That’s not advice given by a consultant. Call everyone? That’s not how it works. And then as a result you get wording that’s terrible or you end up with auto calls that aren’t edited. It just makes me mad, because those are the folks doing us a real disservice.
C&E: What can you do to get around the cellphone issue?
James: In the old days, the secretaries of state actually did a good job of collecting phone numbers on voter registration cards. They don’t do that anymore. So almost every single number that we’re appending to a voter file early on is purchased from some sort of consumer list. That’s the first step. If somebody put their cellphone number on a voter registration card, we would call them. Now, we know from our commercial lists which folks are only using cellphones, but under the law we can’t call them.
Stone: We can’t call them unless they opt-in. This is where campaigns and causes need to be smart because if a cause that we work with collects that cellphone number, there’s something amazing that’s going to happen. That number is now sticking with people for life. It isn’t as if the college kid with the number changes it six or seven times as they move.
Gosselink: The fact that it sticks with them for life is good and bad, though.
Stone: But if we can get it once, those of our clients who get that cellphone number will be at an advantage compared to those of our clients that don’t.
Gosselink: Email addresses and cellphone numbers are the things that are most constant about people now. It’s not always good simply because we might not know where they are located geographically.
Stone: What it also leads to is the complaint that someone is called too early in the morning or at an odd time. All of our equipment is set to not call into the east coast time zone when you’re doing your west coast calling. But if someone is living in New York and has a San Francisco 415 number, they may just get called.
C&E: Seems like the problems are going to keep multiplying.
Stone: So you basically want to know when we’re all going out of business? (laughter) When I started in 2000, I sat down with one of our competitors— John Jameson. He asked me why I was getting into this and told me that three or four years from now it would all be done. Well, it’s 2012 and we’re still growing and there are more competitors on the Democratic side doing phones than there have ever been. I think part of what we do is continue to talk to the people and stop making it just a push medium. It’s not just auto calls being pushed at voters or GOTV scripts being pushed at them. We need to really make it a conversation.
I think we also make it sexy. I know it’s hard to think of phones as sexy, but we need to make it sexy and interesting. If young people are all on cellphones, we should find a way for Lady Gaga to tweet that she wants to talk to them on a telephone town hall about bullying and get them to email their cellphone number. Suddenly, whatever organization she’s working with has your cellphone. So we overcome the problem.
Gosselink: Phones are one of the only mediums out there evolving. There are pollsters out there that are brilliant and I think we can take that polling and that microtargeting and deliver that tailored message better than anyone else.
James: And if you think about the vast databases that all of us are sitting on from years and years of contact, we know just about everybody inside of a traditional universe that will answer their phone, and we know the ones that will always go to voicemail.
C&E: When it comes to integration and making sure phones are complimenting everything else, how do campaigns get better at that?
James: I do think that most successful campaigns are doing it well. We do come in early and we are a part of the strategic decision-making process on most of the large-scale campaigns that we work with. It’s more of the congressional types or the fledgling campaigns that don’t think about it until the end. So I feel like there are a lot of people that understand it. But there’s more we can do. For example, we have several clients who are finally taking advantage of some of the automated ID stuff that we can do. We can also help the campaign strategy department make decisions that impact other things like mail, TV and radio.
Stone: I’m not going to give away too much sitting here with Chris and David, but we were working with a Senate race and we sat down with the direct mail consultant and Internet consultant and came up with 17 ways the campaign could be using two or three of the mediums together to save them money. Before a telephone townhall, for example, if the campaign has put cookies on the file allowing them to send Internet banner ads to people, we accomplish the goal of letting them know there’s an event coming up. You don’t get that sort of thing unless you have all the consultants sitting down together.