This issue's shoptalkers: Chris Cupit, president of Campaign Marketing Solutions; Chad Gosselink, partner and director of operations at Zata3; David James, partner at FLS Connect; and Marty Stone, partner at Stone's Phones.  

C&E: What’s the greatest challenge in your sector of the industry at the moment?

David James: I think the biggest challenge we face today is that the laws are constantly changing. It’s a populist approach to go after the evil telemarketer and try to apply laws that make it difficult for us to reach voters. But campaigns are using telemarketing because it works and because we can measure it to show how we’re impacting turnout or how we’re persuading. It’s just very easy for lawmakers to apply do-not-call to political companies and they’re trying every day. The switch to mobile phones is starting to impact us, too.

Marty Stone: I think our challenges start even before that. The question is whether we are still a relevant medium of communication. I was recently in California meeting with a major consultant who does initiatives and he told me he stopped using phones. He basically thinks of phones as only being good for a 30-second auto call or an ID call. But once I started talking about some of the things we can do—telephone town halls, voice capture programs— he started to get excited. I think it’s incumbent upon us to inform other consultants and campaign managers. First, we have to convince people. Then we have to deal with the laws.

Chad Gosselink: To further that point, it’s about the money, too. Campaigns are spending more money than ever. Whether it’s mail, TV or social media, the money is being spent earlier and it’s fighting for our budget. It’s a fight we’ve always had, but I think it’s getting worse. Ours is the easiest budget to pull from. Let’s say the opponent goes negative and you want to respond with a mail piece. Where do they pull that money from? It’s phones.

Chris Cupit: I think we also have to help clients realize there is value they are getting back with data. You don’t always get back measurable results when you’re using other mediums, but you certainly get it with phones.

Stone: Here’s what I think is happening: All the mediums of communication are becoming less effective. If you talk to the direct mail guys, they’ll tell you that they’re not mailing to young people anymore. TV is under huge assault. Every consultant I know is now opening up a new media part of their shop, because they know they are of waning influence.

C&E: How do you convince folks to look at phones the way you want them to? And who needs the most convincing?

Stone: It’s not everybody, thank goodness. But the lack of knowledge—and it’s partly our fault—about what you can do with phones is out there. In our business right now, modeling has taken out a lot of the ID work. But we still say you need to call people up and determine whether they talk to other people about politics. If they do, ask them to make the commitment to talk to someone else on your behalf. That neighbor-to-neighbor aspect is only generated a couple of ways—it’s either door-to-door, online, or it’s generated on the phone. The number one reason people say they voted for somebody is because they met them. The number two reason is because they talked to them. Well, we’ve got the only medium where you can talk to them. We have to sell our brother consultants on that.

Cupit: Another advantage is that this can actually be a way to save money on the mail budget and other forms of communication because it is a direct marketing approach to what is a direct marketing sale. We know who the voters are. There are cases where you don’t have to advertise to every person in the district. You can target. That’s the beauty of phones.

Gosselink: Do you guys get the feeling that you’re often the last ones hired? I think that’s my feeling. When you’re the last consultant hired, it’s your pot of money that’s getting pulled from. If you don’t have your pollster or general consultant hired well in advance, you’re not running an effective campaign. But phones are usually the last ones in.

Stone: We are always thought of by a certain set of people as only doing GOTV, but there’s so much more that phones can do. For the GOTV-only people, they read studies that say some phone technique doesn’t work. They don’t look at whether the TV ads are working, but they say auto calls don’t work.

C&E: What do you say to that consultant who sees phones as one dimensional? What are you doing that folks aren’t aware of?

James: One of the things we’ve been doing for the past four years is allowing candidates to personalize a message. The greeting is delivered to a given name, and we’re able to personalize down to the geography, municipality, and time of day. The end result is a call that’s actually meant for someone specific. We see that the listen rate is actually twice as long as it is for an ordinary call. It’s a little more costly, so trying to justify that cost to the client is the hard part at this point.

Gosselink: The other hard part is the time it takes to have those recordings made.

Stone: The candidate has to record the 300 most common first names, or whatever it may be.

James: Right. It takes an hour or two to do that.

Stone: We actually used it fundraising for Gov. O’Malley in Maryland and the numbers were astronomical. People knew it was an auto call, but our numbers were 40 percent better when they heard, “Chad, this is Governor O’Malley.” We call it variable voice. Neil Newhouse actually wrote an article after [Sen.] Scott Brown won in Massachusetts that listed 14 reasons for the victory. Two of them were related to phones. One was variable voice, and the other was that the campaign had volunteers dialing with a predictive dialer, which allows them to make 40 or 50 calls in an hour.

James: I know this conversation isn’t about Neil, but he does lend tremendous credibility to what all of us at this table do. He does believe in it and he measures it. Neil was one of the first to insert questions about tele-town halls into his surveys.

Stone: Another thing that we do now is to use either an automated or live technology to ask people their opinion on something. We’ll just ask a one question survey. For example, should wolves be taken off the endangered species list? And then we’ll ask people if they are willing to record a statement about that issue that we can use. The first benefit is that it lets you hear the real words that people use. And we also find spokespeople this way. In Mississippi last year, you were looking for the African- American grandmother who would go on TV with her opinion on Prop 26. Luckily, the media consultant down there found her outside a supermarket. But if we call 10,000 African American grandmothers and record their opinions, we can deliver a campaign 50 recordings of potential spokespeople. So you can not only find the person willing to go on TV, but you can also find the people you want to put in your mail pieces.

Cupit: There are so many different ways that campaigns can spend their money these days. There’s a penchant toward what’s the latest and greatest thing out there. So it’s not just phones having to fight for campaign budgets. I actually think that in the marketplace it’s a good thing. There’s justifiable evidence that phones work. With the Internet age, everything is measurable.

James: We’re also able to capture people who have already voted so when we’re involved full time with a campaign, we’ll add that component to our program. That way we can be efficient and not pester people who have already voted. I have a client every year that drops a bill in the legislature—I won’t tell you which state—to basically create a political do-not-call list. It’s funny, but he does telephone town halls and he does other calls. With every call he does, however, the voter has an option of being added to his political do-not-call list. So at least he’s in compliance with his own legislation, which never passes, by the way.

Stone: We have a list that we keep with the names of those who have asked any of our clients to take them off call lists. We don’t call them ever again. The flip side of that is that this really is a First Amendment right. There are states encroaching on these rights. What happens is that somebody at the top of the ballot says they want a political do-not-call law, but that person can afford TV and direct mail. But for the lowly city council candidate, phones may be the only means of communication they can afford. Talk about a way to perpetuate the incumbent advantage.

C&E: How difficult is it to deal with the maze of state laws regulating robocalls?

James: Think about it from the perspective of our clients who are just trying to get the word out about their campaigns. Minnesota, for example, is 100 percent live calls. That’s costly and there’s no efficiency there. There are other states with similar laws.

Stone: We just settled with the attorney general in Indiana. The law out there was struck down, but then the Indiana attorney general tried to stay the implementation of that. To us, it meant that we could call in Indiana. So we called for three mayoral candidates in the state, and the attorney general came after us. We had to make a calculated decision about whether to front what our lawyer said would be about $50,000 to legally take him on, or we could sign a consent decree charging us nothing for those calls. So we signed the agreement. The law is still tied up in the courts, though we think they’re going to rule to allow auto calls in Indiana. Once that happens, we’ll be back doing calls there.

But some of these people have gone absolutely insane. New Hampshire has essentially banned polls because they say that testing negatives is a push poll. That’s insane.

James: What really drives you nuts are the states with laws that aren’t enforced. You’re always thinking, “Am I going to be the first?”

C&E: What about the reputation of political telemarketing? Is it concerning that some people have such a negative perception?

Stone: We sometimes track the rate at which people say, “F all telemarketers” when one of our operators places a call. And from the time that the do-not-call list went into place until now, the rate of people actually dropping an f-bomb on us has decreased significantly. It went from six or seven percent to maybe half a percent.

Gosselink: I think it has actually made our calls more effective.

Stone: That’s right. The only calls people are getting are political or charitable calls so there’s a lot less clutter out there.

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.