Mobile Campaign Primer


Mobile phones are more prevalent in the U.S. than ever before. Today, over 86% of the US population ages 13 and up owns a mobile phone . In the past decade, mobile users have grown from about 34 million to more than 203 million, and growth is expected to continue to increase exponentially.

Mobiles are becoming increasingly intertwined in Americans’ daily lives. A 2005 survey by BBDO marketing found that 75% of Americans have their mobile phones on and within reach during waking hours, and 59% wouldn’t lend their mobile to a friend for a day. 15% of survey respondents even said they’ve answered their mobile phone during sex.

Given this unparalleled access top customers that cell phones enable, advertisers quickly realized the potential for mobile marketing, in part because mobile marketing campaigns have been found to have a higher audience response rate than other kinds of media. According to a September 2003 report by FirstPartner, mobile campaigns in the UK had an average response rate of 12%, about four times higher than the response rate of direct marketing campaigns. In today’s climate of increasing mobile penetration, this number is likely to be even higher today. The same report found that spontaneous brand recall (the ability of a customer to remember a brand name when given a product category) is also about 12%, where it’s only about 6% for radio and 7% for television campaigns.

While text messaging has boomed in most other parts of the world, especially Europe and Asia, its growth to date has been more modest in the U.S. 72% of the U.S. population has mobile phones, but only a third of them send text messages, a fraction of other countries. Most analysts attribute the slower growth of texting in the U.S. to the broad availability of high-speed Internet in workplaces and homes, which offer ample opportunities for free and low-cost communications via email and instant messaging. Notwithstanding these initial hurdles, 2006 appeared to be the breakout year for texting in the U.S. Sent text messages in the U.S. rose that year by 71% from the previous year, and it’s growing in use by 80% every six months since. With text messaging having emerged as the most successful mobile data service in the thirty years of the mobile phone industry, it makes sense that it would eventually take root in the U.S., which has a love of the mobile lifestyle and instant communications. Text messaging and unlimited texting plans that eliminate the barrier of per-message cost for the cunsumer are also now more heavily promoted by mobile carriers who know it improves their bottom line. IDC reports that customer spending on text messaging and ringtones is expected to double in 2007 from the year before from what is currently a $430 million a year business.

Internet usage on mobiles has also become increasingly popular in the U.S. According to a report by the Kelsey group, 44.7% of U.S. mobile phone users want to upgrade to “better” Internet access when buying a new phone. Currently, only 26% of mobile subscribers have mobile web access. Revenues from mobile search in the U.S. are also expected to rise, the Kelsey group states. Over the next five years, mobile revenues are expected to increase from $33.2 million in 2007 to $1.4 billion in 2012.

As cell phones are increasingly a channel for commercial marketing campaigns, the mobile landscape is equally primed for social causes. Nonprofits can tap into the power of mobiles and learn from many of the mobile marketing techniques that are already being used in the for-profit sector.

What the Numbers Say About Mobile Marketing

  • Percent of people in the US over age 13 who own a mobile phone — 86%
  • Total number of mobile subscribers, 2007 — 2.7 billion
  • Industry projection for US mobile marketing spending in 2011 — 2.9 billion
  • Projected total number of mobile subscribers, 2011 — 3.9 billion


  • Keeping in Touch with Supporters on Urgent Issues
  • Gathering Petition Signatures
  • Engaging With Volunteers
  • Getting Out the Vote
  • Raising Money
  • Coordinating activists at events
  • Enabling Supporters to Phone Political Targets
  • Registering People to Vote


There are four major types of mobile marketing: text messaging, mobile web advertising, downloadable applications, and mobile video ads. Each has been used by for-profit marketers and has increasing relevance for use by non-profits and advocacy campaigns, though to differing degrees.

Text messaging, or SMS, is perhaps the most common channel for marketing. Over 95 percent of mobile phones today can be used for text messaging, and it is estimated that 92.5 million consumers text message frequently in the U.S. An SMS can have text of up to 160 characters and can be transmitted instantaneously. Much mobile advertising is done by encouraging users to send a Common Short Code (CSC) — a string of five or six numbers that functions as a ‘mobile URL’ or more precisely, an SMS phone number — to the company in order to receive content or information. The codes are provisioned to work across all major carriers.

Some phones can also be used for MMS, or multimedia messaging. MMS also allows the incorporation of sounds, video, and other multimedia content. The number of MMS-enabled phones and plans is lower, and estimated to be about 30% of the user base.

Mobile web advertising includes advertisements seen when a phone user is browsing the web, and includes banner ads and search functions.

Downloadable applications and other content can include everything from games and ringtones to applications. Many applications are available for download on a mobile phone — everything from Google Maps to social networking and instant messaging applications to software that allows the user to make mobile payments. The disadvantage of this technique is that the software must actually be downloaded onto the phone and installed. The user must also know how to download content on to their phone, making this a less universally accessible channel than SMS.

Mobile Video Ads are short ads — between 10 and 30 seconds — that are placed before, during, or after video content that is designed to be viewed on mobile phones. These ads have been called “a holy grail” — they have yet to be used widely, but have the potential to be extremely effective.

Pull vs. Push Campaigns

SMS campaigns can be divided into two types — pull and push campaigns. A pull campaign works as part of a larger media campaign, since the campaign has to be advertised using other means. The organization might use email, television, the Internet, billboards, or other means to advertise a mobile marketing campaign. The user responds to a call to action by texting a certain keyword or message to a common short code.

For example, an activist coalition in California called It’s OUR Healthcare! had an SMS campaign that encouraged users to send a text message about health care that would then be broadcast on a large screen outside the Capitol building. The campaign required several steps. First, a user had to send an SMS to a short-code in order to opt-in to the campaign. The short code and keyword were advertised in a variety of different ways — through email, the web, and through communication with already existing coalition partners. After opting in to a campaign, a user would receive an SMS response that allowed them to send a health care comment to the screen.

A push campaign requires an initial opt-in database of mobile numbers, although organizations should be aware that the Mobile Marketing Association’s Code of Conduct stipulates that users must opt-in to a campaign in order to contacted. Because push campaigns don’t require additional marketing in other media forms, they are easier for an organization to set up and manage if the organization already has a database of constituents.


1) Mobile phones are literally everywhere and consumers of all ages are become increasingly comfortable using all of its features, including receiving and sending text messages, browsing the Web, and more. Furthermore, All the big telecommunications and Internet giants are making huge investments in mobile phone services, assuring a rich future.

2) Text messaging as a practice among mobile phone consumers continues to grow exponentially year after year.

3) Mobile service providers have made it easier to create mobile campaigns by offering affordable shortcode rental, mobile phone list management, easy message sending, and more. (See “Work with a Mobile Vendor.”)

4) Email overload is at an all-time high. Meanwhile, there is no mobile spam and “open rates” are at 100%, so NGOs can pioneer in the mobile world.

5) Nonprofit supporters are increasingly open to new ways to engage with fast-moving campaigns.

6) Mobile messaging is a unique tool for engagement in places where people are away from their computers, such as at meetings, music concerts, political rallies, and sporting events.


Step 1: Set goals and plan your mobile advocacy campaign.
Planning is your first step as you connect your mobile campaign to your existing real-world communications, advocacy and fundraising activities. Bring together your advocacy team, your communications staff, and your techies to plan your effort, figure out your timing, craft a preliminary budget, and decide on your optimal staffing.

Learn what you can early on about the constituency (or audience) for your mobile campaign so that you can properly design your campaign and shape your messaging around them. Use survey data, integrate anecdotal evidence, and assemble an advisory group to help you learn.

Consult with you mobile vendor or with other organizations that have used mobile activism to determine the number of people you can expect to participate in your mobile campaign. This “benchmark” may be hard to determine during the first trials of your mobile campaign, but will be useful going forward for budgeting and setting expectations. Benchmarks you’re interested in are the number of people who will text your mobile short code, and the number of people who will provide follow-up information such as an email address. There is clearly a need for more sharing of benchmarks and mobile participation rates among early adopters of mobile activism tools

Step 2: Identify a vendor to run your mobile advocacy campaign.
Gaining access to the technology tools to operate a mobile campaign is currently done through a contract with a specialized vendor. Vendors usually charge setup and monthly fees to consult with the organization to craft the campaign strategy, set up the platform to fit the specific needs of the organization, and manage the outbound and inbound mobile messaging campaigns. Consider purchasing a shared or non-shared “mobile shortcode” which the organization will use to promote the campaign.

Step 3: Develop a marketing plan to reach your mobile constituency.
With your in-house staffing and vendor in place, you can begin work on a marketing plan to reach out to your supporters, allies, and partners, who in turn will help you make the most of opportunities to spread your mobile campaign far and wide. In this step, your key task is to turn your campaign goals into reality by figuring out to reach out to your audiences to get them to participate in your mobile campaign. You’ll want to pay specific attention to integrating your mobile campaign with your existing marketing, outreach and volunteer engagement efforts. Don’t let mobile be an add-on, be multi-media friendly.

With your marketing effort, make it easy for people to understand your mobile campaign and join. Mobile campaigns are new for many people, so anticipate both their inexperience and sense of discovery. Like Web addresses, feature your “short code” information everywhere you can, in print, on the Web, in email messages, at events, in press appearances, in display ads, and more.

Mobile marketing works best when it’s “pull” as well as “push,” and there are opportunities for people to express themselves, to “talk” back, to suggest, to respond. Be sure to listen closely to feedback from people who are joining. Your early adopters to your mobile campaign are your most reliable source for testing and quality assurance.

Step 4: Craft your mobile messaging strategy.
Turn your marketing plan into reality by figuring out your messaging steps and the precise language for your campaign. Not only will you embed your mobile short code in your marketing materials (on billboards, on your website, in emails, radio, TV, etc), but you’ll decide what confirmation message to send back to people texting in, how to ask for email addresses, mailing address or phone numbers, and what frequency you’ll use to send mobile campaign updates.

Get creative but remember that mobile activism is still new. Mobile is a new medium that is thirsty for innovation. To engage your supporters, be open to experimentation and trials to understand what works best, but be respectful of the fact that many of your mobile signups may be new to text messaging or receiving automated text messages. Be open with your constituency that you’re in a trial phase and need their support.

Your mobile campaign must have a clear call to action. When using mobile messaging, make your campaign have a very specific and immediate call to action so that your appeal will be compelling enough to get people to act immediately. This is probably the single most important factor in getting a high mobile participation rate. Encourage participants to forward the text message to a few friends.

Mobile messaging is about interaction, not just a one-way pitch, which is often a hard notion for NGOs to grasp if they’ve been pushing email messages by the millions to donors and supporters. Mobiles offer a unique opportunity for interaction. NGOs should think about mobile campaigns as a conversation, a two-way interaction with their constituents.

Be careful about targeting your demographics and make your ask accordingly — asking an older constituency to upload mobile photos is probably not going to be very successful.

Be relevant and timely. Mobile phones are personal devices that operate in real-time. Your messaging strategy should be to offer timely news and functional updates that are of specific interest to your audience.

Step 5: Set up your system to get your mobile data into your in-house database.
Work with your vendor, tech support consultants or staff to define how you’ll move mobile data such as mobile phone numbers, names, email addresses, and mailing addresses, into your in-house database. Get your techies involved in this process so you’re gathering the right information and storing it correctly for future use.

Your mobile vendor can you help you gather metrics to learn what outreach activity generated the most opt-in text messages to your short code. For example, knowing the date and time when people text in can help you determine if your announcements or tabling at a music concert were effective at recruiting people.

Step 6: Decide on your campaign closure and evaluation activities.
At some point your campaign will end and you’ll want to create some closure messaging to thank people for their participation, report on campaign success, encourage ongoing engagement, and ask for additional personal information so you can keep them in your database. Conduct a metrics analysis session and campaign postmortem to assess the effectiveness of mobile advocacy campaigns.

Come up with a strategy to analyze the long-term value of constituents that were recruited or participated in your mobile campaigns. Similar to online value, what is the value of mobile-engaged constituents?

The most common issue we encounter when speaking with campaigns about mobile campaigns in the U.S. is how and when to decide to conduct a mobile campaign. Many nonprofits express a modest approach to the matter, often opting for a “wait and see” or “we’re researching” attitude towards mobile campaigns.

Here’s a run-down of key strategic questions to help you decide if a mobile campaign is right for you:

  • Will a mobile campaign support your current organizing goals? For mobile to find its place at an NGO it needs to be anchored within one or more current programs or campaigns. Craft a “mobile mission statement” so you can reflect regularly on whether and how you’re meeting your stated goals. An example of a “mobile mission statement” could be: “Use mobile tools to coordinate and increase the placement of local volunteers for our daily soup kitchens across the city.”
  • Can you identify some creative ideas to drive your mobile campaign? Aside from having a goal, you’ll need some creative ideas to power your mobile campaign. Read, for example, to get inspired by what other NGOs are doing. Brainstorm with strategist like us.

Comments Eric Gundersen of Development Seed: “Mobile texting is only160 characters long, has a 100% open rate, it’s either in your pocket or in your hand at all times, and there’s no spam yet. Ask yourself as an individual mobile phone user when you would want to receive information sent directly to your phone. For it to be useful it must be very timely or urgent, it must be connected to a campaign that you’re already involved in, and might also relate to your location.” Eric worked with Planned Parenthood’s campaign whose aim is to protect women’s reproductive rights. He helped develop a mobile information tool that allowed Planned Parenthood supporters to follow election results in South Dakota in 2006 where voters were deciding whether to keep the state’s blanket ban on abortions. This mobile campaign used the emotional and timely issue to drive people’s interest in receiving SMS text updates on their phone as exit polls and election results were being announced in real time.

  • Do you have existing and high use of online tools and access to technology support people? Using mobile tools is a lot like using online tools in the manner in which you’ll plan, build, deploy and measure a campaign. Organizations that have a good deal of experience with online tools are most likely to have a smooth transition to using mobile tools.
  • Can you survey current constituents and stakeholders to explore their interest and current mobile trends? If you’re able to survey your constituency, you can learn important information to help you make a decision about whether the time is right to try mobile. In a connected and networked age, you can also learn how your donors, volunteers, and activists want to interact with your agency, and what role they want you to play in this process. Are they seeking a one-way feed of information, or are they seeking a two-way interactive experience? Have they used SMS text messaging before? Can their current mobile phone play audio or video files? You can start surveying people who have subscribed to receive email communications from you, since this group is already “opted in” and engaged.
  • Can your marketing budget afford to pilot a mobile campaign? During this early adopter phase of mobile campaigns, you’ll need to budget for hiring a mobile vendor, paying setup fees, and messaging fees. You should also set aside money to integrate mobile usage data into your in-house database.


Although mobile campaigns can be conducted independently, most mobile campaigns involve some kind of “cross media marketing,” or combination of a mobile campaign with other media forms. These might include television, radio, billboards, the Internet, or print media. Advertising on these other media might call for the user to send a text message to a short code, thereby opting in to a “pull” campaign or allowing their phone number to be added to a database for a “push” campaign. Perhaps the most well known example of media interaction is the television show American Idol. The show allowed viewers to vote for contestants via SMS. The fifth season received 64.5 million text messages, which the show points out is more votes than have been cast for any U.S. president.

Nonprofits have used effective cross-media marketing as well. For example, the “It’s OUR Healthcare!” campaign in California effectively integrated an SMS text-to-screen campaign with a variety of web-based marketing. The campaign also had a live feed, which allowed viewers across the country to view the screen in real time via the Internet. Other nonprofit campaigns have used advertising with print media such as posters on buses or billboards.

Mobile marketing research suggests that “branding” with short codes could take a similar approach to branding with Internet URLs. Today, URLs are included on brochures, business cards, television advertisements, and products such as T-shirts. Short codes could be included on similar materials — everything from the tops of taxi cabs to newspaper ads — to further broaden a mobile campaign.

Live events can also function as a type of cross media campaign. At any event or gathering of people, about 80% of people will have a mobile phone with them. This can be an effective method of gathering participant phone numbers and information, which helps to build a database for future mobile marketing campaigns.

For example, at concerts during 2005 Bono talked about his ONE campaign — to fight poverty and AIDS — and asked fans to send a text message with their names. The names were displayed on a giant screen at the concert, and the ONE campaign was able to retain all phone numbers, building its database for future fundraising and campaign uses. An average of 10,000 people responded at each concert.


1. Petitions

SMS can be used for petitions that organizers send to government officials, the press, or other groups. Petitions also help to recruit new members and get media attention. The call-to-action is usually the single issue that the petition is about.

One example of an SMS petition was the “Stop the Seal Hunt” campaign in the U.K. The campaign, run by the International Fund for Animal Welfare, ran print ads in newspapers that asked users to text “BAN IT” to the short code “60123.” They received a .5% response rate to the print ads — about 50,000 people opted in to the campaign. When sent a follow-up SMS, 92% replied with their name and 68% included their email address.

2. Blasts

A text blast is a message that is sent out to many campaign subscribers. Text blasts should be relevant and timely, given that most users will receive the messages immediately. One example is a message sent on election day which includes a reminder to vote and the polling place for the specific user. A message of this type was sent to 14,500 people who opted in on Election Day of 2006, and preliminary results by the organizers and Yale researchers show positive results.

Wireless carriers require that only users that have opted-in to a campaign receive text messages. There are multiple ways to opt-in, including sending an SMS after responding to a call to action or checking a box on a web or paper form. An organization risks have their service cut if users complain, so it is important to maintain a clean list.

3. Alerts

Text alerts are sent on a subscription basis. Private sector alerts can include everything from daily horoscopes to football game scores. Although alerts have been somewhat slow to take off in the U.S., they are fairly popular in the rest of the world, perhaps because of lower carrier fees.

The main barrier to text alerts is price. Carriers charge a small fee per SMS, and most users don’t want to pay the carrier fee even if the subscription is free. When using text alerts, tell end-users how many alerts they should expect to pay for (one per week, one per month, etc.).

4. Text to Voice

SMS campaigns can be effectively combined with voice. A campaign can include a phone number in the body of an SMS, which constituents can then use to make a lobbying call, such as calling a senator or congressmember. Many phones allow the user to call a number that is embedded in an SMS.

A text message can also be used as a hook into an Interactive Voice Response (IVR) system. An SMS can prompt a user to call the system, which then presents a menu with different voice options.

For example, Fahamu, a network for people working for social justice in Africa, used an IVR system to distribute the content of their print newsletters. The group sent a text blast to thousands of members that said, “A new audio version of Pambazuka news was just released. Call [number] to listen to it on any phone.” Users could call the number, which would then allow the person to say which article they wanted to hear.

People for the American Way (PFAW), a progressive political group, used text to voice in their “Massive Immediate Response” system. Although the system was never activated, it drew significant attention from both the media and politicians. The system was in response to the threat of the Republican Senate to invoke the “Nuclear Option,” which would have shut down the Democratic filibuster. PFAW gathered phone numbers from their web site, and said they would send a text message when the “Nuclear Option” was invoked. As PFAW’s website says, “The essence of MIR is speed: this new technology enables us to contact tens of thousands of cell phone users – and enables them to call the Senate – within seconds.”. Although the Nuclear option was never enacted, the system shows the potential of text messages to be used for similar efforts.

Here are the types of costs that an organization can expect to incur:

  • Hiring a mobile vendor: Costs to hire a vendor to provide strategic campaign support and act as an interface to the mobile carriers can range from $2,000 to $5,000 depending on how much support is needed.
  • Licensing a mobile phone platform: Gaining access to the technology tools to operate a mobile campaign is usually done through a vendor. Renting a mobile “short code” costs an average of $500 per month. (Vanity short codes that spell out certain words – like custom toll free phone numbers – are usually double the monthly cost.) NGOs can save considerably on these costs by working with mobile messaging providers such as or
  • Message transaction fees: Once the mobile advocacy campaign is up and running, the organization will incur per-message fees for sending and receiving mobile SMS messages. The per-message cost is typically $0.05 per message, with various discounts based on contract length, and high volume.
  • Staff time for training, content development, and campaign management: Do not underestimate the amount of staff time that needs to be dedicated for the effective deployment of a mobile campaign. The two key staff roles are campaign management which includes interacting with the vendor and developing content, and the various technology management tasks such as list management, integrating data with in-house databases, and reviewing mobile metrics with the vendor.

We welcome a discussion with you about how mobiles and text message strategies can enhance your campaign goals. For more information, email us at

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