IMGE Study: How the Presidential Contenders Are Using SMS

We signed up to receive SMS alerts from every presidential campaign so you don't have to.

IMGE Studies Marketing Strategy

Short Message Services (SMS) came to the forefront of campaign tech last cycle, but digital marketers are still tinkering with the best way to use this tool – and doing so largely out of sight as these messages are private messages.

What are the best practices? Who is finding creative ways to use the medium? To find out, we engaged in a semi-scientific study of how the 2020 presidential candidates are running their text programs.

We signed up to receive SMS alerts from every presidential campaign so you don’t have to. 

We responded to every text, clicked every link, and signed every petition. Short of donating, we were the ideal engaged user for each of these programs.

After a month of texting, what did we find?

Some similarities – and a lot of differences.

  • Which two candidates favored the heavy use of ALL-CAPS? Our two favorite shouty old men, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump.
  • Only three candidates sent us multimedia images – Pete Buttigieg, Cory Booker, and Elizabeth Warren. Every other campaign stuck to plain text or a link.
  • All candidates sent messages from a short code, but two also sent from a long code number – Joe Biden and Kamala Harris.
  • Not many candidates used an emoji. Do they even text? 🙄(Note: based on your phone’s operating system, some emojis could be different or not show up at all. Emojis did not show up for us on an Android but sometimes showed up when sent to an iPhone.)
  • The average length of a message was 170 characters – Joe Biden sent the longest with an average message being 249 characters.
  • The only candidate who consistently “signed” their own messages was Donald Trump. Other candidates used a campaign staffer name or no name at all.
  • 67.23% of messages included a link – Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders lifted the group’s average with both sending over 90% of messages with a link.
  • Across the field, 45.71% of the messages were direct donate asks.
  • The most common day to send a message was Tuesday. Sunday was the least popular day to send messages, with a total of 11 across all candidates. The most common time to text was between 2:00-2:30pm ET.
  • We did not receive messages from: Beto O’Rourke, Julián Castro, Andrew Yang, John Delaney, Bill de Blasio, Marianne Williamson, Michael Bennet, or Tim Ryan.

What were the individual campaign’s strategies like? Here’s what we observed:

Once the formalities of the welcome series of texts were complete, the three frontrunners sent us nothing but fundraising asks: Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, and Donald Trump.

The majority of these texts were straightforward, hard asks. Only a few surveys or other soft asks were mixed in – but every interaction chain ended at a donation page.

Our suspicion? These front-runners trust that we already know their platform. But it’s worth noting that three of the largest operations view SMS as primarily a cash cow and not a messaging platform.

And this pattern wasn’t just for the frontrunners. Smaller campaigns like Amy Klobuchar’s and Tulsi Gabbard’s also sent exclusively fundraising asks – though in smaller volumes. Overall, this was the most common strategy among the candidates. But it wasn’t the only one.

Elizabeth Warren has built her brand around how she “has a plan for that.” Her SMS plan alerts stay true to that brand, and they comprised the bulk of the messages we received from her.

Requiring an additional opt-in, this program texts you a link when she releases a new policy plan. Users can read the plan, sign a petition in support of it, and donate all on the same page. The design is slick, simple, and reinforces her unique proposition to the field.

Conversational texts? He’s got ‘em. Asks to post on social media? Yep. Fundraising texts? Of course. Notifications on policy plans and live events? You betcha.

Cory Booker’s team is trying everything on SMS, and the variety proves engaging and reflective of his high-energy style of communication.

Pete Buttigieg wasn’t the only candidate to text us an image – but he texted us 3x more images than any other candidate. Some were slick campaign graphics, but others felt more like a text you’d receive from a friend.

Dog content is the best content, right?

Kamala Harris stands out as the candidate who had the lowest percentage of fundraising messages – only 10% of the texts we received from her asked for money.

While most candidates focused on fundraising, Harris’s campaign focused on a different ask: building a grassroots movement. Many of her messages focused on encouraging users to download her campaign’s organizing app and start contacting friends and strangers.

For the third Democratic primary debate, she not only blasted out regular updates to her SMS list, but her campaign also put together an impressive, user-friendly social media toolkit that encouraged her audience to spread her talking points on social media.

Conclusion

While the use of the SMS platform varies wildly from candidate to candidate, one thing was consistent: each campaign used the platform in a way that reinforced the candidate’s personal communication style.

How should your brand craft a custom SMS strategy that meets your needs? Talk to our marketing experts about your SMS program today.

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