Best-laid plans: Media beat Obama to the punch
from Wired News
WASHINGTON (AP) — Sen. Barack Obama’s pledge to supporters that they would be the “first to know” his running mate turned out to be a savvy but unworkable communications strategy.
The Democratic presidential candidate got scooped by the media on his own announcement, done in by dogged reporting, loose-lipped party insiders and the limits of technology.
But all was not lost. He amassed a huge database of cell phone numbers and e-mail addresses for the fall campaign.
Obama’s plan to use text messaging to announce his choice was a first in politics. He had promised supporters that by providing cell phone numbers and e-mail addresses they would be “part of this important moment” – the revelation of his choice for vice president.
The text message announcing Biden as Obama’s pick began filtering across the U.S. at 3:02 a.m. EDT Saturday, when most people were asleep. By then, it was old news, by today’s standards. The media had reported the pick more than two hours earlier.
Michael Silberman, a partner at online communications firm EchoDitto, said the campaign gambled when they made such a high-stakes promise and find themselves in a precarious situation where they could risk a great deal of trust with supporters.
“For Obama supporters, this is like finding out from your neighbor instead of your sister that she’s engaged – not how you want or expect the news to be delivered,” Silberman said.
The campaign won’t say how many people signed up to receive the text message, nor will the small Washington, D.C., company that handled the imposing chore.
“It’s a big number,” said Kevin Bertram, the 37-year-old founder and CEO of Distributive Networks.
The 16-employee firm, which built the text messaging system, has higher-paying clients. According to Federal Election Commission records, it has received about $130,000 from the Obama campaign, not including August.
But no account has a higher profile, Bertram said.
“We have seen some text campaigns in the many hundreds of thousands of opt-in mobile users over the past couple years, all in the consumer products-services realm,” said Verizon Wireless spokesman Jeffrey Nelson. “This is the first massive effort in the political world.”
He said the scale appeared similar to Olympics updates, which occur several times a day.
CTIA, the wireless industry’s lobbying organization, says in the month of December alone, there were more than 48 billion text messages sent in the U.S.
The real test for Distributive Networks was speed.
“It’s a pretty big challenge, because we’re under a strict time constraint to get all those messages out,” Bertram said.
Simultaneous delivery of millions of text messages is impossible. The messages must be routed to the carriers, which themselves may have bottlenecks.
Bertram said it took about 15 minutes for the bulk of the messages to get through the system. Meanwhile, the campaign posted the veep choice on its Web site.
The Obama campaign has worked closely with Bertram’s company, asking for added features in the text messaging campaign – like the ability to text supporters based on their ZIP code, a capability that allows for targeted voter-turnout campaigns.
Once the Obama campaign composed and sent the message, it was largely an automated process. The instant the campaign pushed the button, the message text flashed on Bertram’s laptop.
The CEO said he was “nervous, confident, relieved and sleepy all at once” as he watched the text message move through the system.
“Mobile marketing” is a relatively new phenomenon in politics, but one the Obama campaign has capitalized on it like no other.
People can sign up for text and e-mail updates on specific issues. They can get news on campaign appearances, receive discounts for campaign merchandise and even download Obama speech sound bites as ring tones.
It’s also an effective fundraising tool. Anyone who signed up for the notification on the campaign Web site was taken to a page where they could make a contribution.
Overall traffic on Obama’s Web site hit an all-time high Saturday. The Obama campaign said more than 48,000 people watched the live stream of Obama and Biden’s first joint appearance from their Web site. By about mid-afternoon, more than $1.8 million had been contributed online.
Messages can also act as a call to action, encouraging people to call their friends and encourage them to vote or donate to the campaign. The list of cell numbers is similar to campaign snail-mailing lists, but more personal and more valuable.
Of course there is a potential for burnout. Recipients, who pay to receive texts, will not tolerate spam.
“We don’t send a message to anyone who hasn’t initiated contact with the campaign and opted in,” Bertram said. “You have to have a very light touch. If you send someone 10 messages a day, they are just going to say, ‘Stop.'”
Associated Press Writer Nedra Pickler in Denver contributed to this report.