No matter how big or small your campaign, you need to be thinking about the size of the screen your constituents use to interface with your materials. What was once a race to make things bigger and flashier has shifted to what works best on the mobile devices that people carry around in their pockets and purses. At the same time, mobile campaigning has gone far beyond short text messages to encompass rich interactive media. Here are some tips if you want to put your buzz in voters’ hands.
Our first advice is to take a close look at your website. A display that is eye catching on a computer may be slow (or even invisible) on many mobile devices. (A word to the wise: If your campaign site still sports spinning buttons, potential voters will most likely find themselves spinning their wheels when they visit via smartphone.) Likewise, a website filled with tiny links or drop-down menus is difficult to navigate on a small touchscreen unless you have fingers like toothpicks. Your best bet is to find a developer who understands the need to test your website on the most common devices. It’s no longer enough to get it working in Explorer, Firefox, Safari, and Chrome; now you need to make sure it also performs on the iPhone, the BlackBerry, the multiple versions of Android, as well as numerous other mobile platforms.
Your email needs to be crafted with mobile devices in mind as well. As tempting as it may be to include large graphics and lengthy text, consider how these will show up on the small screen. If your messages require readers to thumb through screen after screen, they may end up giving you a thumbs down. Likewise, the links you embed in your emails need to connect with pages that fit on mobile devices. Imagine how disappointing it is for a BlackBerry user to click on a link and land on a page that is unreadable.
Both Facebook and Twitter are aiming squarely at the mobile audience, and you can take advantage of the applications they offer to share your campaign activities in real time with your supporters. You can take pictures, post them on your Facebook page, and update your Twitter stream all before your candidate leaves the podium. If you toss the camera and memory card in your trunk and wait until you get home to upload, you are like the proverbial coyote outraced by the roadrunner. Just be sure to double-check before you hit send—it’s easy to hit the wrong keys on a small device and mistype (or misdirect) your message.
On the cutting edge of the technology, Foursquare and similar location-based check-in services offer intriguing opportunities to encourage supporters to mobilize in a specific location (and to demonstrate the size of their collective action). If you have a specific plan, and more importantly, a specific person who is willing to shepherd a check-in project, your campaign might generate some publicity based on novelty alone. If you’re a smaller campaign and busy with other things, you may want to hold off on this aspect of mobile technology for now.
As we go forward, expect to see campaigns and party organizations investing in custom applications for mobile devices. Games, volunteer coordination, loyalty programs, and information apps will all be put to the test in political campaigns over the next year. For now, the development cost of custom applications puts them out of range for all but the largest and best-funded campaigns. Off-the-shelf applications, particularly those that focus on voter identification and GOTV support, make more sense for today’s small and mid-size campaigns. The key is to devote the staff time to integrate these applications into your campaign plan so there is a real payoff, rather than just throwing a bunch of technology at volunteers and hoping it will magically produce results.
Text messaging may have been the original mobile app, but the richness of the Web, social media, email, and mobile apps make a simple text look like the dots and dashes of a telegraph message. Still, you shouldn’t write it off completely. Sending out carefully targeted text messages to your core volunteers and supporters can be a very effective mobilization tool. After all, nothing says urgent like the buzz of a mobile device in your pocket or purse.
Originally published in Campaigns & Elections (June 2011).