Vote of Confidence
President Barack Obama and challenger Mitt Romney are employing increasingly sophisticated tools to get more people to donate to their campaigns. From text donations to sending e-mails encouraging supporters to buy T-shirts to using online video games to attract supporters to displaying actual Facebook friends who have "liked" the campaign — the candidates are counting on the "cool" factor to lure new donors, particularly Gen Xers and Gen Yers, experts say.
But the verdict is still out on how many people actually feel comfortable with the brave new world that technology — particularly mobile technology — is birthing.
For example: Both campaigns now have the capability to allow supporters to send money to them via text donations. The service for both campaigns is actually provided by payvia, a Los Angeles unit of m-Qube that was launched in July.
"The ability to donate by texting directly increases conversion rates because it is so easy to use," payvia President Darcy Wedd says. "Conversion rates depend on the type of product, but they generally range from three times to six times the conversion rates with credit cards."
Wedd explains why: When donating using a credit card, a supporter has to type in his or her credit card number, address, expiration date, and three- or four-digit security code. But with text donations, payvia just needs a short code to do the transaction.
Supporters can start payvia's process either through their mobile devices or online using a personal computer or a laptop, he says.
Using their smartphones or tablets, Obama supporters can text "Give" to donate $10 to the president's dedicated short code, 62262; Romney supporters can text "Give" to his code, 37377. (For other amounts, supporters can text Give5 to give $5, Give15 to give $15 and Give20 to give $20.)
Supporters are then prompted to reply "YES" to confirm the contribution, and the donation is charged directly to their carrier bills.
They also can start the process online by entering their mobile phone numbers on the campaign site's mobile opt-in page, Wedd says. Their contributions are authenticated using a unique, one-time, four-digit PIN sent to the users' mobile to authorize the transaction.
Both methods also require the mobile users to certify they are eligible to make political contributions under the Federal Election Commission regulations. Moreover, campaign finance laws have capped the amounts that people can contribute each month to each political committee at $50.
The 'big shift'
Wedd says political candidates are jumping on the bandwagon and taking advantage of the "big shift in consumer behavior online."
"Think back two or three years ago — the thought of paying with your mobile device to read The Wall Street Journal on your device was very foreign and no one would do it," he says. "But now it's very common to do this."
The idea of donating via text really took off when payvia's parent, m-Qube, processed more than $40 million in text donations for the Haiti earthquake relief fund on behalf of the Red Cross and other charitable organizations, Wedd says. m-Qube launched the ability for mobile users to pay or donate via text in 2004, and since then, the company has paid out just more than $2 billion to merchants and other clients.
However, not everyone is enamored with the idea of Obama and Romney encouraging their supporters to donate via text — considering that the carriers are likely taking as much as 50 percent and possibly even more for their services, says Jeff Hasen, chief marketing officer at Hipcricket in New York City. For charitable donations, such as for the Haiti relief fund, many carriers have announced that they will waive their fees.
Wedd acknowledges the difference but says there is no choice working with political candidates.
"With political contributions, we have to charge our customers in the political realm basic commercial rates due to the campaign finance laws," he says. "If we charged less, it would be treated as contributions-in-kind."
The actual percentage each carrier receives for processing text donations is confidential, Wedd says.
Hasen says there is growing speculation that the real reason the presidential candidates are offering the ability to donate via text is to get supporters to opt in for targeted text messaging to help get out the vote.
"As far as campaigns just using text donations to get people to opt in to message, I don't think it's a necessarily smart strategy," Hasen says. "It's a lower barrier of entry just to ask them to opt in to get campaign information than to ask for a donation."
Still, Obama and Romney might be able to attract more young people to both contribute and help get others to vote by enabling them to donate via text, Hasen says. But he questions how many people will actually do that for a political campaign versus an emergency relief fund for a catastrophe like the Haiti earthquake.
"It is an entirely different motivation," he says. "Watching the Haiti earthquake coverage on TV, if I had a heart, I couldn't possibly say no to that. There's also an immediacy to that that can't be matched by asking to donate to a political campaign four months before an election. When it comes to how to tap in to the passions and interests of mobile subscribers, to me the jury is still very much out."
Jim Buttino, president of Systems East in Courtland, N.Y., is currently trying to entice Romney and supportive Republican state and national committees to use his firm's Xpress-pay.com to enable supporters to donate by scanning QR codes on ads. In fact, Systems East has placed a mock Romney campaign TV ad on YouTube that displays a QR code at the bottom of the screen to demonstrate how easy it could be, Buttino says.
"Unlike text-based giving, carriers do not participate in the transaction, so they receive none of the proceeds," he says. "In addition to the funding delay of 60 to 90 days and the high setup and monthly costs, text messaging always determines the donation amount. If I want to give $50, I can only effectively give $10, so the organization loses $40."
But through Xpress-pay, donors would be able to set the amount from $1 on up to $50 — the limit anyone can give each month according to the FEC — and 100 percent of the money goes to the political campaign, he says.
While donors would complete the transaction using their credit/debit cards, or checking or savings accounts via eCheck, Buttino contends his process would be the one to minimize "donor friction."
"With Xpress-pay, there is no need to remember a website or wait until you boot a PC," he says.
Herman Cain was the first political candidate to allow supporters to donate using QR codes via Xpress-pay. It worked "very well" for the candidate, Buttino says.
Xpress-pay is being used by municipalities and businesses, which post their bills on the site for their customers to pay after clicking hyperlinks on the bills either online or on their mobile devices, or scanning QR codes on the bills using their mobile devices. Xpress-pay links hyperlinks or QR codes to merchant and consumer information, such as account numbers and bill amounts, to initiate "error-free payment transactions," Buttino says.
"There are two ways a political campaign can use these," he says. "They can send an e-mail with a hyperlink, a button or phrase that the reader can touch, or they can include a QR code for the consumer to scan. The mobile app is Web-based, so no app is needed other than a standard barcode reader."
Both candidates are simplifying their solicitation messages for donations in their e-mails so readers can more easily read the e-mails on their smartphones and tablets, says Loren McDonald, vice president of industry relations at Silverpop, a digital-marketing technology provider based in Atlanta. McDonald has been analyzing e-mails from both the Obama and Romney campaigns.
To make their e-mails more readable on mobile devices, the campaigns are making the sentences short and in single columns, and quickly getting to the call to action — asking recipients either to donate, volunteer or rally other people to vote for the candidate.
Romney also is using e-mails for more "retailing" purposes — getting supporters to buy T-shirts or bumper stickers touting his candidacy, McDonald says.
"I think it shows some real creativity around how to commit their supporters who are really passionate, to buy things to promote the campaign," he says. "It's also a more creative way to raise money, replacing messages like, 'We just need another $10 by midnight!'"
However, both Romney and Obama are potentially minimizing the amount of donations they could get by not consistently putting well-recognized names in the "From" box, such as Vice President Joe Biden pitching for Obama or John McCain for Romney, McDonald says. Instead, some e-mails come from the campaigns' directors of communications, while others come from local or state party leaders.
"A voter who doesn't recognize those names could just as easily not open the e-mails or just delete them," he says. "They need to stick with recognized, trusted brand names."
Obama and Romney are also using "gamification" to mine for receptive supporters. For example, the Obama campaign inserts messages within the game Foursquare, in which participants log on with their personal information, including their Facebook account names and passwords, to play a game to be mayor of a particular community. Obama can then contact the players to solicit donations or support to help get out the vote.
Obama also is using the new Facebook Exchange Service on his campaign website to solicit donations and other forms of support.
For example, people curious about Obama can log on to his campaign website and — if they are logged in to their Facebook accounts — they can see in the middle of Obama's homepage the names of two of their Facebook friends who "like" Obama's site. On top of that personalized message is a box labeled "Are You In?" People then have the ability to type their e-mail addresses and ZIP codes to receive even more personalized messages to donate or help get out the vote.
The ability for the Obama website to recognize the Facebook cookies embedded within users' computers so it can list specific Facebook friends who have "liked" the site might be seen as a way to excite people that their friends are supporting Obama — or it might just seem creepy and backfire as a marketing strategy, experts say.
Indeed, Facebook users report instances where they are listed as having "liked" a candidate when in fact they hadn't. One potential explanation is they could have pressed "like" on a seemingly unrelated ad on Facebook, or on another website altogether, which was then retargeted to the candidate's site using a Facebook Exchange service.
Patrick Donnelly, manager of corporate development for WCG, a global public relations and social-media engagement firm based in San Francisco, says some people might appreciate political candidates recognizing their computers and listing Facebook friends, and some people might be turned off.
"If you are an undecided voter and you want to learn about how a candidate feels about some of the issues, you can go to his or her website, and if you see that X number of your Facebook friends already support that candidate, you might be more likely to read the positions — it's almost like an endorsement," Donnelly says. "Or you may be more likely to ask your friends about how they feel about that candidate or what they think about his or her positions."
Others may feel their privacy has been violated, he says.
"Some people have no problem sharing how they feel about the issues, while there are other groups who may just want to share about yoga and parenting, and they don't want anyone to know about their political beliefs," Donnelly says. "Social media is still fairly new, and so is how comfortable people are about things like Facebook tracking their moves on the Internet."
Still, he believes political candidates and political advocacy groups — like commercial marketers — should continue to at least get people to "like" them, as it's a great way to get "a basic starter list of who is in their camp."
The current campaigns no doubt continue the trend set in 2008 toward more immediate and multichannel communications. And like in 2008, nonprofits most likely can take a page from the candidates' playbooks to enhance their own fundraising and awareness efforts.
Katie Kuehner-Hebert is a California-based journalist. Reach her at email@example.com