Bay Area Companies Power Political Texts

Peer-to-peer messaging services were huge during the 2020 campaign — and they aren’t going anywhere.

Not all Americans have the same political views, but there’s one thing we all have in common: the barrage of political texts we’ve received over the course of the current election cycle.

If political text messages seem like a relatively new thing to you, that’s because they are. The trend was popularized by the Bernie Sanders campaign in 2016, which used a then-new service called Hustle to recruit supporters and promote civic engagement. Today, peer-to-peer (P2P) text messaging services like Hustle, GetThru, RumbleUp, and Opnsesame have become an integral part of modern campaign strategy. 

“If you look at your own phone, you can compare how many unread text messages you have compared to unread emails or phone calls,” says LaToia Jones, senior vice president of strategy at the San Francisco-based Hustle. “It’s the personal touch — and it is actually more effective.”

The data isn’t exact on how many people actually open targeted political texts, but estimates by P2P messaging companies generally set the range between 90-98 percent. Compared to the open rates of political emails (22.94 percent in 2019) or telephone survey response rates (9 percent in 2016) — and considering that door-to-door canvassing is nearly impossible in the age of COVID-19 — and those numbers start to look very appealing to campaign managers.

How does it work? Campaigns and advocacy groups typically access voter contact information through public voter records or through internal lists developed from contact with supporters who previously donated or attended events. In other cases, groups can also purchase phone numbers from vendors.

Once groups have a list of contacts, all that’s left is to sign up for a P2P text messaging service, which can run as cheap 8 cents per text. The relatively low cost and ease of use means that P2P text messaging services are now used for all kinds of campaigns — from small town school board elections to the race for the White House.

“We work with clients up and down the ballot. We’ve worked with many House races, Senate races, and the Biden campaign as well,” says Daniel Souweine, founder and CEO of the Oakland-headquartered GetThru. At Hustle, Jones says that they’ve worked with 1,500 clients during the current election cycle alone.

The robocall and text blocking app RoboKiller estimates that over 5 billion political text messages related to the presidential election were sent in October 2020. Of that number, 64.9 percent of texts were sent by the Republican party and 36.3 percent were sent by the Democratic party. 

In case you’re wondering, all of those communications are 100 percent legal. Initially, P2P text messaging platforms existed in a gray area due to outdated language in the FCC’s Telephone Consumer Protection Act. Released in 1991, the act specifically prohibited “automatic telephone dialing systems” but didn’t specify any rules for text messages.

In June 2020, the FCC released a declaratory ruling clarifying that P2P text messaging platforms are legal as long as they don’t use auto dialers — in other words, as long as a human manually sends each individual message.

That came as a surprise to Rose, a phone and text banker who asked to be referred to by only her first name.

“I always thought it was a robot, then maybe a person responded after you texted back,” she says. “But it’s literally someone manually sending everything — even if it’s a message template, it’s still a human sending it.”

Rose worked with APIAVote, a nonprofit organization that aims to increase civic engagement in the Asian American and Pacific Islander community. The organization’s messaging during the election cycle centered around guiding recipients through voter registration and ballot submission. Even though all messages were sent individually, she says the process was surprisingly efficient.

P2P text messaging platforms can typically be accessed via a mobile web browser, mobile app, or desktop browser. Once the user imports their contact list, the platform autofills contact names within user-provided message templates. Text bankers just have to click “send,” often hundreds or thousands of times in one sitting. Rose estimates that 300 messages can be sent in as little as 10 minutes.

“Ever since I started phone banking and text banking, I definitely started being nicer to everyone that texted me,” she tells me. “Because I know how much work it is. They’re probably sitting there for like two, three hours, and some people don’t even get paid. They’re just doing it because they want to.”

She’s had her fair share of negative experiences as a text banker. “People are upset, and it’s texting, so they don’t know that it’s a human sometimes. So you get a lot of [profanity],” she says with a laugh. “But one person said ‘please stop texting,’ so that was nice.”

If you’re frustrated with all the political texts, you can opt out of an organization or campaign’s list by texting back “STOP,” and if you want a faster workaround, you can always filter out text messages from unknown senders using your phone’s settings. If messages continue to be sent after an opt-out request, you can notify the Spam Reporting Service by typing “7726” or “SPAM.”

The consumer attitude towards political texts hasn’t gone unnoticed by P2P text messaging companies. GetThru has released a list of texting best practices, which includes things like “take a hint: don’t over-text,” and “ask yourself: would I be OK to get this text?” Over at Hustle, similar guidelines are recommended to clients.

“People have to be responsible with it, just like with everything else,” says Jones. “We just see texting as a form of communication, and if it’s used correctly, it will help make sure that people are involved in the [political] process.”

Whether you like it or not, text banking isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. 

“As a lot of people can see from the text messages they’ve received, it’s become a really integral part of political campaigning. As a tool, it’s proven itself to be quite effective, and political campaigns and advocacy groups will keep using it for that reason,” Souweine says. “It’s part of our political campaigning culture now, and we expect it will be for the foreseeable future.”

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