Political text messaging is having a moment
Scale to Win’s Cole Edwards shares how campaigns can most effectively text voters and volunteers in 2022
Political campaign text messaging has skyrocketed since the 2016 cycle, as tech tools become more affordable for down-ballot candidates. What are the most effective ways to use messaging to reach voters or supporters? Are we reaching a breaking point of mass-text fatigue? To answer those questions and more, we spoke with Cole Edwards, a former Distributed Organizing Director for Bernie 2020 and founder of political tech company Scale to Win.
Q&A with Cole Edwards, Scale to Win
Campaigner: How’d you get your start in politics and campaigns?
Cole Edwards: To make a long story short, I was on a completely different career path before I entered politics. In 2015, I was getting my degree back in mental health and counseling. Bernie Sanders had just announced his campaign for president and a friend and I started a local organizing group to get the word out about his campaign. We ended up making swag to fund our efforts, and one of our shirts went “semi viral”, so we were able to fund and scale our organizing pretty quickly.
We then used those funds to host bigger and bigger volunteer rallies, debate watch parties, etc. We eventually started renting out a local movie theater pretty regularly. This grew large enough where some Bernie staff heard about our efforts, and asked if we wanted to intern for the campaign. And then the rest is history! I ended up working for him again in 2018 and 2020 as the Distributed Organizing Director.
Campaigner: So wait, what was on the t-shirt?!
Cole Edwards: Haha It was just a quirky “Feel the Bern” shirt with a cartoon of Bernie’s face. It wasn’t that special, but it was early enough where folks were just starting to learn the phrase, and then it took off!
Campaigner: That's awesome. Why don’t you tell me about what you're doing now at Scale to Win. What is it all about and what do you for campaigns?
Cole Edwards: We discovered the power of political text messaging on Bernie’s first presidential race. I believe he was the first campaign to start texting in the 2016 cycle. Fast forward to 2020, and my friend Brendan and I had just left the Bernie 2020 campaign and realized that nobody had released a cost-effective, reliable, and scale-friendly tool. So we wanted to launch a texting company that could scale, was organizer friendly, but that also wouldn’t break the bank - and thus Scale to Win was born. We’ve now worked with over 1000 progressive campaigns and causes, and actually just reached 500 million texts sent.
It’s a worker-owned cooperative, meaning we practice democracy in the workplace, share profits, etc. That has been incredibly rewarding - our staff feel invested in the success of the tools and our customers because at the end of the day, they own a piece of the company.
In addition to texting products, we recently launched our predictive dialer tool. If you've ever worked in field or distributed organizing you'd know that there aren't a lot of good dialer options there. We launched that in January and we’ve gotten a ton of positive feedback so far. So yeah, that’s Scale to Win in a nutshell!
Campaigner: Generally speaking, how do campaigns most commonly use text messaging - whether peer to peer, broadcast, or whatever else - to reach voters in 2022? (Fundraising, GOTV, volunteer recruitment?)
Cole Edwards: Good question. “Short code” (or “broadcast”) messaging will look pretty different from “Peer to Peer” texting. For “peer to peer” messaging, it's used for fundraising, identifying voters (aka “Voter ID’s), volunteer recruitment, GOTV, and last but not least: event recruitment. Texting actually resulted in about 40% of Bernie's 2020 rally event RSVPs, and a vast majority of Warren’s rally RSVPs for her presidential bid.
Campaigner: You mentioned “short code” versus “peer-to-peer” messaging. What’s the difference? Short code is like a broadcast or mass text, right? You just send a billion messages from one phone number and a real human isn’t on the other side replying?
Cole Edwards: That's right. You can technically have humans replying with broadcast, but it's really largely used to send a “broadcast” message - it’s not really designed for engaging in back-and-forth, meaningful conversations. With P2P, you can do “broadcast” style scripts, but you still have the flexibility of engaging in real conversations with people.
Campaigner: So let's dig into the peer-to-peer side of things, particularly on events. Is that what you’ve found to be one of the most meaningful use cases for this type of messaging?
Cole Edwards: We see “peer to peer” texting really excel with event recruitment, voter ID, fundraising, and GOTV. And then as an organizer, it’s far and away my favorite tool for gathering Voter IDs.
Prior to 2016, the process of gathering voter IDs was pretty tedious: You’d manually call voters one by one, or go knock on doors to figure out who supported your candidate or cause. You then take those positive IDs and contact them during GOTV to ensure they get out and vote. Those tactics are important, but as anyone who has worked on a campaign knows, everything is a race against time; Speed and efficiency is everything! It’s hard to beat the ROI of gathering voter IDs w/ using a predictive dialer or a P2P tool.
And we actually tested each of these methods on the Bernie 2020 campaign. We wanted to make sure the IDs gathered through text were “real” IDs, and not somebody just saying “sure” so they could move on with their day. So we gathered thousands of IDs via doors, texts, and through our campaign’s relational app. Then, we hired an independent pollster and polled hundreds of IDs gathered through each method.
What we found was pretty astonishing: it turned out IDs gathered through knocking doors didn’t really hold up. Only 25% of respondents who were canvassed at the door actually identified as Bernie supporters in the poll. We assumed this was because they just wanted us off their porch, but it’s hard to say for sure. With texting, it was flipped! About 75% of the IDs gathered through texting held up as legitimate support for Bernie during that poll. So it turns out, people are honest over text message! The only thing that performed higher than text was relational, which makes sense. Friends know where their friends stand politically. That said, relational organizing can be hard to scale; especially compared to SMS. And I need to add: Knocking doors is GREAT for GOTV efforts, persuasion, and deep canvassing, etc. Texting and predictive dialers just allow you to scale a bit faster.
So, long story short, you really can’t beat texting with voter ID or event recruitment.
Campaigner: That’s really fascinating. What about the fundraising use case? It seems like its been picking up steam among campaigns these days.
Cole Edwards: Absolutely. We’ve heard from a number of customers, large customers, U.S. Senate races, etc., that they're actually seeing digital ads and email underperforming for fundraising, whereas peer-to-peer fundraising has been overperforming, as of late.
Using peer to peer for fundraising is on the rise, I would say between 70 and 80% of large campaigns are using the channel. Statewides, Senate races, et cetera, probably 100% of presidential campaigns - and it’s also picking up down-ballot. We’ve worked with hundreds of city council races who absolutely love texting. I don't know if I'd say it's a majority of the down-ballot races yet, but it's definitely picking up steam. Everybody uses email for fundraising, obviously, so folks that go with peer-to-peer still have a big advantage over folks that are not using it.
Campaigner: Since 2016, every cycle there’s this kind of debate over whether we’re going to reach a state of text messaging Armageddon, where everyone is spammed by so many political text messages that it will render the channel useless. I don’t think we’ve hit that point yet - but can you speak to how the industry and campaigns are trying to avoid texting fatigue among voters?
Cole Edwards: Sure. I would say there are a number of efforts actually already in place this election cycle to make sure we protect the channel. For nonprofits and advocacy groups, statewide coordination tables are now communicating to make sure they’re not hitting the same people unnecessarily. That’s happening right now in states across the country.
In addition to that, there’s a new regulatory body, “10DLC”, which stands for “Ten Digit Long Code” - just a fancy term for new registration requirements required to begin texting with local numbers now. It used to be that anybody could sign up for a texting account and start texting voters. Now you actually have to register who you are, provide the content of your messages, that kind of thing, which is already working to prevent the bad actors in the space.
On top of that, peer-to-peer companies (like Scale to Win) are in touch with other texting vendors about how to ensure our customers follow texting best practices. Enforcing opt-outs, everybody is getting a reply to a text, including some kind of sender identification, ensuring they aren’t overtexting, that kind of thing.
And then finally, we have some features in our tool, like “overlap management” that help customers identify duplicates, to ensure they aren’t texting the same people in a short amount of time.
So while the space was largely unregulated prior to 2022, I think it's now shifting, and there are a number of new processes being rolled out to protect the channel from abuse.
Campaigner: What campaigns in the past or present have you seen run some of the most effective messaging programs?
Cole Edwards: I’m obviously biased here, but the Bernie 2020 SMS program was incredible (shoutout to the texting team staff!). If I recall correctly, they sent 250 million segments which resulted SMS in at least 60% of the campaign’s total IDs.
Aside from Bernie, I would also highlight the Ossoff senate campaign. They did a fantastic job with their SMS turnout operation- they had everything down to a science! They would figure out, okay, we need this many people to turn out in x county and we are gonna update supporters in real time. They texted people in priority counties with messages such as, “Hey, we need 185 more people to show up at this polling location if we’re going to pull off a win today. Please get to that polling location before x time!” I have to think that their victory was, in part, fueled by their advanced texting program.
Campaigner: Last question: What’s the future of messaging? Is it more about sliding into people’s DMs on platforms like WhatsApp and Messenger? Something else?
Cole Edwards: I would say a couple of things, you know, Instagram, WhatsApp, a lot of these apps have actually built-in filters from inception that prevent this kind of outreach. So it's not a super viable option, at least not right now. I will just highlight something that we offer called “toll-free messaging,” which is fairly unique to Scale to Win. Instead of sending texts from a local number, you’re using an 833 or 844 area code. For whatever reason, this type of texting has seen better results across the board. Better fundraising, better action rates, and fantastic deliverability. So I would say “toll-free” messaging is just another tool in the tool belt that we’re seeing increase in popularity.
Campaigner: Anything that you want to add?
Cole Edwards: If you’re looking to get involved in texting or calling for your campaign or cause, check out Scale to Win! You can’t beat the trifecta of affordability, reliability, and wide variety of unique features that help you seamlessly scale your program. You can learn more at https://scaletowin.com