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Is the Humble Text Message a Cause Marketing Star?

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I'm reevaluating my thinking on text messages (SMS) for cause marketing. Previously, SMS only meant text-to-give for me. And unless you used SMS after some horrific disaster, or at a concert that displayed it or on a jumbotron at some major sporting event it wasn't very useful for cause marketing.

However, the more I learn about text and the more I sober up to the reality of adoption rates on things like smartphone apps, location-based services, QR codes and other mobile gadgetry in general, the more I appreciate the simple text message.
  • I know a lot of people who know nothing about iPhone apps, QR codes and location-based services, but know how to use SMS. I bet you do too. It's something my eight-year-old son and 85-year-old godmother can both do.
  • The fact that you don't have to learn anything about texting to use it is really the beauty of it. Most phones push text messages so they're hard to miss. Compare that to getting someone to download your app. Or explaining Foursquare to a newbie. Or explaining what a QR code is.
  • Maybe that's why 97% of mobile subscribers will read a text message within four minutes of receipt. I mean, WOW. Forget talking to my two kids. I should just text them!
Nevertheless, we should be careful not to oversell SMS. Hipcricket Chief Marketing Officer Jeff Hasen, a SMS campaign veteran, puts it nicely: use SMS for reach and something else for a "richer media experience" (e.g. landing page, QR code, mobile app). He also says that for the companies he works with, SMS is best for special offers or time sensitive deals.

So while SMS is the knock that just about every consumer will answer, they're particular on what they will let in.

Which brings us to how text messages can be used for cause marketing (beyond text-to-give). For this, I turned to Douglas Pank who founded MobileCause, a company focused on providing mobile solutions to nonprofits and companies.

Doug agreed that nonprofits generally think of just text-to-give when it comes to SMS. But it could be used for a lot of things.
  • Communication - An environmental nonprofit could use SMS to update supporters on key activities or "breaking news."
  • Outreach - An agency working to stop teen pregnancy could use text messages to target teens, the most common and responsive users of mobile devices.
  • Information Gathering - A local YMCA could poll members on their choice for gym hours over the holidays.
  • Activism - A city hospital could use SMS to urge supporters to call their governor, congressman or senator to weigh in on an important piece of legislation.

There are a lot of good ways to use SMS, and nonprofits should encourage their donors and supporters to opt-in for text messages.

But to make this a cause marketing effort, nonprofits should partner with companies that boast a long list of SMS subscribers. The company could tap its list to help a nonprofit with communication, outreach, information gathering, activism and even fundraising.
  • SMS could inform customers of an in-store promotion for your cause with a link to more information about your mission. (SMS is the QR code you type instead of scan!)
  • A point of sale or purchase-triggered promotion could include a keyword and short code that would reward donors with a special offer or discount, which they can access right from their phones.
  • A text from the company could ask customers to give by replying with a provided keyword and short code to make an instant donation.
There's a lot of potential with SMS. Nonprofits should build their own SMS subscriber base. But another option is to explore the potential of SMS with current business partners and make a point to target new partners that are known for their SMS savvy.

I believe in the future of location-based services, QR codes and smartphone apps. Over 100 years ago, the early inventors and makers of the automobile believed in its future too. But good, strong horses were needed until the age of the automobile arrived. The same is true of SMS. It's the best thing we have right now and it can do more than we think.

SMS is a good, sturdy workhorse. We shouldn't look this gift horse in the mouth.

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