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Barack Obama's text message guru talks to the Ticket -- Pt. II

January 7, 2009 | 11:44 am

President-elect Barack Obama's hands holding his beloved BlackBerry

This is the second part of a lengthy Ticket Q & A with Scott Goodstein, who ran all of the text-messaging and mobile communications for President-elect Barack Obama's campaign.

Part I was published here earlier this morning.

KL: Was there an “A-ha!” moment when you realized that this (new media) was really fertile ground?

Goodstein: South Carolina. Oprah Winfrey. In South Carolina during the primaries we really started experimenting to see how effective this form of communication was going to be and to see if we could get people to take action by sending them text messages.

So at an Oprah Winfrey event there we had 30,000 people at a rally who had the opportunity to text in their information to Obama. And we got volunteers out of it. We got activists out of it.

We were able to take advantage of a large crowd of people who wanted to hear the senator’s message and we were able to convert that into action.

Once we knew that this was an effective way of doing it, at every one of those big rallies we’d have a field organizer stand up and ask people to text their state’s text-messaging keyword to the Obama shortcode.

They did that at every event and every surrogate event, and we were able to use that information to get more volunteers, raise more funds and get out the vote.

KL: How many people signed up for the text-message service?

Goodstein: The official statement from the campaign is that it was over a million cellphone numbers. It was significant. And we got the majority of those people to send us their ZIP Code so we knew exactly how to reach them and we were able to give them information based on local events and local organizing activities.

KL: Who was behind all of this? How many people were actually controlling the message and working to get it sent out?

Goodstein: For the mobile campaign it was me and one other person. But everything on the campaign was a coordinated effort, so nothing operated on its own. If there was an event in Florida I would work with the Florida team to have their text messaging be what they wanted.

It was a large coordinated effort to really serve the states using these tools. It could be....

...as local as a college organizer on a campus doing a registration drive or the state director wanting to send out a message for a large statewide event.

KL: A text message can only be 160 characters. Was that limiting? 

Goodstein: Well, you’re not going to be able to give out healthcare information. It definitely has its limits. That being said, it’s an amazing tool to send direct action alerts. And in roughly two sentences you can actually say quite a bit. 

KL: What are the benefits of texting over, say, phone e-mails?

Goodstein: It has great impact on election day, when people may not be on their computers. Many times in the primaries, a storm or something would happen and polls would be kept open later and we would let people know with text messages. How do you communicate that with your supporters and drive more and more people out to vote? There is now another tool in the toolshed that you can use.

KL: Why announce the Joe Biden pick for 3 a.m. on a Saturday?

Goodstein: We announced it when we were given the green light to announce it.

KL:  It was also a bit of a spectacle, though. It caught people’s attention.

Goodstein: It was exciting because people were waiting around for that message and people were talking about the text message program. That built momentum for the program. And it definitely grew media attention.

The announcement of Biden for VP was great, but it was only a small piece of the full breadth of our text-messaging.

KL: How much did you pay the carriers for the text messages?

Goodstein: A few cents a message.

KL: Many people have said that the Obama campaign’s use of technology was crucial to the win. But now the cat’s out of the bag. Is there a new frontier of technology that future campaigns will use?

Goodstein: I think communication goes in waves. It just depends on where the eyeballs are. For awhile it was TV. TV had the eyeballs. That changed. You can no longer communicate to people by just airing commercials on television.

President-elect Barack Obama in a Secret AService car pulls out his BlackBerry

Even if you want to reach your base of voters, they’re not all watching the same channel. As TV and radio and the newspaper industry are dying, you’re noticing that people are now getting information from hundreds if not thousands of websites.

New media and the Internet and text-messaging all have millions of people communicating in unique ways, and I don’t think it’s going to be going anywhere for a very long time.

KL: Were the million or so people you were reaching with text messages swing voters or were they committed to Obama?

Goodstein: I would say that people who were on our list were very interested in our campaign and that the majority were supporters. They are people who desire information and who are willing to pay.

There’s still a cost to text messaging, unlike e-mail or anything else. Even if you have an unlimited [service] plan, you’re paying for the plan.

And with people who pay for each text message they receive, we needed to be careful not to send them too many texts so that they wouldn’t opt out.

KL: When John McCain announced his campaign for president, he did it online. Compared to his Republican opponents, he was considered pretty savvy with his use of technology. What do you think about how his campaign used it?

Goodstein: I would leave that up to your readership to decide. I didn’t focus much on what those guys were doing.

KL: There are no White Pages really for cellphone numbers, but you have built this phone book of people who are interested in President-elect Obama. What do you do with it now?

Goodstein: I can’t really answer questions on what we’re doing going forward. But I do think that the technology is here to stay for a long time.

What happens to the over 6 million on all of our social networks?  Well, people are still having conversations on MySpace and Facebook. And our internal network on MyBarackObama.com is very active still. But these other tools [such as text-messaging] that were really tools to disseminate messages from the campaign, well that’s something for higher-ups to figure out.

-- Kate Linthicum

Spkg of txt msgs, reg here 4 cell alerts on ea new Tkt item. RSS feeds also avail here. Now on Kindle 2.

Photo credits: Jae C. Hong / Associated Press (top); Associated Press (Obama in car, bottom).

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