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Mobile campaigns to be hot in 2012 presidential race

Matt Hamblen | Jan. 3, 2012
Social networks played an important role in the last U.S. presidential election, but the explosive growth in smartphone usage and the introduction of tablets since 2008 could make or break the candidates for president in 2012.

In early 2010, more than 20 mobile apps popped up for college basketball's March Madness tournament, "so why not have similar apps to track campaigns?" asked Bill Dudley, group director of product management at Sybase365. "There would be lots of mobile engagement for candidates and news organizations to track."

Dudley, a self-described mobile guru, compiled a mobile industry forecast for 2012 that included the prediction that mobile will be a "major means of trying to win votes" in primaries and the general presidential election.

Dudley defended his prediction by noting that about 80% of one of the strongest voting blocs -- people from age 18 to 40 -- is using SMS, and about 50% of those users are on smartphones. "Why not use that good channel?" Dudley said.

Instead, candidates are likely to go the easier route of reaching individual voters through older technology, such as robocalls, the recorded voice messages sent through random dialing to land lines and mobile phones.

"Robocalls are so 1990s," Dudley said. "Come on, people, this is 2012. Mobile is a more personal way to engage. Just look at how successful companies are using mobile."

Some analysts warned that texting and other real-time messages from candidates to mobile devices could result in spamming that would turn voters off, but Dudley said unsolicited texts violate three federal laws, which require users to opt-in before receiving those messages.

Jack Gold, an analyst for J. Gold Associates, said campaigns also need to avoid the risk of "overwhelming mobile users with too much interaction and too much connectivity ... There's a fine line to balance with the candidate's need to stay in touch with supporters and [becoming] a nuisance."

Gold said savvy political organizers need to decide if Facebook or Twitter via mobile can serve as a virtual handshake and work as a substitute for meeting and greeting a voter in person. "Certainly mobile extends the reach of the candidates far more than those they could meet personally," Gold said. "But at some point, does the mobile message just become background chatter instead of a way to reinforce the message? If all the candidates decide to campaign via mobile and I get tons of their messages, I'm likely to just discount all of them and tune out."

Dudley said Obama successfully used SMS alerts in 2008 in a targeted way to help smartphone-carrying campaign workers. With the alerts, a worker in a specific city would know what rallies or activities were planned in coming days and could relay to campaign headquarters plans to attend or not.

"Candidates need customization of that kind of functionality to mobile sites," he said. "You already have a very savvy group of mobile voters, so if a campaign is not using mobile through messaging or the mobile-enabled Web or mobile apps specifically for that campaign, then they are missing the boat, and a campaign runs the risk of not being able to reach their voters. The top candidates need to have a mobile strategy in place. They need to use the mobile channel as much as possible, with mobile sites or blogs or whatever."


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