Listen to Your Data: Lessons from a Multilingual Text Message Campaign

Submitted by Brett on Thu, 05/05/2011 - 10:18am

By Jed Alpert, CEO, Mobile Commons

Mobile marketing is still unexplored territory. It's only in the last few years that cell phones have become widely-adopted enough to create a truly pervasive mobile campaign.

Because mobile messaging is so new, there aren't many rigorous best practices or established guidelines. That can be incredibly exciting, as each new project we work on further hints at the radical way mobile messaging is reinventing communication. But it can also be frustrating. When our clients ask for the simple rules to reach their audiences, we often have to tell them there aren't any.

That's changing quickly. For one thing, mobile messaging is incredibly easy to track. At Mobile Commons, we keep track of every single action a user takes – from sending a text message to making a phone call to clicking on a link. It's simple to cross-reference and correlate data to see what works. What's hard is finding a customer who wants to be a guinea pig as we explore new avenues of outreach.

We've had the good fortune to work extensively with the nonprofit Reform Immigration 4 America (RI4A) on a mobile campaign that the New York Times has described as "the envy of non-profits." RI4A is almost as committed to rigorous A/B testing as they are to immigration reform. Throughout their campaign, they've tested everything – from what time you should call your legislators to the best way to structure a text message – in English and in Spanish.

For example, in English text messages, the call to action works better in the middle:

But in Spanish text messages, the call to action is most effective at the end:

We've learned a lot from working with RI4A, never more than when we got things wrong.

One of the things we got the most wrong came when we noticed RI4A hadn't been including opt-out language in enough of their text messages. Opt-out language – that part of the message where you tell users how they can unsubscribe – can often be frustrating for mobile marketers. When all you have to work with is 160 characters, who wants to spend valuable letters reminding people how to quit?

Still, opt-out language is legally required. It also sends a signal to your list that nobody should be receiving text messages who doesn't want them.

RI4A quickly rectified the problem. They included opt-out language at the tail end of their next call to action:

Immigration Alert: BIG White House meeting w/ pro-immigrant advocates tomorrow. Text 2246 your question now. Top Qs will be asked! Txt STOP to unsub‐Please Forward

Thousands of people texted in their questions for the meeting. But incredibly, that message also triggered a tidal wave of opt-outs. RI4A received 2,246 opt-out requests – five times more than any other message, and about a fifth of the total unsubscribes the campaign ever received.

At first, our heads were spinning as RI4A's inbox was swamped with unsubscribes. Marketers in any medium know how hard-fought a battle it can to be gain each and every new subscriber. To lose over two thousand members in just a few moments seemed like a catastrophe.

But what quickly became clear was that the vast majority of these opt-outs were coming from the Spanish-language list. We realized that we had a problem of translation. When RI4A had translated "Txt STOP to unsub" into Spanish, they used the word "ALTO" – a word that has special significance in the Spanish-speaking immigration reform community.

"ALTO" is the rallying cry to STOP the raids – to STOP the deportation of innocent people. Many of the users who texted back "ALTO" were trying to send a message to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, not quit the RI4A mobile list. We had to dig through the accidental unsubscribes and figure out a way to re-engage them.

That mistake taught us a lot.

First and foremost, we decided that from then-on, any time anybody unsubscribed, we would send them a message confirming they had been unsubscribed from the list, and telling them to reply "oops" if it had been a mistake.

We also learned that cultural sensitivity is crucial in any campaign, and especially a campaign across multiple languages. Words that seem benign in English may have loaded meaning in Spanish.

Furthermore, different groups respond differently to different kinds of messaging. RI4A later tested to find the best way to include an opt-out message – how to structure a message so that it spurs action, but only the action you want. For English language messages, we found that it's fine to include an opt-out option within the body of a text. But for Spanish-language users, because of the structure of the Spanish language, it's better to send an occasional standalone message.

Finally, we learned that mobile messaging is an incredibly literal medium. When your user's phone buzzes, you capture their attention. That translates into immediate action – and some users will take any action you ask them to, including texting STOP.

Of course, that immediacy gives mobile messaging its power. Text messaging has changed the way that activists can engage supporters and doctors can help their patients change behaviors. But to realize mobile's potential, we're going to need a lot more trial. Unfortunately, that will likely involve a lot more error.

Jed Alpert co-founded and is the chief executive officer of Mobile Commons, the leading provider of mobile technology for civic engagement. Mobile Commons serves nonprofit organizations, advocacy groups, government agencies, health care providers and businesses.