Text Messaging Connects With Donors

January 15, 2006       Marla Nobles      

For the international relief organization CARE and the American Red Cross, the thumb trumped the forefinger as the digit of the year in 2005. While millions of Americans hit their personal computers in support of disaster relief, a surprising number of donors pounded relentlessly on their cell phones, pledging hundreds of thousands of dollars to disaster relief efforts.

First arriving on the scene following the devastating tsunami in December 2004, and again showing up for post-Katrina efforts, a new window to giving is emerging; the text-message-to-fundraise campaign may just be the ringing, err, toning success for 2005.

There are currently 194.5 million wireless subscribers in the United States and more than 180 facilities-based wireless carriers. Not slowing down, the last year saw more than 25 million new wireless subscribers, the largest one-year addition since the wireless industry first offered commercial service in 1983, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association (CTIA-the Wireless Association).

“The number of wireless subscribers in this country is just growing by leaps and bounds,” said Erin McGee, spokesperson, CTIA-the Wireless Association. “Additionally, (those subscribers) are not slowing down on text-messaging anytime soon.”

In fact, text-messaging (i.e. short message service (SMS)) has become so prevalent in the United States — 32.5 billion messages sent during the first six months of 2005, up 32 percent from 24.7 billion during the last six months of 2004 — CTIA decided to capitalize on its appeal by launching the industry-wide “Text 2HELP” campaign this past September. The text-message-to-fundraise campaign benefited the American Red Cross Disaster Relief Fund.

The CTIA-run campaign officially kicked off Sept. 6, 2005, and included Alltel, Boost Mobile, Cingular Wireless, Cricket Communications, Dobson Communications, Sprint Nextel, T-Mobile and Verizon Wireless. Through the campaign, customers of these carriers could send a text message to “2HELP” (24357) containing the message “help,” and a tax-deductible donation of $5 would then be made to relief efforts (up to five donations could be made, totaling $25). Donations would then appear on the customers’ monthly bills or be debited from prepaid account balances. The campaign continued through October 31, 2005, and raised close to $115,000, according to CTIA.

“The ‘Text 2HELP’ campaign was one of the first major industry-wide fundraising campaigns via text-messaging,” said McGee. “We came up with this idea as not just another way the industry could help, but as another way that customers, who may not know how to help or how to send a donation, could help.”

Verizon Wireless beat the industry to the punch when it launched a text-message-to-fundraise campaign Sept. 02, 2005, joining forces with the industry four days later to broaden the effort, according to company spokesperson Debra Lewis.

Verizon Wireless had run a similar campaign earlier in 2005 for the tsunami relief effort, that time teaming up with the international organization CARE, based in Atlanta.

According to Richard Kiger, marketing campaigns manager at CARE, Verizon approached the organization with the idea, which “seemed like an innovative idea to help raise funds in a time of extraordinary need.” Using the short code “4GIVE,” Verizon customers donated increments of $5 to benefit the tsunami victims in Southeast Asia. It raised approximately $20,000 for CARE, said Kiger.

“(Running the tsunami relief campaign) was the first time we had ever done anything like this,” said Lewis. “We weren’t as ready to go right after the tsunami happened, so we came to the game a little bit late.” When Katrina hit, however, Verizon was primed just days after, enabling the carrier to raise more money.

“From a Verizon Wireless perspective, we are probably going to wind up raising between $55,000 and $60,000” (for the American Red Cross Disaster Relief Fund), said Lewis, who had predicted the entire industry effort would raise around $100,000. The industry exceeded the amount, raising close to $115,000.

Compared to the hundreds of millions raised via the Internet for both the tsunami and Katrina, this six-figure sum seems almost irrelevant. According to John Taylor, senior manager, public relations for Sprint Nextel, not only does every penny count, there is tremendous potential for growth.

“When the media announces a catastrophe, our (wireless) customers are really no different than any other Americans in that they want to make an immediate impact,” said Taylor. (Text-messaging) “is unique to our industry. It’s something that our customers can easily do, and they can do it 24/7. It’s an easy impulse donation.”

Added Taylor, a former professional fundraiser, “Successful fundraisers understand that you really want to remove an obstacle to giving. And the thing (about text-messaging) is, it’s seamless: you don’t have to write an extra check. You don’t have to make a phone call. It’s a very easy way to give.”

To promote the “Text 2HELP” campaign, the wireless association along with the individual carriers each detailed the campaign on their Web sites, sent out news releases, and teamed up with varying media outlets. According to McGee, CTIA placed ads in publications such as The Wall Street Journal, trade publications, and also spread word to companies or organizations with which it partners. Individually, the carriers promoted the campaign through popular shows they sponsor, such as CBS’s Rock Star, and the syndicated entertainment show Access Hollywood. The campaign was also featured during the multi-network Shelter from the Storm benefit and MTV scrolled the campaign information along the bottom of the screen during its Hurricane Katrina Relief telethon.

“We tried to get the word out as best we could without sending anyone a text message directly asking them to respond,” said Verizon’s Lewis.

According to Lewis and others in the wireless industry, unsolicited commercial text-messaging asking for donations or making other requests is not only unacceptable, it can be illegal. In 2004, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) announced that sending commercial email messages to cell phones or handheld computers would not be permitted unless the recipient had asked to receive the message. This decision did not include unsolicited commercial text messages sent through SMS, something the FCC had previously stated is restricted by the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA) of 1991, otherwise known as the “junk fax” law.

But the TCPA only bans auto-dialers from “calling” cell phones; digitally transmitted SMS messages are not covered by the protection. Adding to the confusion, the FCC in 2004 included rules in the Can-Spam Act of 2003 banning unsolicited commercial messages to wireless devices. Not covered by the Act are text messages sent from one cell phone to another (i.e. SMS), commercial or not. Noncommercial messages sent by politicians, charities or nonprofit groups are also not covered, but this does not apply to the wireless carriers.

The question of legality wasn’t the carriers’ only concern. Unsolicited text-messaging is “just not something we do because it would be really intrusive on our customers’ experience,” said Taylor. “You have to keep in mind that customers, depending on what plan they’re on, are paying to receive and to send a text message. So, it’s not like we’re going to call you or text message you and cost you money, to appeal to you to give more money.”

When Cingular Wireless wanted to participate in the disaster efforts, it decided to run two separate text-message-to-fundraise campaigns: the industry-wide CTIA campaign and its own Quick Reach campaign.

According to Ellen Webner, director of regional public relations at Cingular Wireless for Delaware, Eastern Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Metropolitan New York City, in addition to the “Text 2HELP” campaign, Cingular did an “extra layer” for the effort by sending a free text message — a “push” message — to its subscribers requesting a donation of $1.99 for the American Red Cross Disaster Relief Fund. “Quick Reach is the platform we use for (the Fox reality show) American Idol, for example. It works extremely well, handling a large number of (donors),” added Webner. Using the Quick Reach platform, Cingular raised more than $316,000 for the American Red Cross, according to Clay Owen, director of media relations, Cingular.

According to Susan Murray, director, corporate partnerships and cause marketing, the American Red Cross, use of the “push” message made a tremendous impact on the outcome of the Cingular-run campaign. “Cingular’s tactic of soliciting by cell phone actually worked. They raised three times the CTIA campaign. The other carriers didn’t send out “push” messages,” said Murray. “If you think about it, Cingular gave the option of donating just $1.99. So, that’s a lot of donations to make up $316,000.”

“Considering that this is a new way of donating, we’re just excited that so many people responded,” said Owen of Cingular. “Using (text-messaging to fundraise) is fairly innovative, so people shouldn’t compare it to other efforts.”

Well, not just yet. According to Brian Reich, senior strategic consultant, Boston Operations, Mindshare Interactive Campaigns, text-messaging could become the next fundraising revolution.

“Cell phones are the future, if not the now of communications,” said Reich. “The trend in which people use cell phones and the way they access content on cell phones makes them an absolutely perfect connection for charitable fundraising.”

As more of the population shifts to using mobile phones on a regular basis, “we’re going to see them bypass traditional Internet to a certain extent. There’s going to be a greater demand from all sides for people to be able to use mobile technology to make (charitable) contributions,” said Reich.

As anecdotal evidence of this, Reich cited the post-tsunami efforts in Greece, where donors gave more than six million Euros via text-messaging on their wireless phones. “What was really interesting is that a pretty significant number of people donated through their mobile phones multiple times in a row,” said Reich. “You’d expect someone to donate once, maybe twice. But we’re talking about upwards of 10,000 people who donated six times on their mobile phones. So, obviously in the U.S. we see a pretty significant opportunity.”

The British Red Cross and other European Red Cross societies have been using text-message-to-donate campaigns for years, said Murray, and “to great effect.” In fact, in Europe and across Asia, text-messaging garnered widespread appeal years before it did here in the United States. China, for example, reported 176 billion text messages were sent during the first 10 months of 2004. That is nearly 100 billion more than were sent in the United States during that same time frame, according to CTIA statistics. And in the UK this past October, BBC News announced that a teenager is currently being treated for text-messaging addiction in what is believed to be the first ever case of its kind in Scotland.

“There was a 100 percent growth in text-messaging (in the U.S.) from the 2nd Quarter of 2004 to the 2nd Quarter of 2005,” said Lewis, citing Verizon figures. “We’ve just seen such a huge boom in text-messaging in general as a way people communicate, and that could certainly translate to donating.”

But, according to both Reich and Murray, there is one hurdle, and it’s a big one: the carriers.

According to Reich, the wireless carriers normally charge a processing fee. “(That’s) unheard of,” said Reich. “In no other situation do you make a contribution to a charitable organization, by credit card, by check, whatever, where 40 percent of it goes to overhead, to the processing of the contribution.” Reich said the carriers refused to waive this fee, that is, until Katrina. “Then in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, when mobile providers were looking for a way to show their support and be helpful, they waived the fee.”

But Murray wondered if this really is the case. While Cingular waived the cost to the subscriber of the “push” message they sent out making the ask, none of the other carriers followed suit and waived text message fees for the CTIA-run campaign.

(The other carriers) “put on their ads at the bottom (a disclaimer reading), ‘Standard text messaging rates apply. Contact your wireless carrier for applicable rules and regulations,’” she said. “So, to me, that says no, they didn’t waive the fee.”

Should the carriers waive the fee, Reich sees tremendous potential for the future of fundraising via cell phones, beyond just text-messaging contributions. “What is more likely the trend we’re going to see with regard to potential use for mobile fundraising is actually the sale of content,” he said.

While Murray agreed that cause marketing is one tactic for fundraising, “I don’t think it would raise as much money as would a pure fundraising campaign.” Moreover, said Murray, with the right advertising venue, and by using the “push” message, text-message-to-fundraise campaigns could effectively tap into a younger donor demographic.

And, added Reich, a wider demographic in general.

For now, in anticipation of the bright future of mobile fundraising, Reich and company are currently “laying the groundwork with a lot of organizations to understand that they need to start collecting mobile (phone) numbers anyway possible.” Further cautioned Reich, “Because there is going to be no way to go and buy a huge list, like you can buy a huge list of emails or snail mail addresses for direct mail.”

“If you think about it, you have your cell phone in your pocket all day, 24 hours a day,” he added. “So the opportunities are limitless.” DRFE