Love Him or Hate Him, You Can Learn from Trump’s SMS Fundraising Campaigns (Part 1)

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sms fundraising success for donald trump

It’s only been a few weeks since the US presidential election.  The world is still feeling the impact of the results, but this blog isn’t about who won. I managed to get a hold of the SMS messages Trump’s campaign sent from August through the week after the election and found there’s a lot to be learned from what he did. So put your opinions of the man aside for the time being, and let’s look at the content and methods he used when contacting supporters. After all, it’s considered by many to be a shock result and SMS had a big part to play in selling it to the voters.

First, I should note his early attempts to use SMS were just awful. You can read my review about it in this blog. But if you don’t have the time for that, I’ll tell you his welcome message alone was an epic fail. Nothing mattered after that.

But in late summer he found a new campaign manager and employed a different marketing company (so reports said) and his messaging improved. Here is how the new welcome message looked:

When someone texted the word “TRUMP” to a shortcode, they received the above messages immediately in reply. The first one does what it should legally in terms of opt-outs, and all that. But the best part is the second message welcoming the subscriber to the “team”. After that, there is a link to a video from Trump thanking them for their support.

It’s a great way to start off a campaign where the primary activity is asking for money. No one likes to be seen as just a money bag. When fundraising, it’s important to make supporters feel connected to the cause, and he starts off doing just that.

The rest of the messages are a combination of donation requests, special offers for donors, volunteer opportunities, and voting information. He did some things right, and some things wrong. In this blog, I’m going to focus on how he asked for money. In the next one, I’ll examine how he intertwined messages that would make his supporters feel appreciated, motivated, and informed.

Requests for Money

Not surprisingly, most of the messages fell into the money category. But they did so in a variety of ways to motivate supporters. I’ll go through them one by one so you can see how different types of messages might encourage more donations.

Pushing Fundraising Goals

At various times during the campaign, the messages focused on reaching a particular goal. In the US there are set dates for when the candidates need to file financial information with the government, and they are often judged (by the media at least) by how much money they’ve raised at that time.

The deadline mentioned in the image below is often deemed as the most important deadline before the election. The candidate who raised the greatest amount at that point is considered the most favoured.

But the reasons behind the message aren’t all that important. What matters is it makes supporters feel the urgency behind the request. These messages began on September 29th, about 30 hours before the deadline. They used words and visuals to impress the reader about the importance of the deadline.

So, did they make it?

It’s hard to tell. I’m pretty sure I’d have to dive into the dirty details of the financial reporting to know for sure, and I didn’t do that. Searching the official Facebook page didn’t return anything specific for this fundraising goal either. What was written in the press about it though, is they reached at least $18M before the deadline.

Get Your Name on a Donor Wall

Everyone likes recognition, right? Trump Tower is an icon in New York City, so having your name permanently engraved on a wall there certainly gives it.

My initial reaction when I saw the first message in the image above, was that it would take a LOT of money to get on that wall. But the longer message at the bottom says a donation of $49 (~£39) is enough. For those seeking the glory of being on the wall, that’s not too much to ask.

The message also includes an indication the opportunity to get on the wall is limited. The urgency will drive those who support him, and want their name on the wall, to give the money right away.

In addition, the message includes a link to a video where Trump discusses the wall, what it means, and thanks everyone who has already given. The YouTube video is unlisted, so I didn’t want to include it directly. But this link will take you to the donation page (still up as of this writing), which has the video on it. It’s worth a look if you want to see how his personal message would encourage supporters even more than the SMS message alone.

Name Listed on Trump's Official Facebook Page

In yet another chance to be recognised for a donation, supporters who gave during a specific time would have their names listed on the Facebook page. Well, the message said the names would be “LIVE” on Facebook.

Searching the official page returned no names in posts. But I eventually found a video with names and donation amounts scrolling by. It must have been part of a single live feed as the message suggested but didn’t say explicitly. Still, supporters were probably more than happy to see their names scroll across the screen.

The message could certainly have been clearer about the names only appearing for a short time (while the video was live). But if you watch the video, it looks like plenty of people took the offer so perhaps my criticism of the wording isn’t valid.

Exchange for Goods

Offering physical incentives is a tried and true fundraising technique. The Trump campaign included “free” hats, bumper stickers, T-shirts and at least one, completely useless item for larger donations.

Here are a few examples:

The prices are obviously much higher than the items should cost. In some cases 200-300% higher. Again, that’s not unusual. But you can see Trump’s messages all use deadlines or limited supply to encourage people to donate now, rather than later.

Another thing to note is that two of the messages above came after the presidential election. The campaign is still raising money. I was surprised to see that, but after looking it up I found that they can raise funds to help offset any debt they have remaining.

None of the messages explain that fact, but they are betting that their supporters are still willing to pay for memorabilia of the historic victory. They even took advantage of Black Friday and the Christmas holiday to sell an ornament. These same ornaments are selling on Amazon for much more money (and a lower gold value if the message above is accurate), so it would be a special deal his supporters would likely want.

Fund Specific Activities

Another tactic the SMS fundraising campaign used well was to focus on specific activities. In the message shown below, the focus is on advert spending. In the final days of the elections, millions were spent by both sides on TV ads.

The campaign was quickly burning through cash, yet still trying to make a push into areas where they thought they could win. So they asked for money to run those ads, and supporters gave the money for them to do it. While supporters were also given the opportunity to specify where the money should be spent, I don’t think we’ll know if the campaign listened or not. But by giving people the option of asking the money be spent locally (if they lived in one of those states) they probably were more willing to give. Just an assumption on my part, but I think it’s a good one.

Taking Advantage of Breaking News

One of the most effective messages the campaign sent took advantage of a video clip of Clinton insulting Trump supporters. Below is the message and a screenshot of the landing page for that message.

The SMS message makes the news event personal. It made sure that a supporter on the SMS list knew about the comment, and understood Clinton was talking about them. Anger is a strong motivator, so people probably clicked on the link to see what it was all about.

In the second image, you see the mobile landing page. It includes the video in question, then ties it to a fundraising request. This one-two punch of an SMS message followed by a mobile-friendly web page with a strong call to action probably resulted in many donations. This method was used multiple times for different news events.

Get Your Name on a List

Here’s the last of the name recognition messages. I saved it for last because it puzzled me a bit. As you’ll see in the message below, donor’s names would be given to Trump before the debate. Unlike the previous public display of names, this one was just for the man himself to read.

I really don’t know what good being on this list is. Perhaps some diehard supporters would be thrilled to have him see their name, but I also doubt he read the list. If this message was successful, then there were probably thousands of donors. It doesn’t seem likely he’d spend time reading names rather than prepare for the debate.

Perhaps I’m missing something, but it’s best practice to ensure your messages make sense. In this case, I think they failed because I can’t see the purpose of donating to be on this list – not like the Trump Donor wall because there’s a point to that (for a supporter at least).

Where SMS Fundraising Went Wrong

I’ve already mentioned a few faux pas the campaign made. I think one of the biggest, though was universal in almost every message asking for money. The amounts requested varied from $1 up to $49, even $99.

But when you click on the links to donate (again the pages are all still up!), you never have the option to donate that amount. For example, even though most messages ask for just $1, the smallest amount listed is $35. Granted, there is an “Other” option where someone can type in the amount to donate. But if you’re asking for a specific number, that number ought to be an option on the landing page.

Otherwise, the process feels a bit disjointed. Say I clicked to donate $1 and was presented with much higher choices. I’d feel a little bamboozled. They ask for one thing, but then show me another. It’s so important that the landing page matches the content of the SMS message. This is true in any SMS marketing, not just fundraising. You never want your subscribers to feel cheated, or to doubt your sincerity or cause.

It’s fine to include higher amounts in hopes of higher donations, but always include the amount requested. At the very least, test the landing page with and without that amount. Then decide which works best based on metrics.

The messages sent out after the campaign ended though fixed the problem. Both the T-shirts and the ornament’s landing pages had the exact amount requested as the first option.

In summary, Trump’s campaign asked for a lot of money in the few months of messages I had access to. For the most part, they managed to use SMS effectively, but they still had room for improvement. Their strengths were making the subscriber feel part of the team and creating urgency about the donations.

In part 2 of this series, I’ll look at other types of messages that enhanced the “team” feeling he had in these money-requesting messages, and how he rallied volunteers and ultimately voters via SMS.

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