New Resource: Using SMS as an Effective Behavior Change Campaigning Tool

Photo: Text to Change Behavior change campaigning is inherently interactive. In order to encourage positive behavior change it is important to not only push campaign messages out to people, but to listen to the responses. To run a campaign which has a real impact, you need to listen to ensure you’re being heard. This is one of the main reasons why SMS - as a widely accessible and inherently interactive communications channel  - is an ideal tool for campaigning.

This is the topic explored in a new resource which FrontlineSMS is releasing with Text to Change today; best practices when using SMS as a behavior change campaigning tool. This resource has been put together collaboratively to provide an introductory guide, suggesting some key points which can usefully be considered if you are planning to use SMS as a campaign tool. The resource is by no means exhaustive, but it outlines some key considerations which can hopefully serve to help guide discussions around best practices in SMS campaigning.

Mobile phones are now everywhere. As we mention in this resource, global penetration of mobile phones now reaches 87%, with 79% penetration in the economically developing world.[i] There are 5.9 billion mobile-cellular subscriptions worldwide, and the total number of SMS sent globally tripled between 2007 and 2010, from an estimated 1.8 to 6.1 trillion[ii]. It is the ubiquity of mobile that makes it such a useful tool for campaigning.

However, using mobile phones for campaigning is by no means simple. In this resource we cover suggestions on effective context analysis, tailoring SMS content for your campaigns, creating a sustainable change with SMS and measuring impact. Through outlining best practices it becomes clear that the right content, delivered at the right time in the right context, is critical to a successful SMS campaign.

The case study examples within this resource demonstrate how text messages can help encourage people to change behaviors and attitudes toward issues as diverse as HIV/AIDS and reproductive rights. The case study examples come from both Uganda and India. These are completely diverse geographic regions, but in both locations, SMS behavior change campaigning proved to be a success.

FrontlineSMS has worked with Text to Change to create this resource. Both FrontlineSMS and Text to Change use mobile technologies to address a range of vital needs in the non-profit sector. It has been fantastic to work together on collating some advice on how to make the most of mobile technology specifically for campaigning.

The resource will be launched at ‘The world in the palm of your hand: SMS and mobile communications’, an event in London at which both Text to Change Founder, Hajo van Beijma, and FrontlineSMS Founder, Ken Banks will be speaking. Presentations at the event will explore the power of SMS and mobile in the third sector.

Check out the resource itself: Communications for change: How to use text messaging as an effectivebehavior change campaigning tool. We welcome your thoughts and feedback on this resource, and we'd love to hear about your experiences of using SMS as a campaigning tool. Please feel free to connect with us through our community forum or get directly in contact.

Many thanks to Megan Goldshine for her hard work on the graphic design of this resource.



White Ribbon Alliance for Safe Motherhood: Mum's Tattoo Parlour at Glastonbury Festival

Our twenty-sixth guest post comes from the lovely James at the White Ribbon Alliance, who piloted FrontlineSMS in campaigning in a particularly innovative and fun bit of awareness-raising - offering free transfer tattoos at Glastonbury Festival... The White Ribbon Alliance for Safe Motherhood is a coalition of individuals and organisations that campaign to make pregnancy and childbirth safe for all women and newborns. With members in 148 countries, I had thought for a while that FrontlineSMS could be a very useful tool for many of our members, so was keen to "road-test" the software when the opportunity presented itself.

Glastonbury Festival seemed like a great opportunity to do so. For the second year running, we were running a campaign to raise awareness of Maternal Health - by offering people the ultimate way to show how much they love their mum - by coming to our "tattoo parlour" and having a classic "mum" heart tattoo.

In the first year, we were taken aback by the amazing response and the vast number of people that got a tattoo and signed up to be part of our movement. However, this left us with thousands of people's handwritten contact details to type up onto the computer for our mailing lists, which made it really difficult for us to get back to them quickly and simply.

So, this year, I downloaded FrontlineSMS, bought an old electric pink Sony Ericsson phone and USB cable from the Queensway Computer Market (for any London dwellers, this is a veritable Aladdin's cave of old phones, computers and parts), and a SIM card, so that people could text us their email addresses instead.

I had a couple of hiccups setting up FrontlineSMS with the phone - firstly, drivers weren't available for, or didn't work with, Windows 7 - which meant that computer that I'd been putting off upgrading from Windows XP was suddenly my least favourite machine in the office no more - and then the first set of drivers that I downloaded for the phone didn't allow FrontlineSMS to see the handset.

However, a quick search for the phone's model number on FrontlineSMS's forums turned up a link for alternative drivers, which linked the phone up and meant it could send and receive texts perfectly.

Not wanting to risk taking a laptop to the muddy fields of Somerset, I anxiously left the computer in the office running FrontlineSMS with my fingers crossed that it wouldn't crash and that no-one turned it off whilst I was at the festival.

Happily though, when I returned, everything was still running - and a couple of minutes later, I had exported all the email addresses into a nice .csv file ready to be imported into our mailing list server! Unfortunately, we still had thousands of handwritten signups to transcribe. Whilst I don't think we'll ever eliminate this, FrontlineSMS seems like a really effective way to reduce the use of paper, offer easier ways for people to ask for more information about our campaigns, and for us to get back in contact with them.

Perhaps more importantly, it proved itself a reliable tool that I think has the potential to be really useful to our members around the world - and we look forward to introducing them to it and hearing their thoughts and ideas of how they might use it for their own work in support of Maternal Health.

Crossing the Digital Divide - FrontlineSMS in the developed world

I had a great discussion with some FrontlineSMS users this week as they gear up for their maiden voyage into SMS campaigning. Theirs is one of the larger UK charities, with a solid campaigning operation and a history of groundbreaking approaches - one of the first to run their own research project to spark real social change, back in the 1960s. But for one reason or another, they had never tried campaigning using SMS. Perhaps they went straight from snail mail to email? Perhaps the 160 character limit put them off? Either way, they are now taking their first steps towards integrating it into their campaigning approach - not as a standalone gimmick, but as another tool in the toolbox. We talk a lot on this blog about the potential of FrontlineSMS, and SMS more generally, to reach people in remote areas in the developing world, underserved by their governments. But I think it's worth remembering about the islands of vulnerability and isolation that can exist in the developed world too. At the end of 2008 there were 76.8 million active mobile subscriptions in the UK, or 1.26 for every inhabitant. But 10 million people in the UK (one sixth of the population) have never used the internet, and 4 million of them are among the least advantaged members of society (Independent). The UK now has a 'Digital Inclusion Champion', Martha Lane Fox, the founder of, who is tasked with helping those 4 million people to get online by the time the 2010 London Olympics rolls around. For organisations working with some of this group, mobile could be a valuable communication and interaction tool.

The Foleshillfields Vision Priject

The Foleshillfields Vision Project in Coventry, West Midlands, UK, uses FrontlineSMS to keep in touch with their volunteers and community group members, informing them about timings and activities. For the people they work with, as for many of us, phones and texting are an intimate part of daily life - it's how they arrange to meet their friends, find out what's going on, arrange playdates for their children. It's entirely natural that their community organisation is there too. The Project was already using SMS, and FrontlineSMS has made keeping in touch easier and faster for the team. You'll hear more about them in a future guest blog post.

So what should you think about when considering using SMS in your work in a developed country? In my meeting the other day, we discussed a few things to run through when shaping your FrontlineSMS intervention:

  • Who is your audience? How well do you understand how the group you work with use mobile, and SMS in particular? Young mums, teenagers, and people with learning disabilities are all groups I've heard about recently as enthusiastic 'texters' and great candidates for SMS communications - but could you say the same for most older people?
  • How can your SMS communication with them have a real impact? Can it form part of a wider campaign with an established 'ask' such as signing a petition, which could be easily done with a keyword reply to a broadcast SMS from you?
  • Who can you reach with SMS that you can't reach through other means, and what would you most like to get from an interaction with those people?
  • Whatever you want to achieve, it's important to think through whether it will work well with SMS. For example, it's hard to disseminate large volumes of information in a text; similarly referring people to a website using SMS won't work well unless they have a smart-phone with a good data service. But SMS is great for reminders (that your radio programme is coming on, or that they have an appointment), passing on helpline phone numbers, or doing a straw poll - 'have you experienced bullying at school today?'

What other issues should we think through? We'd love to hear from you, and we might be able to pull your advice together into a Get-Started Guide for this kind of work - so do get in touch!

I guess my main plug is this: Don't make SMS just an add-on to your communications. This is a powerful tool that can reach the parts other media can't - how could you use it to start new conversations in your community?

Keeping up the heat on climate change

As part of this years International Day of Climate Action on October 24th, - with support from Tactical Technology Collective - are planning a new and innovative text messaging campaign designed to mobilise citizens around the world "Project MOBiLIZE" will use decentralised, country-specific FrontlineSMS servers to deliver targeted messaging blasts to supporters in over twenty countries. The project will also collect SMS reports after the October 24th main event and deliver them to world leaders via Twitter, web and projection at the UN Climate Talks due to take place in Copenhagen in December.

"Project MOBiLIZE"

This is how it works. To start things off, the central server sends out an SMS to each of the country nodes, taking into account timing, language and message. Cost is minimal - just 20 international messages, one per node. Once the message is received, the country nodes automatically blast it out to lists of in-country mobile numbers, sourced from and local partner organisations. Costs are approximately 5 cents per SMS. Cascading SMS this way reduces costs considerably, and allows better local control.

Country nodes can also collect new mobile numbers through the FrontlineSMS servers, using SMS keywords and by publicising country-specific phone numbers on the web and at events.

This is the first time FrontlineSMS has been used to 'cascade' messages to and from the local level through a chain of servers. It could also be a first for any grassroots global SMS campaign, and if it works could present an exciting new model for others to follow. Not only is the system cheaper to run but it presents the potential for considerably wider reach, and thanks to some neat work by Bobby - the brains behind it - the pre-configured software can be quickly adopted in any country.

If you are interested in taking part in this ground-breaking campaign, either as an in-country node or in any other capacity, post a comment here, check out Bobby's post on the FrontlineSMS Community pages


The website has a post about the project Tactical Tech also have a post here


New numbers are being added all the time. Here are the various local access points as at 12th October:

USA - 30644 Australia - 0411694094 Maldives - 9900350 Macedonia - 077594209 Philippines - 09088770350 Hong Kong - 85262757489 Panama - Coming Soon! New Zealand - 0226070672 Israel Coming - Soon! Malaysia - 0163050973 Cambodia - 081666120 Sweden - 0733185314 Germany - Coming Soon! India - Coming Soon! Lebanon - Coming Soon!