Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Mobile Polling the Democratic Debate

After tonight's Democratic debate between Hilary Clinton and Barak Obama, MSNBC asked viewers to vote via SMS as to who won the contest.

This type of polling is near and dear to my heart because the dot-com era company I co-founded, Informano Networks/Recency Data, was the very first to do something like this in 2000 during the debates between Al Gore and George Bush.

Unlike our foray several years ago in which we had to create a cumbersome combination of SMS and WAP to get the job done, MSNBC had an easier time of it because they used a pure SMS solution. MSNBC also had the advantage of being able to tell people during the broadcast to text "1" for Clinton and "2" for Obama during the debate through a chron that appeared at the bottom of the screen.

As American Idol has discovered the lots of people like to do this. It turns out that nearly 90,000 people voted according to a number that was announced on air. That's fantastic because way back when, we only got a few hundred people to participate and we had to incentivise people to pre-register by offering them a chance to win $1,000. Also I don't know how many people watched the debate, but given MSNBC's usual audience of perhaps 500,000 at any given time, it indicates a very large percentage participated.

I was however a little disappointed in the actually execution of the mobile vote. First after I sent my message in I expected a very prompt message back acknowledging my participation. I got one back eventually, but not as fast as I would like.

Also the message said that the survey results would be on MSNBC. I can see how the network would want people to keep watching, but I would have liked to have recieved a real-time pulse of how other viewers were voting perhaps on MSNBC mobile site.

Before the post-debate analysis ended Chris Matthews announced the result 70% Obama 30% Clinton with the caveat that it was unscientific and usually the younger viewers were texting in and they have been supporting Obama. (Hence the fact that Ron Paul won the vote when they did the same thing during the Republican debate). If the analysis is correct I think that's makes the exercise even more impressive because I can't imagine that there were younger viewers engaged enough in the process to watch the debate.

Finally although participation in this SMS vote was free for viewers, except for the cost of sending a text based on the user's data plan, it would be interesting to see what the participation would be if it were a premium message instead. How many viewers would pay $1 to participate in a poll. MSNBC could be making $90K on the exercise minus the cost to the SMS aggregator of sending the text back. Overtime something like this could have a positive impact on revenue.

What if instead of sending back an acknowledgment which asks users to sign up for more alerts (something called Chuck Todd's First Read and alerts from Meet the Press) the SMS contained a sponsorship message. That's more money for MSNBC.

Would people be more incentivized to participate if instead of MSNBC pocketing the money it went to a charity? Now that would be interesting.

Overall MSNBC's exercise shows that a passive medium like TV can be made interactive via a mobile device, and I think more broadcasters will invite viewers to participate that way.

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