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Could commuters be your mobile messengers?

I was taking the Metro home on Tuesday evening and happened to get on a 4 car Blue Line train in the middle of rush hour. If you don't live in the D.C. area, I should note that this is a real pain in the neck as it typically means overcrowding and delays due to folks trying to jam into the closing doors. This doesn't happen as much when Metro runs 6 or 8 car trains. Still, on this super hot day, I was lucky enough to have a seat and a very entertaining train conductor.

Many riders were cranky and were complaining loudly about the overloaded train. Our cheerful conductor used humor to try to soothe the masses. When one passenger asked him why a 4 car train was being run during rush hour, the conductor made an announcement to the entire train. It went something like: "You know, I'm not sure why we're running this 4 car train at the peek of rush hour. I'm just the driver but I recommend that you go home and email someone about it. Go to www.metroopensdoors.com and tell someone what you think."

He said this a number of other times during my 20 minute ride, suggesting that if Metro received 3,000 emails -- one each from everyone on the crowded train -- maybe they would make a change to the service.

Now, I couldn't say exactly how many, but a portion of the riders were tourists. They don't care about long term Metro crowding and are likely not going to send an email to Metro when they get home from vacation. But the rest of us daily commuters were really an engaged audience. We looked around to one another, smiled and even laughed at the conductor's attempts at humor. We bonded. And I thought to myself, I will send an email about this issue.

I was on my way to dinner, so by the time I got home later that night, I didn't think to send that email. But if in the moment when someone was stepping on my toes and the person sitting next to me elbowing me while applying her poppin' lip gloss, I would have sent a text message. If our conductor announced text instructions instead of a website address, I would have sent a text to Metro from my cell phone right then.

The experience made me think that maybe nonprofit organizations should think about the use of print ads in Metro trains, in Metro stations, on buses, at bus stops that encourage people to text about particular issues or donate to an organization through their cell phone provider. Give commuters something proactive to do while they're waiting for the next train or en route to their next destination.

Then the next day here at GMT we explored mobile advocacy a bit more in a training session hosted by Katrin Verclas of MobileActive and NTEN. She gave many helpful tips about how nonprofits can use cell phones, particularly text messaging, in their outreach campaigns. We talked more about how groups can use text messaging and different kinds of mobile messaging to deliver their messages and calls to actions to members and supporters. We asked her for some impromptu rules for writing interactive and effective text messages, keeping in mind that texts to your constituents need to be interactive and stay within the 160 character limit. She says:
1. Be clear about what very specific action you're asking in the text.
2. Test and retest so you know what messages work; consider testing two different messages at one time (an A & B trial)
3. Consider your audience and whether you should use emoticons, slang, or shortened words in your message (i.e. using "u" instead of "you" and "4" instead of "for").
5. If sending multiple messages with multiple asks, be sure to have a good sequence & flow (test the process so your asks make sense to your audience).

Check out Katrin's blog post about LiveEarth's SMS campaign at

--Bobbi Russell

July 12, 2007 in Message Development | Permalink


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That train conductor was so great. I love it when they inject a little bit of humor, but this was just right-on.

He should have given an email address so everyone with a blackberry could type something up right then. If their carrier only works on land they could type it all and send at the top of the escalator. Instant complaints are the wave of the future.

Posted by: avocado at Jul 20, 2007 7:31:10 PM

Only one cell carrier works in the Metro.

Posted by: anon at Jul 13, 2007 8:33:29 AM

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