Ever since the introduction of cheap, widespread telephone communications in the United States, the telephone has been a key ingredient in political campaign strategy.  New technologies have made campaign telemarketing easier and cheaper than ever.

In this article, we’ll take a close look at campaign phone banks – including pros and cons for using phone banks for your campaign, plus tips for how to make your call program more successful.  Note that throughout this article, we’ll refer to your campaign’s telephone contact programs as “telemarketing” and “phone banking.”  Both terms are interchangeable.

Before Picking Up the Phone…

Before beginning a campaign phone bank, be sure to check the laws and regulations for telemarketing activity in your district.  At the time of this writing, political telemarketing calls are generally exempt from telemarketing restrictions in the U.S. because of first amendment free speech protections… Be sure to check with your campaign board of elections and a qualified election lawyer before you begin your campaign to see if this generalization has changed and which rules are in effect at the time and in the place where you are running.

Why Telemarketing is Good for Political Candidates

It’s not hard to understand why campaigns like using phone banks.  Political telemarketing is relatively cheap (often only 2-5 cents per call) and quick to implement (campaigns can often implement a phone bank using a professional call center with as little as one day’s notice).  But the most important reason by phone banks are so great for campaigns is that, like direct mail, campaign telemarketing can be easily and directly targeted. That is, the campaign picks who gets a call and which message that voter receives, and only pays to contact those voters it has targeted for a call.

Why Telemarketing is Bad for Political Candidates

Campaign phone banks are bad for campaigns because they are… well… telemarketing.  Is there anyone in the world who actually likes getting telemarketing calls?  Campaign calls, like all telemarketing calls, can annoy voters and can sometimes turn them against you.  All in all, though, at the time of this writing the good outweighs the bad, and I recommend that campaigns that can afford to use phone banks do so, but with a few caveats:

Don’t Over Do It!  You shouldn’t call people 3 times in the same day or 8 times in the same week.  I’ve seen campaigns who think, “Well, it’s ok to send 5 pieces of direct mail in 3 days, so it must be o.k. to make 4 calls in 2 days.”  It’s not.  Use extreme care in how often you call the same voter.  Many voters who would not be annoyed by 2 calls over the course of a month can become irate over 2 calls in the same day.

Be Mindful of the Time of Day.  Don’t call in the morning, late at night, or at other times when people don’t want to be disturbed.

Never Argue.  If you’re doing live calls with volunteers, be careful with how your callers are treating people on the phone.  They should never, ever get into arguments with a voter, no matter how wrong that person may be.  They should just thank the voter for their views and say “goodbye.”

Live vs. Automated Phone Calls

One decision your campaign will need to make is whether you plan to do “live calls,” where a real person is making the calls to voters, or auto calls, where a computer is making calls to a predefined list and playing a pre-recorded message.  There are pros and cons to each type of call.

More people will listen to live callers, and live callers can also get feedback and report information, such as who a voter plans to support, back to the campaign.  On the other hand, if you’re using a professional telemarketing firm, live calls are more expensive than automated calls;  if you’re using volunteers, you’ll need to take a lot of time to train and supervise them.

Auto calls are less likely to be listened to in their entirety than live calls, as many voters who hear a pre-recorded message will simply hang up.  (There are great recording technologies and ways of writing your scripts, however, that can make it sound like your auto-message is a live person, at least for a minute or two, which will encourage people to listen).  On the other hand, auto calls are cheaper than live calls and allow for some creative uses, such as having a prominent politician who endorses you record an automated message and then broadcasting that out, so that thousands of people are hearing the endorsement, in the endorser’s own voice, right on their own phones.

The choice as to which type of call to use is ultimately one of budget and purpose, and must be decided by each individual campaign depending on their campaign strategy.

Understanding Political Call Purposes

Another key decision your campaign will need to make is: what is the purpose of our phone bank program and / or this individual round of calls?  Generally, campaign call programs serve any one of a number of possible purposes:

Raise Name ID – a targeted call program can be used to raise a candidate’s name ID

Negative Campaigning – a phone bank can be used to spread the word about certain issues that impact your opponent negatively

Event Turnout – calls can be made to encourage voters to attend a campaign event

Fundraising – calls can be made to ask for small donations

Get Out the Vote – political campaigns often use telemarketing to remind their supporters to go vote on Election Day

Endorsements – as mentioned above, calls can be used to get out the word about a favorable endorsement, often using a pre-recorded message from the endorser herself

Know why you’re calling before your team picks up the phones.

Know what the goals and purposes are for your campaign phone banks before you launch a telemarketing program.

Professional Phone Banks Explained

If your campaign can afford it, I highly recommend that you use professional political telemarketing firms to run your campaign phone banks.  These companies have phone banks down to a science – they have tons of phones, know the best times and lists to call, and they have highly trained callers that know their scripts.  Be sure that if you go this route, you use a firm that specializes in political calls, and preferably one that has worked in your state before.  Also, remember that their rates are negotiable, so be sure to push for a pricing scheme that works for both you and the telemarketing company.

When you contract with a political telemarketing firm, you will generally spend some time with the company choosing who to target with your phone banks, figuring out when you want the calls to be done, how many flights of calls (individual calling rounds) you are looking to push out, writing the call scripts and negotiating price.  Then, the company gets to work.  Several days later, the first call flight should be complete, and your campaign should receive a report that tells you how many calls were made, how many were connected, what people said (if you are doing live calls), etc.  You can then tweak your call program before the next call flight, if you would like.

Organizing a Volunteer Phone Bank

If your campaign can’t afford a professional phone bank, you should still utilize calls in your campaign strategy by organizing a volunteer phone bank.  Many campaigns also run volunteer phone banks in addition to professional call banks to supplement their efforts.

Note that because they will dealing with the public, the volunteers and campaign staffers who participate in the phone bank will need to be well trained and monitored to assure that they are following the script, making the calls, and dealing with voters in an appropriate manner.

The steps to organizing a successful volunteer phone bank are:

1 – Choose the Right Volunteers – First, select volunteers and staffers who are personable and are great “people people.”

2 – Pick Your List – Who are you planning to call in this round?  Registered voters? Registered voters in your party?  Registered voters in a certain precinct?  Remember – your volunteers may be great, but they’re not supermen… they’ll be able to make 15-30 calls per hour each, so you don’t want to target 500 voters if you’ve only got 4 volunteers making calls for 2 hours.

3 – Find a Great Call Space – You’re going to need at least one phone per volunteer.  Chances are, if you’re using volunteers instead of a professional firm, your campaign isn’t big enough to have an office with that many phone lines. One great solution is to find a friendly law firm or other company that has lots of telephone lines and will let you use their office for some phone bank nights.  Be sure to check your local campaign finance regulations to see if these companies can donate the space to your campaign, or if you have to pay them a market rate to rent the space.

4 – Train Your Team – Perhaps the most important step!  Train your team and have them practice their scripts (and how to deal with difficult voters) over and over again!

5 – Create a Fun Yet Professional Atmosphere – You want your volunteers to have fun so they’ll come to your next phone bank, yet make calls in a professional manner.  I’ve found the best way to do this is to clearly separate “fun time” from “call time.”  Have pizza and social time before the phone bank, then call the volunteers together, tell them it is go time, remind them of their training and how important the calls are to the campaign, then let them get to work.

6 – Supervise Your Volunteers – Stay on top of your team!  Don’t be afraid to quietly (one-on-one) offer additional training and coaching to volunteers who are having a tough time, and definitely don’t be afraid to stop volunteers who are harassing voters or arguing with them.  Immediately reassign these volunteers to the envelope stuffing operation.

7 – Review the Results – After the phone bank is over, review the results and call statistics.

8 – Thank, Thank, Thank – Make sure you thank your volunteers for their help, over and over again.

Photo Credit: AFL-CIO