Political Robocalls: Do’s and Don’ts

Love ‘em or hate ‘em, political robocalls are a fact of life in modern political campaigns.  While campaigns are figuring out how to use social media in politics and starting e-mail newsletters for their campaigns, they are still using tried and true campaign tactics, including direct mail, door-to-door campaigning, and yes: political robocalls.

Everyone knows what a robocall is… you pick up the phone, wait a second, then hear a recorded message from your local congressman or a nationally known politician endorsing a candidate for county dog catcher.  You listen for a few seconds, the *click*… you hang up the phone.

Do Political Robocalls Work?

While their effectiveness has definitely waned as voters have been bombarded by recorded messages over the past few years, robocalls have stuck around because in certain circumstances, they work.  The real place where they shine is as a quick, cheap way to get out breaking news (like an endorsement right before Election Day) or to respond to last minute attacks from your opponent.

Watch out though, some voters get turned off by too many robocalls.  Even if your campaign only does one or two rounds of calls, if your opponents have been bombarding the phone lines with calls, the voters may penalize you when they hear your call.  In that sense, political robocalls are a zero-sum game: the more calls are going out from all of the candidates in a race, the less effective each of the calls will be.

Innovative Use

In addition to the standard and effective usage of getting out breaking news or quickly responding to mudslinging by an opponent, some campaigns have begun experimenting with innovative uses of political robocalls.  Several companies now offer quick and cheap polling through the use of robocallers (combined with answering machine-like phone key questions such as “Press 1 if you plan to vote for Helen Smith; press 2 if you plan to vote for George Clairmont.”)

Other campaigns have used political robocalls for get out the vote efforts, as event reminders, and even for fundraising.   If you’re planning to use robocalling as part of your campaign’s communications mix, be sure to follow these do’s and don’ts:

Political Robocalling Do’s

DO put your message up front – Remember, the average voter will only listen to a robocall for a few seconds before hanging up.  Be sure to put your candidate’s name and the message of the call up front, before the person hangs up.  (E.g. “Hi, this is Nick Hearn, candidate for Alderman, with an exciting endorsement from Bill Clinton…”)

DO make it different – Voters are more likely to listen if your political robocall is “different.”  Have you thought about using music in your call?  What about mimicking the sound of a radio newscast?  How about making the call a conversation between the candidate and a well known person?  Think outside the box.

DO follow the rules – in many places, political robocalls must carry political disclaimers (like those found on TV ads and direct mail letters), and may be subject to restrictions on what times the calls may be placed, or other regulations.  Know the rules, and follow them!  A sampling of state rules and regulations is available from the free Political Telemarketing Guide provided by Politics Magazine.

Political Robocall Don’ts

DON’T annoy the voters – Calling too often is annoying.  Calling with the same recording over and over again is annoying.  Recordings that are poor quality, hard to hear, or overly verbose annoy voters.

DON’T forget that the media is listening – Never say anything in a political robocall that you wouldn’t want printed on the first page of the newspaper.

DON’T waste money – Be sure that your political robocalls only go to registered voters (or, if you’re running in a primary, to registered voters in your own party).  Calls made to people who can’t vote for you are a waste of time and money.

6 comments… add one
  • Back in September of 2012 (an election year) my household received more than one political robo-call per day for a time. The problem is only getting worse with every election cycle. Even though some calls were from organizations I support, they all blended into one huge annoyance. Not a single one of those calls moved me. What do you feel when you get a robo-call? The telephone should not be used this way. These calls interrupted family life.

    If anybody has any research data that shows recorded telephone calls are effective, I doubt the wisdom of the research on two grounds. First, the ends do not justify the means. This type of message does not merit the immediate interruption of family life that a telephone call causes. There is no tornado nearby! No friend is calling to arrange a birthday party. Second, trying to speak to hearts and minds by making robo-calls is plainly inane regardless of any data. If you insist that robo-calls work, then use your robo-caller for a higher purpose—for evangelism. Maybe you could get Beth Moore, Tony Campolo, or some other notable person to record a convincing call to conversion and salvation.

    Imagine followers of all faiths acting like this!

    Robo-calling is inane.

  • wayne Link

    As a political telemarketing sharpshooter I have never heard in all my years of volunteering one single voter ever saying anything but negative reactions to robocalls. Voters despise them. Me? As a voter I cannot stomach them. I slam the phone down as soon as I recognize that canned crap. If someone doesn’t have the courage or courtesy to call me personally via a respectful, informed volunteer or surrogate then that candidate will not earn my vote. As a future candidate I will not use robocalls. I will converse with my potential voters in person at rallies, door-to-door or at meet-and-greets, through direct social media interaction, and of course through traditional telephone contacts by my volunteers or as much as I can by me calling personally. But those Robocalls are offensive.

  • Cheryl,

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on robo-calls. They are definitely a “buyer-beware” technology for campaigns, but many candidates / consultants say they still work in many areas.


  • Cheryl Link

    I have NEVER spent the time to listen to a robo call from anyone, particularly politicians. Their ads are already filling the mailbox, invading my television, and crowding my email inbox… why would I even want to listen to a canned speech or plea to vote on the telephone too? It’s irritating. And, in this day and age of mudslinging and cat fighting with opponents, I’ve even lost my general interest in politics, altogether.

  • Wendy,

    Thanks for your comment. I know there are lots of voters who feel just as passionately about robocalls as you do. Many candidates don’t use them for that reason.

    That being said, many consultants, candidates, and vendors will tell you that their experience is that robocalls, when done right, can actually be effective with certain subsets of voters. It’s definitely a controversial issue that each candidate and campaign needs to decide for themselves.

    I understand your sentiments about making robocalls illegal, however, in the United States at least, political speech of any kind (even robocalls) is generally permitted.


  • Wendy Link

    PEOPLE HATE LOATHE AND DESPISE ROBOCALLS!! If I could, I would vote AGAINST ANY candidate who uses them. (Sadly, that would mean I could never vote at all.) I only listen for ONE NANOSECOND and if it’s a robocall, I don’t care who from, I slam the phone down. I can’t believe anyone in this day and age actually thinks they are effective. They are uselesss, a waste of time and effort, and I wonder that anyone could think anyone actually listens.

    Companies that do robocalls ought to be ILLEGAL, pure and simple. It’s nothing more than harassment of the voter.

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