For many, text alerts were old news

Times Staff Writer

At 3 a.m. Saturday, Melody Johnson was awakened by her cellphone vibrating on her bedside table. It was a text message from the man who she hopes will be the next president of the United States.

Johnson, 25, is an avid Barack Obama supporter who watches his speeches on YouTube for fun and has pasted on her bedroom wall the Rolling Stone magazine cover that featured the Illinois senator. And, like many other Obama supporters, she had signed up on the campaign’s website to be alerted by text message or e-mail when Obama announced whom he had chosen as a running mate.

Johnson, of Orlando, Fla., felt her way to her phone and groggily checked the message. She was happy enough with Obama’s selection of Delaware Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. “I thought, ‘At least it wasn’t Hillary!’ ” Then she drifted back to sleep. She dreamed, she says, of Obama. “It was sort of delightful.”

Saturday was the first time a presidential campaign has used e-mails and text messages to announce a vice presidential running mate.


It was a cunning strategy. The campaign was able to amass a huge database of cellphone numbers and e-mail addresses while also making supporters feel connected. The campaign, which has declined to reveal how many people signed up for the service, had promised supporters that they would be the “first to know.”

But not everybody who signed up received the texts and e-mails. Johnson’s friend Brett Walsh entered his cellphone number at Obama’s website and eagerly awaited the announcement. “Every time I got a text message, I hoped it was Barack,” said Walsh, 23, who also lives in Orlando. “But when it came down to it, I was left out.”

The Obama camp won’t say whether there were problems with the text message strategy. A spokeswoman for Sprint Nextel, one of the country’s largest telecommunications companies, said that the nation’s cell network servers probably aren’t to blame.

Text message traffic did spike sharply when Obama’s announcement was made, Sprint’s Stephanie Walsh said, but it wasn’t record-high traffic for the network. She would not disclose the number of text messages sent by the campaign to Sprint users.

Other Obama supporters who received the text and e-mail alerts found that they came too late -- not because of malfunctioning technology but because many news outlets, including The Times, broke the story of Obama’s pick hours before he made it official.

Sebastien Manigat, 24, was hardly surprised when he woke up late Saturday morning and found an e-mail from the campaign announcing Obama’s choice. Manigat, who is an enthusiastic Obama supporter even though he is Canadian and can’t vote in U.S. elections, had gotten the news while he was at a dance club in Montreal. He received an e-mail alert on his Blackberry from at 1:16 a.m. The Obama e-mail came at 4:51 a.m.

The Obama campaign wouldn’t talk about the details of the e-mail and text message program, but a spokesman said he thought it had been a success. “We’ve been using text messaging and e-mail from the beginning of the campaign, and I think we’ll keep using them as a way to keep our supporters engaged and connected,” Nick Shapiro said.

It’s fertile ground. According to the International Assn. for the Wireless Telecommunications Industry, more than 360 billion text messages were sent in the United States in 2007.

Obama’s campaign has also capitalized on other forms of new media.

Data from Nielsen released last week shows that Obama has been generating more online buzz than his opponent, John McCain. According to the data, 3.3 million people visited in July, compared with 1.6 million visiting

The Biden announcement spurred traffic on Obama’s campaign website to an all-time high Saturday, according to a campaign spokesman. More than $1.8 million had been collected online by midafternoon.