Next in an informal series of posts on learning new software, I’m so excited to write to you about the work I’m doing with texting platforms – mostly as a regular “user,” not an “admin/expert.” See more:

I can’t say that I’m exactly new to the world of texting. My thumbs were hitting the digits as soon as I got a cell phone in middle school, and I haven’t slowed down since. A big part of my social life and sanity is comprised of daily text volleys with far flung friends. I love the power of the written word, including in quippy cyber chats.

im learned Twilio (kinda) (c 2020)

A few years ago, an org approached me about configuring their database to add a feature for outbound SMS (texting). This was uncharted territory for me, but I decided to take the plunge and figure it out. Worst case scenario, we are back where we started (no texting capability, or required to import/export phone numbers for texting into another software program). In this project, I evaluated two software providers: Twilio and Spoke. For a variety of reasons (mostly around integration with the database the org already had), we chose Twilio. This allowed the org to be able to send out rapid-response mobilization texts, which was pivotal during the Trump years.

However, we had some major limitations with being able to do “conversational” texting. With the platforms that we had access to (and our rudimentary understanding), we figured out how to send texts OUT but reading and replying to responses was beyond our ability. Texts came back in an unusable format (a “record” in a database… not a conversation view with thought bubbles). So we told everyone in the body of the text that it was a #NoReply message. We were willing to accept this limitation because the rest of the tools worked the way we needed them to, and we didn’t have the skills or resources (both money and relationships) to get a developer to build new features that would solve our problem.

Image of sending SMS from CiviCRM (which was integrated with Twilio). Yes, this looked and felt pretty clunky.

im learning Spoke

Ever since I worked on the project above, I regretted not choosing Spoke simply because it is Open Source, which is a set of practices that I fundamentally believe in. If I have the choice to use Open Source or closed source tech, my bias favors Open Source. While I think we made the right decision at the time, I’m DELIGHTED now to get my hands in Spoke!

An organization that I volunteer with uses Spoke to engage their constituents to attend protests, renew their membership, and generally get/stay involved. When they plan big events, they use their database to send texts to people local to that area so that they can RSVP for the latest details.

Spoke supports “conversational” or “peer-to-peer” texting, so when people RESPOND to these texts, they go to a texting inbox that is managed by real people (ME!!!). This is the same type of technology (or even the SAME technology, in some cases!) that is used for Those Annoying Election Texts (TM) (jk). If you write back an angry message, you will actually be impacting a human who has to deal with the vitriol. (Ask me how I know this…).

Participating in text banking has been incredibly meaningful for me. I can put my data brain into the profoundly satisfying mode of repetitive tasks getting to the bottom of a list. Plus, I can answer questions from real people and make a difference for turnout for actions that are important to me, but too far away for me to actually attend. Sometimes I can support 2, 3, 4 (etc!) actions all happening on the same day! I feel connected to brave and like-minded people and I appreciate the opportunity to make that connection feel stronger. Plus, this is an easy thing for a volunteer like me to help with, since organizers are busy with on the ground logistics.

This week, I got a “volunteer promotion” lol to become a texting manager. This allows me to help tweak the autoresponses and make sure that texts are responded to in a timely manner. Plus, I get to see parts of the “back end” of the system, which I have been massively curious about. I am SO EXCITED ABOUT THIS!!

Sample view of Spoke, image from LeftApps

im learning TextOut

I was having so much fun learning to use Spoke that I decided to volunteer with another organization’s texting program, knowing that they used a different system behind the scenes. Yeah, I’m that nerdy ;P

I really enjoyed the experience of using this text platform! I’m not sure if the backend of the system really has different properties than Spoke/Twilio or if my version of it was just configured differently. Either way, some things I noticed was that this volunteer experience had a LOT more oversight (our texts were reviewed for accuracy!) and I enjoyed being able to see a “view” with more than one text convo at a time. The org that I was supporting has a lot of technical expertise in their domain, so there were MANY more pre-programmed replies to choose from, and many of these replies synced back to their database in a way that did not happen with the previous org. In contrast, my understanding of the set up with the previous org is, they prioritized syncing “RSVPs” and “Change of address” and the rest of the Q&A were fairly conversational. They also have a MUCH smaller crew of texters, so I think there is more room for personal flair. There are clearly pros and cons to both ways of doing it. As a beginner with both platforms and both orgs, I can’t speak much to the difference between the software itself and the config choices in the instance I was in. But what I can say is, I was able to get “up to speed” in just a few minutes and start texting right away.

This video is kind of marketing-y, but I’m including it because I think it’s a great encapsulation of what these types of technologies are capable of!

in conclusion

Now that I got to the end of this blogpost, I just remembered yet another texting vendor that I set up 7 or 8 years ago! Maybe I’ve been tackling this theme longer than I gave myself credit for…

Between SMS Magic (which integrated with Salesforce…)
… Twilio (which integrated with CiviCRM…)
… Spoke (which integrated with EveryAction…)
… TextOut (which I assume integrated with NGP VAN…)

it all goes to show you that there are many “tech stacks” that can get you toward the same goal! Why limit ourselves to just one? Most of these can even integrate across databases (like I’m SURE Twilio works with Salesforce, and Spoke with NGP Van!). I appreciate the opportunity to do good work in the world and get to know cool tech platforms while I’m doing so. If you don’t feel called to phone bank/knock on doors/plan rallies, texting might be a type of volunteering worth trying. If you have any questions about it (or would like to get involved), please reach out to me! I would love nothing more than to empower a stunt double to do even more social justice texting!

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