We Use Text Messages to Engage Millions in Social Change. Here’s How You Can Too.

By Adam Garner

At DoSomething.org, we know that the best place to reach and engage our 4.7 million members is their phones. Text messages have a 98% open rate, as compared to our email broadcasts, which members only open 8% of the time. (So if someone says they didn’t receive your text, there’s a 98% chance they’re lying!)

This is why we enable our members to sign up for campaigns and learn the necessary steps, all through their phone. They can do all our major campaigns through text, from running a jeans drive for youth experiencing homelessness to protesting unfair school discipline policies to making Valentine’s Day for seniors living in isolation.

But instead of using SMS solely as a communications tool, we know that when done right, texting can be social action in and of itself. We’ve pioneered the movement to create text-message experiences that engage young people and make an impact. And we’ve had plenty of help: thanks to the students who’ve served as game testers, a host of expert advisers, and the incredible support of The Knight Foundation, 2015 has been our most impactful year in SMS yet.

First of all, how does an SMS game or experience work?

Step 1: Pick a game or experience! In The Designated Texter, members learn and share ways to intervene when a friend is likely to drive drunk. They sign up online.

Step 2: Share the love! Members enter their phone number and three friends’ numbers, with whom they want to share the experience.

Step 3: Voila! Wait like a half a second as DoSomething.org works it’s magic and delivers that first text message to you and your friends.

Step 4: Follow the instructions and text keywords to go through the experience! It shouldn’t take more than a couple minutes, but the lessons last a lifetime.


We’re proud of our big wins and important learnings in 2015. Over 136,000 young people learned and shared distracted driving intervention tactics through our Backseat Adviser campaign.

Our Pregnancy Text campaign starts the all-important conversation about teen pregnancy by allowing members to prank their friends with a phone baby. The rather life-like baby texts members for a full 24 hours and challenges them to live as a teen parent would. Our members have sent over 60,000 phone babies since November.

We’ve also gamified many of these experiences to make them more compelling, competitive, and shareable. In our Science Sleuth game, players compete with friends to use their science skills to solve a mystery. Through the game, they learn about STEM careers and, at the end, have the opportunity to unlock a donation to a real science classroom in need. Over 100,418 members played and shared the game, and they unlocked $225,000 worth of donations to DonorsChoose classrooms around the country.

The best part about our SMS experiences? Members who engage with them are 2.5 times more likely to complete an offline action with us.

The other best part? All the code is open source! We built out the infrastructure so anyone can jump on it and built their own experiences. Here five important lessons to get you started.

Content comes first.

Before you start building something, make sure you have a good concept. For us, “good,” means fun, shareable, and impactful. Pregnancy Text works because young people have fun pranking their friends with a baby. Plus, the baby is sassy and will talk back to the “parent,” which creates an engaging, personal experience. Science Sleuth is a winner because it takes a generally dry topic (science, tech, engineering, and math) and turns it into a whodunit-style mystery. (By the way, that campaign is currently closed, but you can see a visualization of the game here.)

Social action isn’t a game. Unless it is.

Some of the time, our SMS experiences work well as games. Science Sleuth is a competitive experience with right and wrong answers, currency members can earn at each level (in this case, “clues”), and praise for winning. Sometimes, though, depending on the cause, this kind of game isn’t conducive. That’s why many of our SMS experiences…

Have a conversation with the user.

SMS should be a two-way street. Members need to have autonomy and choice in the content they receive. It needs to feel personal and authentic, not distant and spammy.

One of our newest SMS experiences, The Less Stress Text, allows members to send their friends five days’ worth of research-backed tactics to reduce stress and anxiety around finals time. We could have simply pestered members with generic push notifications and a daily tip. Instead, they get to choose what kind of tips they receive based on their stress level and interests.

For example, research says that music reduces anxiety, so members can choose whether to listen to our crowdsourced stress-relieving playlist or add a song themselves. Another stress-buster is meditation: members tell us how much time they can spare to meditate, and we provide custom meditation tips based on their preference.

Think like a user. (And create your UX accordingly!)

Because we’re the pioneers (and the guinea pigs!) of these SMS experiences and games, users aren’t accustomed to interacting with text messages this way. It can be uncomfortable or confusing for them, which is why it’s so important we provide clarity, context, and consistency (all in under 160 characters!).

Here is the first text message a user receives when they sign up for Backseat Adviser.

Here, we give context as to what the experience is. We also provide a clear choice: choose A, B, or C. By the time they reach the second text, they know what to do: text in a keyword based on your preference. We make it clear from the top what the experience will be, and we make it clear in every level what the user is supposed to do.

Templates keep the angry squid at bay. (You’ll see what we mean.)

After we write content for our SMS experiences, we enter it into Lucidchart, a program that allows us to visualize the flow of the game. Here is the flow of an experience we made a few years ago, called The Activist Text.

Notice how complicated this is. Tons of colors and levels and countless lines branching out and intersecting. (Now do you see what we mean by “angry squid”?) All this basically translates into a complicated and confusing experience for the user. Not good. Now look at the flow for a new version of The Activist Text that we’re spinning up for February 2016.

Fewer levels, fewer lines, and a linear narrative. Nice, huh? This creates a focused, straightforward (and substantial) experience for the user. It also helps our team focus on writing within a framework that forces us to really consider what’s important to include and what’s just nice to have. Plus, this kind of template allows us to iterate and replicate going forward. We can plug lots of different content about lots of different causes into these templates in an efficient way. Down with the angry squids!

Keep up with the research…because it supports what you’re doing!

Sure, there will be skeptics who’ll question whether SMS is a legitimate way to create social change. But the reality is, the research continues to prove that text message has proven benefits over other platforms in everything from helping to keep retention rates up for college freshman to being a powerful tool in helping smokers quit.

This recent study, for example, shows how effectively text reminders can improve cardiovascular health. These “nudges” were shown to aid behavior change and improve a person’s overall health by simply sending someone an automated message at a time where they needed an extra confidence boost or access to a specific resource. After reading this study, we thought a lot as a team about applying that same principle of the right resources being delivered at the right time to the issue of anxiety in college students. From those conversations, we decided to send the tips in the Less Stress Text at 9:00 PM every night. Thanks to our friends at Crisis Text Line, we know that a peak time for anxiety attacks in young people. Research is the basis for everything we do, and it’ll allow us to make our experiences smarter and more effective going forward.

All the information is here, so get going!

So now you’re pumped to give this a go, right? As we mentioned, the code is open source, so run with it! We’re just scratching the surface for how SMS can be used for social good, and we’re excited to share in your work and your impact.


Adam Garner runs the health campaigns at DoSomething.org and fiddles around with the ways you can use SMS for social good. He spends most of his time napping, being a loud and proud Nerdfighter, and trying to make the world less awful.


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Originally published at blog.dosomething.org on December 23, 2015.

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