Robocalls in VAN: What they don’t tell you….

Categories: Campaign Advice • Published on August 21, 2012 at 7:06 PM

NGPVAN recently sent out an email to many VAN users across Texas and other states announcing an agreement with Callfire to provide cheaper robocalls directly through VAN.  It should be stated that this is a great deal for many campaigns using VAN without easy access to other technology services.  I have used VAN and other vendors for robocalls, and wanted to use this opportunity to discuss some of the pros and cons for VAN’s robocall services.

So how does VAN price their Robocalls?

NGPVAN charges are based on the length of the recorded message and number of phones dialed.  Before this change, VAN would only charge for live answers or answering machines.  It appears this has changed under the new model, and VAN now charges for all phones dialed regardless of outcome.  VAN charges 1 cent for the first 15 seconds, and then an additional 0.3 cents for each additional 15 seconds.

15 seconds – 1 cent per phone dialed
30 seconds – 1.3 cents per phone dialed
45 seconds – 1.6 cents per phone dialed
60 seconds – 1.9 cents per phone dialed

What are the advantages?

Keeping everything in one single system is a big advantage for campaigns.  This makes managing lists, contact histories, and other items easier for already overworked campaign staff.  VAN’s prices are also very competitive against many other robocall vendors.  NGPVAN has also consistently provided quality products and services for campaigns.   The system has several ways that robocall recordings can be made.  Users can upload a pre-existing recording file into VAN, which is ideal when editing recordings to remove any pause for breaths, stutters, or verbal miscues.  Alternatively, users can dial into a specific phone number and enter a code to record a message directly in VAN, or have the system call a phone number.  When dialing into VAN, the system will send an email with instructions on how to record a robocall for users to follow.  This can be especially helpful since the instructions can be printed or forwarded to the individual making the recording.

What are the disadvantages?

While VAN’s Robocall feature offers an integrated and cheap calling system, there are some distinct disadvantages to using this feature that campaigns should be aware of.

a) Robocall Results not tracked in Contact History

Campaigns should be aware that the results of robocalls performed through VAN are tracked in a separate Robocalls section from the normal Contact History area of a voter’s profile in VAN.  The Contact History section has traditionally been where all contact attempts are recorded and used in later searches.  This includes walk results, phone contacts, mailers, emails, and any other type of contacts made by a campaign to a voter.  There is also an option to record robocalls, but this is typically only used when performing Bulk Upload actions of robocall results from a third-party vendor.  If a campaign is creating a new list for voter contact, they should be aware that they have to update both the Canvassing History and Robocalls section appropriately to exlude anyone recently contacted.  This is most helpful when trying not to overwhelm and anger voters.  If a campaign is performing robocalls through VAN, then they need to aware to keep both systems updated appropriately when creating new lists.

b) Bad phone numbers not removed from VAN

VAN Robocall Report

Results from a Robocall job completed through VAN

A number of campaigns that I have worked with have used robocalls as a way to cheaply identify and remove bad phone numbers before their phone banks get underway.  These can be done through endorsement messages by other elected officials, event announcements, or some campaign message broadcast.  Most robocall vendors have methods to identify disconnected or out of service phone numbers, which can then be targeted for removal when the robocall results are uploaded back into VAN.

VAN’s robocall feature simply lumps any identified disconnected phone numbers into a category of “Other,” and does not remove these phones from the system for later calls.  This can become a problem as printed call lists, predictive dialing calls, and future robocalls will continue to have these disconnected phone numbers on their call lists.  A key benefit of VAN is that identified bad numbers are removed from ALL campaigns using VAN just as bad addresses are removed.  This allows canvassing efforts by other Democratic campaigns to passively assist other candidates whose campaigns overlap with the canvassed areas.  A rising tide lifts all boats.

The campaign that performed the robocall can exclude any numbers that get this “Other” status during a robocall from their own future searches (See above section).  However, the bad phone numbers still exist in VAN, which means that other campaigns calling the same voters will still waste time and money attempting to call them. This nullifies a key selling point of VAN to Democratic campaigns that identified bad phone numbers are removed from all campaigns.

c) Problems using online numbers for Caller ID

Nearly every campaign has a main phone number that people can call, and many campaigns use online numbers through Skype, Google Voice, Callfire, or other online vendors.  These numbers can forward calls to an existing landline or cellphone, or go directly into a voice mailbox for campaign staff to check later.  Sending robocalls through VAN requires that numbers used in the Caller ID be verified to ensure the campaign actually owns that phone number.  This is to prevent campaigns from using dirty tricks like giving fake phone numbers, which violate Texas Public Utility Commission regulations regarding robocalls.  The verification method is done by having the user of this phone dial an 888 phone number.  VAN will check the caller ID of the phone used to ensure it matches the number entered into VAN.

This can be problematic for some online phone vendors who may need additional configuration to set the caller ID properly.  Skype and Google Voice, for example, both require additional setup and money to make outgoing calls through online numbers.  In order to use an online number for VAN-based robocalls, these steps will need to be taken before any calls can be sent.  However, this only needs to be performed once by the campaign.  After the verification has been completed, the campaign can re-use this number for as many robocalls they desire to send.  As the saying goes a little planning goes a long way.  If the campaign is using VAN as their robocall vendor, then verifying the main phone number to be used for robocalls early in the campaign can help save future headaches for staff when scrambling to get out a robocall quickly.

How to I make Robocalls through VAN?

If you wish to create your own robocalls and robosurveys through VAN, you can use the instructions in the below link to learn how to use the feature in more detail.  Most campaigns setup in TexasVAN do not have Phone Services for robocalls and other options automatically turned on.  A campaign will need to submit a Support Request through their VAN account to have Phone Services enabled for the campaign by the State VAN Administrator.  This will give the campaign access to Robocalls, Robosurveys, and Predictive Dialing options available directly in VAN.

If you have any questions about robocalls, robosurveys, and predictive dialing both inside and outside of VAN, please feel free to contact me.  Information is always free.  It is when you want me to do it for you that I start charging.