Other Campaign Media Don’t Trade Off with Email—and Won’t Replace It Anytime Soon

Two declarations I hear a lot from political activists who aren’t really familiar with the ins and outs of digital campaigning: (1) email soliciting is impersonal, dehumanizing, and alienating; and (2) email is a flash-in-the-pan campaign medium that’s on its way out.

The first assertion is kind of subjective, I guess, and very situational. I’ve seen crappy email asks. Some of them are hyperbolic (Trump will DESTROY US ALL!!!), while others definitely look like they’ve been written by a bad content generator. But a lot of the emails I see, particularly those associated with good candidates running thoughtful, deliberative campaigns, are things of beauty. They raise important questions, offer honest explanations of voters’ concerns, and sometimes even take the time to explain that policymaking is complex and needs public effort. You can do all that in an email because it’s written and, as I’ll explain below, emails can incorporate other media to help explain or draw attention to particular points.

The second assertion is probably just a reflection of tech writers’ tendency to make declarative statements about what’s in and out, the next big thing, and so on. My friend Colin Delany's recent provocatively titled post “Will Viral Videos Replace Fundraising Email?” is in that spirit. Colin points out that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other successful left Democrats are using viral videos in place of expensive advertising. Videos feel authentic and grassroots, and take advantage of social media conduits to maximize exposure.

Colin doesn’t really answer the question asked in the title of the post, though, other than to acknowledge that email is still necessary as a fundraising platform. I just think it’s a lot more than that. Email won’t be going anywhere any time soon because email is the great synthesizer of media. A well-designed email may be one of the most effective means of disseminating that amazing viral video, or a whole series of videos. It may also contain information about online and live events, or share news articles and pictures. The email’s words help readers understand the significance of the videos and other media, and encourage sharing of them.

Email is also here to stay, at least for now, because emailing provides the means to organize a political community. This is where campaigners can accomplish a lot by creating email surveys when creating constituent communities, utilizing services like email appends and lead validation enhancement, and using tools like Action Network and VoterCircle to organize actions for the communities you’re putting together.

Finally, email allows you to shape the overall argument that incorporates and synthesizes the video or other artifacts. This is a simple truth that’s easy to miss: There’s a difference between writing good emails and mediocre ones. You should find the people on your team who can write good ones, and others should learn from them.

The fact that most recipients don’t open an email and that a tiny percentage may proactively reject it doesn’t really negate any of this. People tune out during political ads on traditional media. They turn the page if they see a political ad in print. That doesn’t mean the ads aren’t effective for those who do pay attention—and in the case of emails, that effectiveness results not only in a reliable donation base, but also the formation of communities centered around, and inspired by (among other things) the words and information in the messages.

What slows down or gums up email campaigning’s potential are really functional issues, not problems intrinsic to the format. Those problems include:

(1) inaccurate information: hastily-assembled or poached email lists can be really outdated, or the lists might not have been vetted.

(2) slowness or bottlenecks in growing your lists: campaign workers may be gathering new sets of names and contact info, but they aren’t getting integrated into the email lists quickly enough to be included in the next regular send. For this, the solution can be as simple as a Google spreadsheet connected to your campaign database via Zapier. 

(3) failure to take advantage of common attribute clusters: sometimes you want to separate heavy-responders from those who have never responded; other times you want to hit particular neighborhoods to inform them of a local event, and so on.

(4) failure to be careful about sending emails to unwilling recipients: I’ve seen this happen more often than it should—a campaign casts too wide a net with its initial emails and the next thing you know, they’re dealing with a critical level of spam complaints, which can really slow down campaign logistics.

Services like Accurate Append, voter files and enrichments, and proactive strategies like surveys, can solve these problems. Accurate Append is simply indispensable in updating your files by integrating and supplementing the information from current, valid contact lists. Surveys about issues in the district have, for me, produced open rates of over 20%, and I include a prominent “leave this list” link so that people know there’s no ambiguity there. From there, you can create target lists based on demographics from voter files, turnout history, or other factors.

Emails are here to stay for now: they literally allow you to write out your campaign message, which in turn allows you to facilitate and exploit other media linked to or embedded in the emails, and then pick your own recipients. Rather than fearing or loathing them, teach your campaign teams to write good emails that don’t insult readers’ intelligence, and that take full advantage of viral videos and other dynamic media.