Lessons From the High-Stakes World of Political Email

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In an election year, political campaigns are won and lost in the email inbox, so it’s no surprise that most major players in American politics hire the best and the brightest to handle email campaigns for lists that boast millions of subscribers.

Email marketers can learn a thing or two about tone, testing, and narrative from the high-stakes world of political emails. Social listening plays a major role in political email campaigns. Campaign workers spend countless hours monitoring social media channels to nail down the voice and tone of their constituents so that emails never sound forced or robotic, according to Andrew Rothman, head of creative and delivery on the West Coast for Blue State Digital, a firm that has handled many high-profile political campaigns, including that of President Obama.

“The types of content people want can be different from what they say they want,” Rothman says. “So we have to use as much data as we’ve got to tailor the message. Part of that is understanding the zeitgeist and seeing what is resonating on social media then talking in ways that feel relevant.”

Gaining that relevant tone is a matter of testing and retesting to find a balance, which can be difficult in the world of politics, where supporters expect up-to-the-minute information from candidates via email, says Zac Rosen, former digital director for the Mitt Romney campaign. “The challenge is finding a balance in tone,” Rosen says.

“Sometimes it’s playful and whimsical. Sometimes it’s mystery. Sometimes it’s some kind of first adopter or look behind the scenes. Brands are very good at long-term strategic planning, where politics is very rapid response and reactive by nature, and I think it creates a culture of always being willing to test so many emails going out. By the end of the campaign you have three emails a day going out,” he adds. 

Testing is intense on political campaigns, right down to the subject line of an email. According to Rothman, for each email sent out to the entire list, a team has tested dozens of different subject lines for one email. President Obama’s campaign caught some flak for its often odd subject lines, but in the end, the numbers showed that subscribers were opening them. “We start with quantity, about 25 or 35 different subject lines. We exhaust every option. Then we chose a variety. There was lots of chatter about the Obama campaign subject lines, but ultimately, the reason they’re getting that is because it worked.”

Multi-touch attribution also plays a pivotal role in circulating political messages. Campaign leaders often let supporters self-segment by carefully monitoring the way that subscribers join lists. “[Segmentation] is done by how subscribers entered, by what they signed up for,” Rosen says. “Maybe it was the ad they clicked or whether they signed a petition. It’s kind of self-prescribed along the way. As people are taking actions it’s tied to what people are doing online, so it’s kind of a deeper granularity. If users don’t open an email within 24 hours, we actually match our email clusters into Facebook, so if users haven’t opened the email, then there’s an ad that complements. It’s very holistic to ensure that we’re increasing reach and frequency.”

But just because campaigns fire off political emails at a rapid rate doesn’t mean that each communication should beg for cash; a political campaign cares about both donations and reputation, so email campaigns must build up to the big asks. “Different people respond different ways,” Rosen says. “Some of it’s about getting them down the conversion funnel and not asking for everything on the first date. It’s a much larger, longer-term process. The thing about campaigns is they’re very finite. So by definition the sense of urgency or the sense of engagement exponentially grows post August of an even year. Christmas and Black Friday are probably the most like the type of events.”

Segmentation is also important when soliciting donations. It’s important to understand the big spenders from the casual supporters. According to Rothman, understanding who gives what is a matter of gathering data. “Knowing somebody clicks certain types of links in email helps serve content more likely to resonate. We’re not going to ask someone who donates $10 at a time for $1,000.”

But the most important thing, whether campaigns are asking for $5 or $5,000, is to keep subscribers engaged to the finish line: election day. “It’s about momentum,” Rothman says. “It’s win or lose, either get elected or go home.”

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