Electioneering & email 2016: evolving voter engagement
This campaign year, what can email marketers learn from the “black arts” of political fundraising and voter recruitment? Columnist Steve Dille shows how the politicos have evolved their approach.
Former Speaker of the House and veteran Boston politician Tip O’Neill famously said, “All politics is local.” Whether stumping for votes at the local union hall or country club or trudging door-to-door, every politician since Pericles has understood the importance of a hearty handshake and the chance to look the voter square in the eye.
Email may not provide quite as face-to-face an encounter as running into Bill Clinton at the neighborhood Mickey D’s, but there’s an unqualified personal intimacy to our inbox. No wonder political operatives burn the midnight oil dreaming up new ways to wriggle their way into it.
So, just as in other recent election years, the strategies and tactics they’re putting to use in 2016 offer fascinating comparisons — and useful insights — for the rest of us.
Previous lessons of (email) leadership
Regardless of any email marketer’s party affiliation (or lack of it) or opinion of President Barack Obama’s performance in office, they’ve got to admit how his two presidential campaigns made the most of the medium.
The approaches embraced by his team, and the engagement ROI they realized, were eye-openers for other campaign organizations and marketers alike.
One statistic that still jumps out: Obama’s 2012 campaign cost $690 million, a staggering kitty. What’s more impressive is how the majority of those dollars were raised through email.
Approximately 4.5 million people donated, with an average gift of $53. Toby Fallsgraff, who directed the 2012 email program, told MarketingSherpa, “You can do the math and figure out a lot of people gave more than once.”
It wasn’t solely because of their passion for the incumbent or their love of the process. Fallgraff’s team used an email model that was beautifully orchestrated and integrated:
- Mining for opt-ins everywhere: Did you visit a Reddit Q&A session with the president? You were directed to a personalized opt-in page. Visiting the campaign website? You’d encounter a splash page opt-in form, and other forms sown throughout the site — and personalized to your location (“Join Delaware for Obama”).
- Thanks for your support! Why not give (again)? Once they’d joined the campaign’s list, people received a thank-you — and a request for a donation. Even more aggressive? Once they’d made a gift, the next thank-you email would ask for another.
- “Quick link” donation solicitations: Previous donors would find “quick links” embedded in follow-up emails, making it one-click easy for them to make another gift from right inside the email, without being shunted to a donation form. Multiple quick links in a given email would let them pick their amount — $3? $35? $250? The conversion lift from this technique, said Fallsgraff, was an amazing 300 percent.
- Behavioral segmentation: By bucketing prospects into four segments — Previous Donors (who’d given money prior to 2012); Quick Donors (who’d donated for 2012 and were targeted with quick-donate links via email); Non-Donors (who’d never given) and Lapsed Donors (who’d donated in 2008 but hadn’t yet ponied up in 2012) — the campaign was able to employ customized copy for each group.
- Continual testing: “Obama for America” tested and sent a national email nearly every day, increasing to multiple drops per day as the election drew near, keeping a staff of 20 writers busy around the clock. Even if continual testing only drew lifts of a few percentage points per drop, that aggregated into millions of dollars over the long haul.
- Integration: Email was never a standalone strategy but was synergized with web, mobile, social media, even live campaign events and local Democratic initiatives.
- The personalized (presidential) touch: At the heart of the campaign were updates from the man in the Oval Office, presented in the first person in Obama’s identifiable voice. These did more than simply state positions and policy; they gave subscribers a sense of being inside the campaign, of being privy to the president on a personal level — an object lesson in how to leverage email to build a relationship with your base. Tip O’Neill would have approved.
2016: The other race… for digital dominance
In spite of the very visible upheaval in each party’s primary process in 2015–16, there hasn’t been any seismic shift in political email campaigning. There’s been evolution, but not revolution as campaigns embraced and refined the lessons of 2008 and 2012.
What, then, is the really major difference between 2008 and 2016? It’s got to be the sheer amount of money flowing into digital programs, including email.
Who’s earned the vote at the inbox?
In pursuing dollars and voters via email, the amount a candidate spends doesn’t always turn into success at the inbox.
Engagement, indicated by candidates’ read rates during the 2015–16 primary season, has proven that. Carly Fiorina — a well-funded candidate with, you’d think, access to top digital marketing talent — led the field, Democrat and Republican alike, with a read rate of 31 percent at one point.
But Bernie Sanders, with hardly the deepest pockets, held down the #2 position at 26 percent. Hillary Clinton came in third at 22 percent. Yet Jeb Bush, blessed with a huge war chest, saw a read rate of only seven percent. And many others, all of them now out of the race, did even worse.
(As an FYI, Obama’s own read rate in 2012 was 10 percent, actually below the 14-percent average for the 2015–16 field.)
Deliverability is revealing, too. Rand Paul, an enthusiast of direct mail and reputedly just as enamored of email, saw an appalling deliverability rate of 45 percent and an open rate of just 12 percent.
On the other end, Sanders probably started out with a smaller list than that of Paul or other candidates, but his deliverability rate was 96 percent. That attests to a quality database probably flush with those die-hard adherents who’ve been the cornerstone of his campaign.
They’re exactly the followers a candidate (or a brand) can depend on not only for dollars but also for viral forwarding, word-of-mouth, social influence and grassroots activism.
Spamming may seem like a habitual sin by politicians, but the majority of the messages piling up in the inbox usually result from an addressee’s opt-in to one list or another. According to analysts at Havas Helia, about 30 percent of Ted Cruz emails wound up in Gmail’s spam folder.
Campaign analysis: a tale of two strategies
Our colleagues at Iterable recently compared the email efforts of the Clinton and Trump campaigns and found huge differences between the two.
Earlier, we noted how political marketing pros have bought into the email strategies that were so effective for Obama in the last two presidential elections. The Hillary Clinton email program exemplifies that, and even takes it a step (or three) further:
- The Clinton campaign sent recipients no less than 24 emails during the first 21 days after opt-in.
- The first three messages were a simple thank-you, then an ask for a very modest $1.00 donation, then a list of what supporters could do to help.
- Follow-ups delivered varying engagement options, such as chances to get a “THX Box” with a $30 donation (containing items like a campaign mug, branded teabags and thank-you note), an “H Feed” email with news/updates and video links and a sweepstakes offer to win a trip to meet Clinton — with extra entries available, naturally, if you gave extra gifts.
- Other emails included the candidate’s immediate (and often wry) reactions to campaign events like the Republican debates or her apology for the State Department email scandal.
- This barrage was attributed to multiple senders (nine in all, though all with the same return address): some were from Clinton herself, or her campaign, or from staffers and boosters like John Podesta, Katie Dowd and James Carville.
- Why the campaign included staffers was inventive. Their emails were presented as personal conversations between Clinton and her team, giving opt-ins the impression they had “behind the curtain” access.
- Havas Helia analysts also noted how Clinton’s campaign reflected the state of the primary race: As Sanders gained traction, her emails began to stress the battle on her hands and the need for everyone’s support.
- The net-net? The Clinton campaign has been aggressive and flexible in deploying email to raise money, project the candidate’s personality and react to real-time situations.
Some candidates, though, haven’t adopted the Obama template. Donald Trump’s campaign has shown a sparse, almost nonchalant approach to email, especially compared with other hopefuls:
- Versus Hillary’s 24 emails, Trump only sent four during the same 21 days, with no real engagement hooks such as contests or regular updates.
- Since Trump isn’t as focused on funding as rivals, he may devalue email — and apparently prefers social media (like Twitter) as his bullhorn for reaching audiences.
- This strategy misses out on email’s valuable opportunities for deeper engagement.
The takeaways for email marketers?
Political campaigns have adopted many elements of commercial email marketing over the years, but they’ve also been innovators, making extraordinary strides in less than a decade.
They recognize the potential of email offers for forging authentic relationships between audiences and “brands” — whether it’s Brand Clinton, Brand Sanders or Brand Cruz. To make the most of that potential, they’ve employed flexibility, experimentation, persistent engagement and personalization.
So what are a few of the lessons the rest of us can find in how email is being applied during the current presidential scrum?
- Call on the best resources. Whether Dems or the GOP, these are highly professional organizations that know how to enlist expert email consultants, agencies, delivery platforms and other resources to execute their programs.
- The right data drives results. See: Bernie Sanders. It’s not enough to buy big. Otherwise, Rand Paul might still be in the race. Capturing truly usable data about the right targets allows any marketer to be more efficient.
- Behavioral segmentation pays off. Obama’s team developed a successful model for identifying different audiences, one that drove messaging tailored to each of them — and their pocketbooks.
- Don’t shy from engagement. People may opt in to follow a candidate out of initial passion, but the real success lies in knowing when and how to reach out and engage them downstream. If that sounds like a CRM email approach, that’s because it is.
- Email builds belief in your brand. People want to believe, and that extends beyond politics. Email uniquely empowers a marketer to deliver brand value and develop transparency, dialogue and community, same as any smart politician who’s out to answer an audience’s needs and wants.
- Test — then test again. Test and fine-tune messages and offers continually.
- Experiment and explore. A marketer needs to be testing different concepts and ideas, even those that have wandered in from deep left field. It’s better to validate, not assume, what works: Some on Obama’s team undoubtedly fretted that “quick links” were too extreme a fundraising tactic, but that 300-percent lift proved differently.