Friday, September 30, 2016

Black Friday for Political Email Marketing

A post about balancing 1st amendment rights, ISPs and direct mail ROI.

Fun exercise. Look at your personal email(s) this morning + later today. Because today is 9/30, thus the last day of the month and quarter, many of your are going to get a spike in political emails. 

Question is, will you see them in your inbox or will they be sitting in your spam folder?
I'm referring today as "Black Friday for Political Email Marketing," because political campaigns FEC fundraising data they'll need to report on, and the race to 11:59pm is both a sign of a campaign's strength, and much needed infusion of cashflow needed for the remaining weeks before the November election. 

Inbox vs. Spam: For campaigns having an email go to a person's inbox versus spam is a night and day difference. A message not being delivered, or being delivered to spam could be an indication of an individual's preferences and past email behavior with the sender. Read on...

Balancing 1st Amendment Rights; Email vs Classic Direct Mail:
Like many communication teams when done correctly email has a tremendous ROI. This is especially true when compared to expensive mail pieces physically mailed to homes (even factoring in bulk mailing cost reductions). Direct mail does have one advantage, if you send it, the USPS will very likely deliver to a person's mailbox. Doesn't matter if you're sending to as many people as possible, or if the content is mudslinging, the 1st Amendment protects you. 

While the 1st Amendment allows you to do the same in email, the guarantee it will end up in an inbox is not guaranteed. It may end up in a spam folder. Unlike residential mail, there is not second mailbox the USPS sorts your mail into that acts as the equivalent of spam folder for emails. 

Gmail, Yahoo, Hotmail and AOL Treat All Marketing Emails Equally:
This is a blessing and a curse. For the consumer, this provides protection. For starters they can hit the spam button on any message. This is bad for marketers. For example if a person with a email address hits "spam" other messages that marketer is sending to other email addresses have a lower chance of being delivered. Send a message that doesn't resonate, or is unsolicited, and the odds of this activity occurring grows. There's no option like this with physical mail, and no repercussions if the consumer wants to stop receiving such messages. 

Because ISPs such as Gmail, Yahoo, Hotmail, AOL, etc treat messages the same, the rules other marketers must abide by also apply. Doesn't matter if you're a bank sending monthly statements, a retailer sending weekly sales, or an online casino. For political campaigns this means the same best practices need to be followed. Examples include, ensuring the recipient has opted into your email (wants to receive messages), has an ability to unsubscribe (typically a link in the email's footer), and the frequency of emails is active enough to keep the political campaign's sender reputation strong, but not so frequent that a ISP flags messages as spam. 

Challenge for Campaigns: Email is about balance. Think of a high performance engine, you can increase the RPMs and power to a point. With some enhancements to the engine, you can push the RPMs further. Eventually you're going to either add on some additional engine enhancements, else you risk blowing the engine if the RPMs go to high. No one wants to be stranded on the side of the road, and campaigns do not want crucial emails for fundraising and local appearances ended up in spam. 

Bigger is Not Always Better:
The size of a large email database only has value if it was grown organically. These recipients signed up, and gave approval to get messages. However, not everyone interested in a candidate signs up, and communications a campaign might want to send to a person's physical home may not have an email address associated with it for follow ups. Two ways additional names are typically emails, list rentals and what I'll call "mysterious thumbnail drives"
  • List Rentals: These recipients may or may not have opted into your list. Often these emails are sent third party, about your candidate, on behalf of another respected politician. The benefit is these lists, in theory, are well-maintained and have an existing relationship with the email recipient. Assuming the message is on point, and the recipient likes both the sender and your candidate (subject of the email), effective results will follow
  • Mysterious Thumbnail Drives: Remember the 2014 election? What about 2008? Injecting old names (variety of sources) that align with your candidates party is a tactic that occurs often. In situations where a campaign has a 3-5 month window before a primary, getting large organic lists where people opt in is a challenge. Here's the problem, besides the fact an opt-in didn't occur (protected by the 1st Amendment to email, but not typically allowed within an ESP's Terms of Use), that thumbnail drive isn't likely current. The emails on there might have been valid in the past, but there is no certainty they are valid today. If you send emails to accounts that haven't been opened in significant time (ex person abandoned the account, died, etc), the ISP may view you as a "spammer" and penalize other sends. The way you combat this is having enough opens and clicks elsewhere in the list to balance. 
^^ going into a bit of a gray area in the above, but that's the pragmatic answer that balance 1st Amendment rights, Terms of Use of ESPs, and quality expectations by ISPs.

Running email for a political campaign is hard. It's often a several month contract through a primary with an opportunity to continue if the candidate wins. That's not a lot of time for innovation or sophistication at the candidate level. Think back to the engine RPM example. Grow the program, find the upper limits, don't overheat the engine, and make enhancements when appropriate.

Back to the original scenario. Last day of the month. You're going to get a lot of email from candidates. Did you get the email in your inbox or did it go to spam?

If spam, do you know why, or how to fix it? 

I do :)

Follow Me: @KeithHanks

Keith Hanks has an extensive digital marketing background with lead generation and e-commerce websites. He regularly presents to various V-level and C-level executives. He has worked with retail, professional services, home services, financial services, legal, hospitality, healthcare, technology, and entertainment. Keith has an MBA from Providence College and a Bachelors from Bryant University with dual majors in Marketing and Computer Information Systems. All opinions expressed are his own.

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