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11 email tips from campaign strategists

David Gura Jul 16, 2014
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To political candidates, email is extremely important. Yes, they want us to vote, but they also want us to give early and often. 

When Barack Obama first ran for president, Steve Geer was his email director. 

“It’s a fun job,” he says. It’s also an important job. In 2012, President Obama’s reelection campaign raised more than $350 million through email.

“You have a subject line that catches your attention,” Geer explains. “You have an introductory sentence that hooks you and brings you into the narrative, and then you get as quickly as you can to ‘the ask.’”

Because our inboxes are so full, a catchy subject line is key. Geer points out, “If no one opens up your email, it doesn’t matter how good your argument is.”

Obama for America used subject lines that were casual. “Meet me for dinner,” one read. It looked like the president sent the message himself.

“Increasingly, people are doing things that will simply catch the eye,” says Patrick Ruffini, the president and founder of Engage, a political consulting firm. He oversaw digital strategy for the Republican National Committee.

 Campaigns are using animated GIFs and countdown clocks. The novelty factor is important, but it is also important to have a message, Ruffini says, and to keep it short.

 “You need to essentially get them off that email as quickly possible,” he notes. An email director or a digital strategist wants you to click a link and donate.

 Campaigns have amassed a lot of data on donors’ habits, including how much money they have given, and when they have given.

 According to Ruffini: “The amount of testing that is now going into emails, to keep people opening, to keep people clicking, I mean, it’s amazing.”

Email, compared to direct mail or TV advertising, is inexpensive, and the return on what is a relatively small investment is huge.

“Having lots of people giving $5 generates this very powerful list that campaigns can use now and in the future,” says Eitan Hersh, a professor of political science at Yale University.

 For that reason, political strategists live in fear of donors unsubscribing. 

“Good copy, good creative will always get attention, but there’s a difference between short-term attention and long-term engagement,” Geer says.

 A campaign wants you to give over and over again.


11 email tips from campaign strategists:

1. Keep it short. According to Patrick Ruffini, a Republican strategist, “You need to essentially get them off that email as quickly as possible.”

2. Spend a lot of time on the subject line. “If no one opens up your email, it doesn’t matter how good your argument is,” says political consultant Stephen Geer.

3. Try new things. Try different things. Compared to TV advertising or direct mail, email is inexpensive, and you can see what works very quickly.

4. Test different drafts of an email.

5. Because “open rates” have been declining, send more emails. But not too many! You don’t want donors to unsubscribe.

6.  Personalize emails. Campaigns have had success referring directly to a donor’s previous gifts.

7. Novelty fades. If every candidate is using a casual subject line to invite donors to enter a drawing, it’s time to devise a new strategy.

8. Try putting things in black and white.

9.  Try “the doomsday e-mail.” Warn donors an opponent may have the upper hand, or that a deadline looms.

10. Remember: Most email is opened on mobile devices these days. Your email should look good on a smart phone, and it should link to a mobile-compatible donation page.

11. Put the links high. “A link towards the top is better than a link at the bottom,” says Rayid Ghani, who was Obama for America’s Chief Scientist. “A large button that makes you click towards the top is better,” he adds.

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