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Email Marketing Works: But What Are The Rules?

By Tommi Pryor

Political campaigns and advocacy organizations are turning more and more to email marketing to generate awareness, raise funds, recruit volunteers, acquire members or subscribers, distribute their calls-to-action and to get out the vote.  This article is the first in an ongoing series designed to help political marketers understand how to utilize this medium most effectively.

Before getting into the meat of subject lines, message content, image-to-text ratios, email metrics and the like, it is important to examine how email marketing should and shouldn’t be used.  It is equally important to examine how it compares with other media and to establish the right set of expectations regarding outcomes. 

We all get weary at wading through the countless unsolicited email ads (”SPAM”) that show up in our inboxes every day.  But, is this really any worse than the telemarketing calls that interrupt our dinner hour, the television commercials that interrupt the movie we are watching with our family or the direct mail letters that jam our mailboxes and have to be sifted through and disposed of?

Nonetheless, political marketers are well-served to only deploy their email campaigns to opt-in lists, whether their own or opt-ins to a third-party list of individuals who have agreed to receive partner offers and communications.  Despite that non-commercial email broadcasts are not governed by the CAN-SPAM Act, certainly this will hold you in good stead and will prevent you from alienating constituents who do not care to be contacted by email.  However, many seem willing to throw the baby out with the bath water believing that email should only be used if the intended recipient has specifically opted-in to the sender’s list, typically via their web site.  This limits the political campaign or advocacy group from growing their housefile through acquisition email broadcasts (email prospecting) that generally cost far less than direct mail or telemarketing.

Where many reputable commercial sources exist for email lists of recipients who have opted-in to receive third-party offers and communications, it is interesting to note that rarely if ever has a direct mail recipient or telemarketing call recipient “opted-in”.  In fact, typically, those on commercial direct mail and telemarketing lists are considered fair game unless they expressly take action to opt-out through the DMA “pander” list or the national Do Not Call Registry.

The point is that if you have no philosophical problem contacting a prospect by direct mail or telemarketing, where it is very likely that the recipient has not opted-in at all, there is no reason to feel that you should not also prospect using email marketing—particularly because this medium lets you target only those who have opted-in to receive third-party communications. 

This is important to understand as the debate wages on about whether it is legal, ethical or generally appropriate to prospect with email versus only deploying email broadcasts to those who have expressly opted-in on your own web site.  When you break the argument down, and apply the same standards to other direct marketing media, a strong case can be made that marketing to third-party opt-in email lists holds to a higher standard than other types of contact lists compiled through the public record (including voter registration lists), through survey responses on mail-in warranty and product registration cards, through the rental of magazine subscriber lists, or countless other means by which list compilers source their databases. 

But how about the political campaign or advocacy group that only prospects to response lists or exchanges?  The first, response lists, are typically rented out by a list manager who handles the marketing of an organization’s database of responders to its own appeals (typically referred to as a housefile list).  Exchanges are just what the name implies.  These are housefile lists that one organization exchanges with another organization either directly or through their list managers.  These practices are widespread yet those who naysay the practice of prospecting to a third-party opt-in email list fail to hold prospecting to other types of direct marketing lists to the same standard.  Let’s face it, just because another organization is willing to make their response list available to you on a rental or exchange basis does not mean that those on the list have opted-in to hear from you.

The bottom line is that email marketing provides a less costly and more immediate way to build your housefile than is the case with conventional direct marketing media.  In addition, email marketing offers additional passive circulation potential because its recipients can forward it on with a few keystrokes and mouse clicks—and at no cost to you!  No other medium offers this level of viral marketing capability. 

There is simply no legitimate reason to shun email marketing as a prospecting medium, and there are many reasons to embrace it for this purpose.  For the start-up campaign or advocacy effort, or the one with limited resources, email prospecting may provide the only real hope for reaching critical benchmarks and going the distance with its lower relative cost.  For the political campaign or advocacy group with fuller coffers, email prospecting nonetheless provides a way to reach a wider audience for fewer dollars enabling them to reach out more often.

This being said, caution should be taken to ensure that any third-party email list that you acquire is from a legitimate and trustworthy source with good credentials and that the email addresses are truly opt-in, not harvested off of web sites.  Indicators of the latter are a source that will allow you to have a copy of the list to deploy your message yourself, or even who will outright sell you the list instead of renting it to you.  In contrast, most opt-in list owners require that they broadcast your message in order to protect their list and to assure that it is not misused. 

Another such cue is when this list is offered at a price that is far below typical industry pricing.  Such lists are likely to be riddled with undeliverable email addresses that are outdated and inaccurate.  These are also likely to have a high bounce factor because the email alias (the prefix before the @ symbol) is “info@”, “sales@”, “webmaster@”, etc. instead of a consumer’s personal email alias.  Only a small percentage of these will likely ever reach a legitimate target.

The last cue is a lack of technological capabilities as relates to list upkeep and hygiene, merge and suppression, and deployment and tracking.  Chances are, if the list source lacks these basic capabilities, they are not a true list compiler, manager or broker and may have used bulk email address harvesting software to build their database.  Aside from the poor response that a harvested list will likely yield you, it is just as unlikely that the source will stand behind their list if it turns out to have a significant undeliverable or bounce rate as they likely lack the resources.

Understanding that “permission marketing” to an opt-in email list is entirely different than “spamming” a harvested list, the argument should be settled concerning the place that opt-in email has in a political marketer’s media mix.  This controversy, where it still exists, is no different than the controversies that pre-date it relating to direct mail, telemarketing, fax broadcasting, commercials airing on cable television stations or even the current debate over “Robo-calls”.  These media remain in wide use today due to strong industry lobbying and effective self-regulation.  All, including email marketing, used responsibly and properly, can play a very valuable role for the political marketer.

Tommi Pryor is CEO of American Information Marketing, LLC (“AIM”)
a database marketing company and new media agency providing
opt-in email addresses with turnkey deployment and tracking,
 Tommi previously owner-managed a full-service political
marketing and fundraising agency in the nation’s capital. 
Tommi can currently be contacted at Click here to contact this Author.

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