What do a presidential candidate and an online scam artist have in common?
They both send you a lot of emails, and they both want your money. But unlike the incoherent English and slapdash formatting of most of the emails from faux Nigerian princes and fake pharmaceutical firms, campaign messages are smarter than your average piece of spam, with every aspect meticulously crafted to get supporters' attention—and eventually their dollars.
From the subject line to the signature, here’s how they do it.
THE SUBJECT LINE
The first thing a reader will see in an email is the subject line. Subject lines need to grab the reader’s attention and tell what the subject of the email is going to be, said Eli Kaplan, a founding partner of Rising Tide Interactive, a Democratic-affiliated digital advertising agency. But email subject lines need to toe the line between attention-grabbing and misleading.
“On the one hand, you want to have it be as catchy and grabby as possible,” said Kaplan. “On the other hand, you don’t want to do a bait-and-switch, either. At the end of the day, most of these programs are about raising money, and if you have a subject line that is actually disconnected from the body, not only will you not get as many people to take your desired action or to donate, some might actually respond by unsubscribing.”
Another popular tactic is to personalize the subject line, either by making it look like a reply or a forward by adding “RE:” or “FWD:” to the beginning, or by adding the supporter's name to it (or for supporters who didn’t supply their names to the campaign, calling them “friend”)—all an effort to push up the email’s open rate.
Most campaigns have stuck with traditional email subject lines, imploring voters, “Don’t give up on America” (a Marco Rubio email) or letting voters know where they stand on an issue, like Bernie Sanders’s “There’s only one right answer on Keystone XL: NO.” One that sticks out in my cluttered campaign email inbox: a message from Bobby Jindal’s campaign, sticking with its clickbait theme, with the subject line “Bacon.” True to the promise of the subject line, the email closes with a picture of “the famous bacon drawer” at the Louisiana governor’s mansion, right above a big blue "Donate" button.
Another major aspect of the emails is who actually signs them. Both the "from" field in an email inbox and the actual signature at the bottom of an email can have a huge effect on the success of a particular email. The signee who draws the most donations (or other actions) is almost always the candidate. However, campaigns need to be careful not to overuse or misuse a candidate’s digital signature.
“There’s definitely a ‘boy cried wolf’ effect. You don’t want to continue send every email from the candidate or people will stop opening emails from the candidate,” said Kaplan. “Because that is the most important signer, it is important to preserve that voice so you can go back to it when you really need it.”
Instead, campaigns will turn to other readily available people to be the email signee—campaign staff. State chairs, finance directors, and campaign managers frequently are the signees of emails imploring supporters to hand over more money or to buy a ‘Grillary Clinton’ apron or a pair of Rand Paul flip-flops.
Campaign staff are also better suited to send certain emails—like overtly political, horse-race-polling updates.
“We focused on what the what the individuals’ real jobs were,” said Scott Zumwalt, a senior director at Bully Pulpit Interactive and former online communications director for Kay Hagan’s successful 2008 North Carolina Senate run. “You don’t necessarily expect the communications director to talk about fundraising, but you definitely expect the finance director to talk about fundraising and have a clear insight. If you have that authentic communication that speaks to their jobs, it makes much more sense than having the candidate or somebody else speak about the weeds on a particular campaign issue or opportunity.”
If a supporter actually clicks into the email, the meat of the message comes into play: the body.
Email bodies range from short and sweet 200-word appeals to the seemingly War and Peace-length narratives that lay out a candidate’s position on an issue.
“We try to stay with whatever is in the news,” said Eric Oldfather, a senior account executive at Harris Media, which handles some of the digital efforts for Rand Paul’s presidential campaign. “We want it to be something people at home are, say, watching [on] Fox News. That’s what’s going to be on TV, that’s what is going to be at the top of their minds. It is all about getting things that are current and relevant to people.”
Regardless of the timing, the one standard of all email campaigns is that they want supporters to all take an action—frequently soliciting a donation, but other times asking supporters to sign a petition or sign up to volunteer.
“You don’t want to send only one type of email; you don’t want to send only fundraising,” said Oldfather. “You want to break that up with some good content, like asking people to volunteer or sending an update on the campaign, making a soft ask or without any ask for money at all so people aren’t just marking you as spam because they get sick of it, of just being asked for money.”
And when you picture the prototypical campaign email body, you’re probably not picturing a slickly designed newsletter.
The most typical campaign email is still a rather plain one: a few lines of text, sprinkled with bolded lines, hyperlinks, and the ubiquitous ugly yellow highlighting. The basic layout isn’t because digital staffs don’t have a good sense of design. It's because they know voters are looking for something else in an email.
“People are looking for some sense of authenticity,” said Oldfather. “If you send something from the candidates that’s like, ‘I just got off the stage at the debate’ and they’re talking about how it went ... if it looks like it is coming directly from somebody and not overly professionally done, then I think that gives people more of a sense of authenticity.”
One thing that’s pushing back against the established norms of simplistic campaign-email designs is the continued increase in users reading their emails on mobile. While the percentage of mobile readers varies from campaign to campaign, the one constant is that someone opening an email on an iPhone interacts with the email very differently than someone reading emails on a desktop.
“The emails are shorter. When you’re on your mobile device, you’re probably not clicking back to the email after you click on a link ... so you definitely don’t want to have more than one action in an email,” said Zumwalt. “And then you’re seeing the rise of images come back and gifs. ... We’re in such an image-driven world right now, and you can really tell a thousand-word story with one image. When you’re dealing with a four-inch screen size, that does a lot for you.”
After looking at every part, how do you know you have a winning email? It is partly the gut instinct of a digital staff that sends an incredible volume of emails throughout the campaign. The other part is testing just about every aspect of an email to see what gets the best reaction.
Digital teams can run A/B testing (otherwise known as split testing), in which campaigns send out different versions of emails, testing things like subject lines or link placement, to small sections of their overall lists. Whichever email has higher metrics—like click-through rate or donations raised—would then go out to the entire email list.
With all the testing, does that mean you should expect to get fewer emails that are more efficient at raising money?
"It is sort of different for every campaign, but as a rule more is almost always better," said Kaplan. "I don’t think I’ve ever worked on a campaign and looked back and said, 'Man, I wish we sent fewer emails,' and there are a lot of instances when I looked back and said, “Wow, we could’ve raised more money if we’d been more aggressive.' "
A prototypical email I received on July 30 (right before the Aug. 1 FEC filing deadline) was signed by Columba Bush (Jeb Bush’s wife) and hit all the of the points on how to send a successful email. Personalized subject line? Check. Simplistic text in the body with some bolded sentences for good measure? Check. Tied to current events? Check.
The subject line is one that’s familiar to cluttered inboxes everywhere: “I'm getting a lot of emails too, Friend.”
We’re more than a year away from Election Day 2016. Columba Bush (and you) shouldn’t expect the inbox to clear up anytime soon.
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Zach Montellaro is an Associate Web Producer for National Journal Hotline. Zach also assists the TwentySixteen podcast crew with pre-show research and preparation. Zach was born on Long Island and is currently a senior at The George Washington University, where he is the managing editor of the independent student newspaper, The GW Hatchet.