Jeffrey Rice

4 Email Marketing Tips: 72-day study reveals what you can learn from presidential campaigns

May 29th, 2012

In today’s blog post, I provide four examples of how not to run your email marketing, based on U.S. presidential campaigns. I will also provide four tips for the campaigns on how to improve their efforts, which I think many marketers can learn from as well. I tried to keep this blog post as politically neutral as possible, which turned out to be easier than I thought when I started since  most of the efforts were pretty poor.


The 72-day study of presidential campaign email marketing

I enjoy David Meerman Scott’s use of U.S. presidential campaigns as marketing case studies in his blog posts. I agree with him that the lessons learned can be applied by all organizations. Inspired by this and with my focus  on email marketing at MarketingSherpa,  I signed up on March 7 to receive emails from each U.S. presidential candidate: President Barack Obama, Ron Paul, Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum.  (Please note Newt Gingrich did not provide an opportunity to register for email alerts.)

I consider the need for candidates to win over my vote for president of the United States to be a complex sale, and I correlate it with the long sales cycles of B2B organizations. After watching my inbox fill up over 72 days, here is what I discovered from my unscientific study of the candidates’ email campaigns as related to B2B email marketing best practices. Unfortunately, the experiment turned into mostly what not to do.


Subscriber Registration

High-performing list-building pages tend to answer key questions a potential subscriber may have about the email list.

However, the presidential hopefuls required only an email address and ZIP code with little or no description of what type of messages I would receive. Most were statements of, “stand with” or “get involved,” and the extension of setting my expectations was “get updates.” I am sure the ZIP code will help in segmentation to place emphasis on battleground states and to notify subscribers when rallies are in their area.


Opt-in Confirmation

Ron Paul was the only candidate to use a double opt-in strategy. Marketers using double opt-in have historically reported higher opt-in rates.


Welcome Message

None of the presidential contenders sent an initial email to welcome or thank me for registering to receive emails. Sadly, the first email I received from all the candidates did not use their name as the primary name in the “From line” either. Even more surprisingly, all but our incumbent president  asked me to donate to their campaign. Coincidently, President Obama offered me a last chance for a free bumper sticker.

If you currently do not send a welcome message to new subscribers, I suggest you get started now.


Content and purpose

Forgive me for being a Pollyanna, but I believed the purpose of these email communications was to better inform the reader and earn his or her vote. As the chart below shows, more than 50% of the messages asked for campaign donations. I now realize that the primary goal of the email campaigns was to raise money.



Total emails

Donation requests

% of emails

Candidate information

% of emails

President Obama






Ron Paul






Mitt Romney






Rick Santorum







Dr. Flint McGlaughlin, Managing Director and CEO, MECLABS, says, “Credibility translates into trust; trust translates into a relationship; and relationship can translate into sustained sales (or commitment).”

To make this point, in his live presentations, he uses the analogy of picking up a significant other in the bar. You don’t walk up and say, “Hi, I my name is Flint. Will you marry me, have two kids and live in the suburbs with me?”

Likewise, the first communication to an email subscriber should not request a monetary contribution. Whether you are cynical and concede the richest candidate wins the race or wear rose-colored glasses and trust in democracy, I think we can agree this is not the best way to earn a vote or to raise funds.

This is the reason all relationships start out slowly, with micro-steps taken to earn trust that eventually turns into a deep connection. The best way to accomplish this goal is through nurturing campaigns. In the MarketingSherpa 2012 Email Marketing Benchmark Report (free excerpt at that link), we found that almost four-fifths of B2B organizations deployed nurturing email campaigns and only 44% attempt to activate or close a sale.


Chart: Nurturing emails lead the way for B2B customer lifecycle campaigns

Q. Which of the following types of email campaigns does your organization use to manage your customer’s lifecycle?

With five months left in the presidential race, there is still time for the campaign managers to shift their email strategy. On behalf of all email marketers, I would like to give the political parties some free unsolicited advice. Here are four messaging objectives to convert readers into voters, volunteers and/or donors.


1.  Earn trust

The first obstacle for any email marketer is to earn the trust of the reader. This is even more of a challenge for politicians. An Ipsos survey taken in 2011 found that only 14% of people trust politicians in general to tell the truth. Ouch!

A good place for presidential hopefuls to start is setting explicit expectations. The registration page provides a great opportunity to make a commitment (the content and frequencies of the messages), follow through and keep a promise.

Yes, a longer registration landing page may lead to a higher drop-off rate. However, the goal is not to have the largest email list, rather the one with the most political evangelists willing to support the campaign through votes, influence, volunteering and/or monetary contributions.

At the start of the relationship, you will want to help the reader and avoid rhetoric at all costs. Mitt Romney’s campaign sent an email answering frequently asked questions about the Caucus process. He then shared three simple steps to elect Romney delegates. No copy was designed to persuade the reader or negate his opponent, just to provide information.

Likewise, President Obama delivered a downloadable calendar with important dates leading up to the election. His campaign also delivered links to live speaking events to allow his readers to attend the event.

The strategy starts by keeping your campaign message simple, like a classic elevator speech. In as few words as possible, put yourself in the shoes of a voter and state, “Why should I support you rather than your opponent?”

The statement should be honed until a single, instantly credible sentence emerges that has appeal, exclusivity, credibility and clarity. In marketer terms, I am referring to value proposition.

With the core statement in hand, it is easier to build proof points identifying the most effective specific and quantifiable facts that bring credibility to a statement. These proof points will be used in expressing the value proposition in your email copy and landing pages.


2.  Educate to convince

Once a candidate demonstrates his or her integrity, then he or she can move on to establishing his credentials and political effectiveness.

This is not done through with inflated claims or arrogant copy about an opponent. During a job interview, would you ever criticize the other applicant? Of course not, as you would come off as slimy, meek and self-serving.

Instead, talk to your audience as if you were having a polite dinner conversation. Share your job and voting history. Make it easy for your audience to understand where you stand on the issues that matter to them with a simple grid of today’s biggest issues facing our country.

President Obama’s campaign provided an excellent example with the new health care app to aid in understanding how “Obamacare” benefits you. The app is interactive with a simple design that may remind you of an infographic. The call-to-action was, “Check out our new health care app — and make sure to pass it on to everyone you know who’s asked what this law really means for them.” Unfortunately, there were no social media links in the email to make this easy to share.


3.  Educate to influence

The next step is to not only arm your audience with evidence of your credibility, but also inspire them to defend your position passionately in conversation at their in-laws Memorial Day cookout.

Tell them your story. Voters may use facts to rationalize their decisions, but real-life stories connect on an emotional level to move, touch and enthuse. When did you have to make a compromise to achieve a goal for the greater good of the nation or commonwealth? Share with your audience when you made a tough vote that upset your special interest financiers but pleased your constituents in your district.

This also can be accomplished by letting your audience see you in your personal life. For example, Mitt Romney has sent video clips showcasing his role as a father, to reveal his softer side.


4.  Ask to contribute

John C. Maxwell believes, “Connecting is the ability to identify with and relate to people in such a way that it increases our ability to influence them.” Only once you have established your credibility, demonstrated your reliability and connected in a meaningful way should you ask the subscriber to contribute to your campaign.

When you do make a request,be sure the offer and incentive is unique. Both candidates have been creative. President Obama has offered dinners with celebrities George Clooney and Sarah Jessica Parker. Romney’s campaign even had a contest to sit with him during a Patriot’s Day baseball game at Fenway Park in Boston.

Lastly, I would like to remind the candidates that email is a rare opportunity to share your message directly with potential voters. Your message will not be filtered or twisted by network commentators on Fox News and MSNBC. You can share a laugh at yourself with a clip from The Daily Show or The Colbert Report.

I exchanged not only my email address, but my effort in opening, reading, possibly forwarding and deleting your message. Please don’t waste my time with contribution requests. I am more valuable to you with my word-of-mouth marketing to influence my personal network and my vote on Election Day.

Let us know your thoughts MarketingSherpa blog readers. Do you agree? What marketing advice would you add? Together we can encourage candidates to deliver email content that spurs more meaningful discussions in the months leading up to November 6.


Related Resources

Maximizing Email List Growth: How the New York Public Library drove a 52.8% lift in newsletter subscriptions

Webinar Replay — How-To: Best Serve Email Subscribers Through the Entire Customer Lifecycle

Email Marketing: How Microsoft increased product engagement using email

Email Marketing: How to sprinkle subscribers with a well-timed welcome in 5 steps

Email Marketing: The importance of lead nurturing in the complex B2B sale

Jeffrey Rice

About Jeffrey Rice

W. Jeffrey Rice is a Senior Research Analyst at MarketingSherpa focusing on email marketing. He is the lead author of the 2011 Email Advanced Practices Handbook, contributor to the 2011 Email Benchmark Report and a MarketingShepa e-newsletter columnist. His research has been instrumental in the development of new email marketing practices, including the LEAPS methodology to accelerate email-marketing performance. Jeff conducts full-day email workshops and speaks at MarketingSherpa partnered conferences and webinars.

Prior to joining MarketingSherpa, Jeff led marketing efforts at B2B and sports entertainment companies.
His knowledge of on-line, traditional and event marketing strategies enabled him to coordinate cross-functional teams to implement successful marketing initiatives.

Categories: Email Marketing Tags: , , ,

  1. May 31st, 2012 at 04:08 | #1

    its frustrating that, considering how slick politicians are with traditional media channels, they still struggle with email and use it poorly. indeed, the approach you’ve seen seems to mimic a lot of companies use of email – whereby they consider it a reach channel, to push messages at an audience base, rather than for a conversation, or as a method to build ‘loyalty’. So many missed opportunities! thanks for the article Jeffrey – its always interesting to see critique of email outside of the usual B2C and B2B world

  2. May 31st, 2012 at 08:38 | #2

    Hi Rob,
    Thanks for your comments. I am glad you enjoyed the post.


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