David Fowler_Digital Insights

What does the coming U.S. presidential election teach us about email marketing and deliverability? (Please note – this is not a political positioning communication on behalf of Act-On, but has been approved by the author.)

We are in the middle of an election cycle here in the U.S. It’s been a crazy and unsavory ride so far for the candidates and voters alike, and I’m sure there is more insanity to follow, so as Bette Davis famously said in the 1950 movie All About Eve, “Fasten your seat belts. It’s going to be a bumpy night.”

I am originally from England (full disclosure – I’m also a U.S. citizen who has voted in every election I could) – a Limey – from a place where politics are traditionally lively. Any “vote of no confidence” in the UK parliament will remove a government (the prime minister and their cabinet) from office. Quickly. “If a motion of no confidence is passed or there is a failed vote of confidence, there is a 14-day period in which to pass an act of confidence in a new government. If no such vote is passed, a new election must be held, probably a mere 17 working days later.” (Full in-the-weeds details here.) I’m also a long-term email professional.

I have lived in the U.S. since 1985 and I can tell you first-hand that elections here are becoming ever more interesting as they evolve and more outside influencers can and do influence the outcome of the elections. I see this as similar to email, and I think the U.S. election can teach us a few things about email marketing and deliverability, on both sides of the Atlantic.

Let’s consider some of the most prominent areas to think about before the U.S. readers head to the voting (read: inbox) booth this year.

The U.S. Campaign Landscape:

Similar to the email ecosystem where ISPs and corporate domains “control” the incoming mail flow (read: email policies as applied by receiving servers), each state can determine their own election criteria and dates for primaries resulting in possible different outcomes (mail folder placement) for each jurisdiction and campaign. Sound familiar?

ISP and Corporate domain control incoming email marketing mail flow similar to election campaigns

The Party Philosophies:

The two parties, Democrats (opt-in?) and Republicans (opt-out?), have philosophies that differ greatly, but the outcome of their manifestos and ideas can and do take a while to implement as members of Congress (ISPs and receivers who make policies) change frequently. There’s a lot of continued discussion about “working across the aisle” (read: authentication) to get things accomplished; if more of our elected leaders embraced this strategy, we might see better results.

The Candidates:

Probably one of the most important issues (read: relevant content) about an election are the candidates. Candidates differ in perspectives, reputations, quality, quantity, ideas and deliverables. Great candidates (like great content) have a concise call to action that evokes passion about the issues (read: pain points) and ultimately encourages the voter (recipient) to possibly donate (click through and purchase) to the campaign. This results in a better reputation and concurrent increasing momentum for the campaign. Sound familiar?

The Issues:

If the candidate is discussing and communicating the issues that are not important to you then you won’t pay attention, and you may tune out entirely (read: unsubscribe). Each party has fundamental issues that are at the core (what do you think; should we read this as legal compliance and consent?) of the party. These positions cannot change as they are the underlying tenets of the party’s policies. There may be slight differences (transactional messages verses commercial communications) but the path to the ballot (inbox) doesn’t change.

The Debates:

We have seen over the past several months, candidates who have dropped out of the campaign due to poor debate performances and exit poll data (voters hit the spam button). Candidates who are still in play and getting consistent results (brand reputation) get better positioning on the stage (inbox placement) and are not relegated to the outer reaches of the debate stage (spam or junk folder, Gmail promotional tab).

The Conventions:

The Republican convention might offer fireworks this year; it’s possible the presidential candidate will be contested. The Democrats might have a lively time determining a vice-presidential candidate. As the U.S. political conventions occur only every four years, the possibility of sharing knowledge and best practices on a regular basis is limited. And the political environment changers drastically, so it’s always a new game.

Here the comparison falters, as we have many conventions (conferences and trade shows) within the email marketing world in which innovations, research, and topics (read: issues and potential campaign planks) can be discussed and allowed to mature in ongoing real time. But what’s important in email, as in politics, can be contested, by industry policy groups (lobbyists) for example, affecting marketing knowledge sharing.

The Voters:

The most important factor in a good election (email campaign) is the voter (recipient) – especially if they are engaged. Voters can be fickle and undecided so it’s important to reach out to them (nurturing campaigns) and position your strategies and polices on how to move the country forward (make their lives better) and make the world a better and safer place for us all (solve a pressing problem for them).

What the World Thinks

Here’s a story from the New York Times about how Trump’s strategy is hurting the Republican list-building process: “But Donald J. Trump’s disregard for fund-raising by email, building lists of small-dollar donors and assembling a modern campaign digital operation could … do lasting damage to the Republican Party, strategists say.”

And here’s a Politico story: “The fate of Sanders’ golden catalog of donors and volunteers — his email list — is the talk of the Democratic Party.”

eDataSource is a global provider of independent competitive intelligence for email marketing, social media and ecommerce activity. John Landsman, their Director of Strategy and Analytics did an analysis of the email campaigns of the leading candidates, which we’ve excerpted here:

  • Trump [has a] relatively small email program, (less than one million email subscribers; 74 email campaigns in March), but he’s getting very high engagement – 28% read rates, last we looked.
  • Cruz has a much more extensively developed email program (4 million subscribers; 248 March email campaigns), but his engagement (15% read rates) is not much more than half of Trump’s, and he shows fairly serious deliverability issues.
  • Kasich’s program is relatively small (2 million subscribers; 120 email campaigns), with the lowest engagement levels of them all (10% read rates), and catastrophic deliverability. Not much more than one-third of Kasich’s email is actually reaching his audience’s inboxes – usually a sign of untidy email address acquisition.
  • Hillary has the largest email audience, but she’s mailing them with extremely high frequency. Given the many primaries in play last month, her campaign volumes worked out to about 16 messages per week going to each of her email subscribers. That’s more than two per day. Her read rate engagement is a not-exciting 12%, but her deliverability has been over 90%.
  • Sanders emails almost as frequently, but drives higher engagement – 15% read rates. He too has reasonably strong deliverability.

The Outcome:

A great campaign, whether email or political, will have its ups and downs in performance and outcome. Running for office (or earning buyer approval) is a marathon, not a sprint. Many issues can and do affect the campaign and sometimes things are thrown in your direction that you don’t anticipate.

Plan, manage, execute and be relevant – perhaps our political stewards could learn from the email marketing and deliverability channel for their political campaigns?

To turn it all around and see the comparison from the point of view of your buyer: Your voter will make the most of their rights and freedoms, and make the choice that appeals to their head and their heart. Make yourself worth voting for (adopt best practices and make the right offer) and, If you’ve made the case for yourself over your competition, you just might win the day.


Ready to learn five tips for more successful – and more profitable – email campaigns? Check out Act-On’s ebook, The Amazingly Effective Email Guide, to learn new techniques that will optimize your email marketing campaigns.

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