Email appeals that work

Do those gimmicky fundraising emails that offer small-dollar donors a chance to have dinner with the president or watch a debate with the vice presidential nominee really work? How about the late pleas for campaign dollars aimed at scaring supporters into forking over additional cash?

After a cycle of watching emails from the presidential campaigns, party committees and outside groups flood our inboxes, we decided to take a closer look at what worked and what didn’t when it came to email in 2012.

We asked a handful of political marketing experts to evaluate five emails that represented some of the most common appeals of this cycle; we practically guarantee you’ve seen a bunch just like them in your own inbox over the past few months. Below, our experts weigh in on which elements worked and how you can apply the lessons when structuring your own email appeals.

1 Subject: Some grub with POTUS?

Julie Germany, vice president digital strategy, DCI Group

Even though the email copy is incredibly short, this comes across as a powerful email. There is a simple call to action. It’s written the way a normal person would talk (except for all the bolding and underlining), and it asks you to only care about one thing–having dinner with the president.

Matthew Dybwad, founder and partner, CRAFT Media/Digital

A great example of a quick and to-the-point email: it hits the important points, conveys an important message of opportunity, has action links and doesn’t make the reader wade through an ocean of rhetoric or posturing to consume and understand the content. Raw, undistilled value proposition meets action opportunity. Win.

One other thing to note: Obama emails like this one push the fine print (and it is very fine) and disclaimers way down the page–out of what would be “above the fold” in any email client. It keeps the experience uncluttered and clean. Hiding content at the end of very long pages used to be considered black hat from an SE0 standpoint, though clearly the campaign got away with it here.

Scott Dworkin, founder and CEO, Bulldog Finance Group

The subject line is straight and to the point. I love it. This is a very direct ask, as it has three links in it going to the same page. The possibility of a dinner with POTUS is very cool. Plus, it’s a short read, so it makes it easy for someone to see what it’s all about.

Taryn Rosenkranz, founder, New Blue Interactive

This is a new tactic this year. But because it’s Obama’s campaign, people are still responding. The contests work great for increasing response; who doesn’t like a chance to win something–especially a chance to dine with the president? The folksy language is supposed to help make up for the fact it’s from an entity instead of a person.

Peter Pasi, executive vice president, eMotive

The subject line asks a question and states a pretty simple, self-explanatory offer. It’s a small amount of money and basically gives donors a reason to give beyond helping the campaign.

2 Subject: I’ll be damned

Julie Germany This is a long advocacy email. I think the writer experienced a problem that many advocacy and communications emails have: the communications team wants you to fit a dozen talking points into one email text. This could really be two or three emails.

Matthew Dybwad Love the subject line; it begs to be read and is edgy enough to grab attention–even from people who know Messina is another Obama sender. I like the first name and dashes as a salutation. It’s much more email colloquial, as is the rest of the message. Obama’s emails are frequently written in a conversational voice that mirrors how friends and colleagues actually converse with one another over email. When was the last time you sent your buddy an email and started it “Dear Friend”?

The message is also likely personalized for a supporter who hasn’t donated, another thing the Obama campaign did well–actually using the data to intelligently correspond with their contacts. The script itself is a good example of the classic formula: bombshell, problem, solution, ask, repeat.

I’m also a fan of the larger font. It’s easier to read and looks more like an email you’d get from a friend.

Scott Dworkin Excellent subject line–very straight and to the point. There is substance in every sentence, which makes it a must-read. The layout makes you want to keep on reading, with two different separations between paragraphs with colons–pretty good setup.

Taryn Rosenkranz Again, the Obama team is being informal to feel more personal and relate to you as the reader. Here is my nickname. We outraised them. It’s you and me against them.

Peter Pasi This email is pretty straightforward. Messina’s subject line definitely begs you to open the email, and the body reinforces the “people-powered” narrative the Obama campaign was pushing. It also subtly guilts the donor by pointing out they aren’t part of this million-person movement.

3 Subject: Scary truth

Julie Germany This could be a powerful email, but the lack of personalization in 2012 feels very problematic. We currently exist in a digital era in which the right database and email management tools make personalization, even if it’s just using the recipient’s first name in the greeting, very easy. It’s slightly on the long side, but I tended to appreciate the narrative-building in this email more.

Matthew Dybwad The subject line is trying to be catchy, but scary truth has already become a cliche. One mantra we have here is engineering subject lines that instill a fear of missing out by recipients: if you don’t read this, you won’t know something important, which will put you at a disadvantage. This subject line misses that mark.

The type is too small; readability is compromised. The highlighted title does a good job of drawing the eye though, and the use of bold and italics is probably right at the line where enough meets too much.

I’m also not against leaving out a first name in the salutation, but going with “Friend” can be a spamtrigger.

Scott Dworkin This is a great subject line. I like how the second word is in lower case, so it looks like it’s not a blast email. I don’t like how it was released on a Saturday morning. There are also two separate links and asks, which I don’t recommend. The layout is good, but I think the content is more sporadic and less direct.

Taryn Rosenkranz This one uses an oldie but a goodie. Everyone is a sucker for a poll, especially one with good news. Also super popular is to use one-word subject lines that are vague. Again, for this and a few others, I’m surprised I don’t see a deadline included. Typically that boosts response.

Peter Pasi This is a great, captivating subject line. The email highlights a 24-day deadline and asks for a modest contribution to help EMILY’s List deliver more womens’ votes for President Obama. It also highlights the organization’s long history of working on this issue and therefore lends credibility to the ask.

4 Subject: Victory is in Sight

Julie Germany This is probably the most traditional of the emails. Everything from the subject line to the text reminds me of 2008. It’s a basic, old-fashioned email.

Matthew Dybwad This is another email where the engagement link is at the very end. The writing is good and it builds momentum well–thanking the supporter and building to the moment of victory, keeping up a good pace and drawing the reader into and through the piece.

Scott Dworkin I am not sure why “sight” is capitalized in the subject line, and I don’t like how “is” is followed by “in”. The content of this is choppy at best. There are different, random numbers, but it doesn’t really show why I should care. The ask is way too low in the email, and there is no direct ask for a specific amount. They set the bar too low by saying $250 or less is the norm.

Taryn Rosenkranz Republicans and Democrats differ the most when it comes to length. Romney used voter messaging rather than fundraising language. There is no transaction to give but party loyalty.

Peter Pasi This email is well-written but sounds more like a speech than an ask for money. It also doesn’t paint the opponent as a real enemy or a force to be reckoned with. It is aspirational but lacks urgency.

5 Subject: We will recover

Julie Germany When I read this, my mind lost track after the third paragraph. Putting the call to action–donating–all the way at the bottom of the email can be really tricky if I’m your target audience. My eyes wander if you don’t get to the point, and I delete the email before you can tell me what you want me to do.

Matthew Dybwad I like the layout here, and I think including the brand as an image is important for consistency, even if plain text emails are also on the schedule. This is something Romney did better than Obama. The script is well written, but the “offer” is pure rhetoric, as opposed to something a supporter could actually latch onto. Written as a post-debate follow up, it’s meant to inspire more support but lacks the personality, humor and genuine quality that the Obama scripts consistently nailed.

As is popular with many R-side email scripts, the action links come at the very bottom. This is a mistake. Readers need to be able to know what the email is about and how to act on it within the first two-to-three sentences. Why make the reader read until the very end before asking them to act? In the information economy, every second counts and this squanders opportunity.

Scott Dworkin Good subject line–good subject to have it on as well. But the email is choppy and a bit all over the place. I like how they have the header in this; it’s not always good to strip out all images. But again, the ask is at the end of the email and fails to specify an amount.

Taryn Rosenkranz The most notable thing about this email is it’s so long. The trend is to keep them short and cut to the chase. The subject line was great because it got me to want to open it. Subject lines should never give away the punch line, and this one doesn’t.

Peter Pasi Again, this email does a good job of hitting the talking points, but effective direct response is conversational and emotional. As a conservative, I understand what they are saying, but I think the campaign needs to more clearly lay out the case for why a donation right now will help them win.

Takeaways for your campaign

Julie Germany This election cycle saw the rise of big data in digital politics, especially with email. Personalizing the issue and context just enough to not seem creepy, and constantly monitoring what did and did not work, helped political campaigns evolve the medium and master the art of email fundraising solicitations.

Matthew Dybwad I don’t know that there are any new, startling revelations; optimizing the performance of email continues to be a testing and learning process for every campaign individually, with different strategies paying off depending on audience makeup. Speaking broadly as to the appeal and direction of the email communication from campaigns in general though, I think we’re seeing trends toward more colloquial language, shorter, more focused email scripts with much clearer calls to action and more creative offers and benefits being used to entice people to engage. These are all positive trends that make these emails easier to read and more attractive to audiences, especially the growing millennial generation, which now equals the size of the boomer generation. Millennials were raised on email, expect real dialogue and aren’t oriented to the direct mail approach of campaigns past.

Scott Dworkin Email blasts have been taken to a new level this cycle. Some campaigns even send out multiple ones daily. I have seen it to be most successful for re-solicits and pushing in outstanding pledges when it comes to contributions.

Still, nothing beats person-to-person interactions. A phone call and a handshake will always win no matter what technological advances are made via email.

Taryn Rosenkranz Many suspected that email fundraising would have lost its luster this cycle but it hasn’t. Though, that doesn’t mean it has gotten easier. In fact, the competition is getting fiercer and harder. Those who were successful at it got that they had to send more emails and be first on the scene–creating the “I just left the stage” moments you see at the national level post-debates and conventions. But now you are seeing this kind of message after events, even at the congressional level.

People quickly figured out that shorter is -141″ better. Emails became less about the “message” than about the transaction. Why do I need to give and why right now–in as few words as possible. The old-fashioned elevator pitch in tweet-size characters has become more of the norm for an email. And those who were able to do these “express” accounts or “quick give” buttons in emails really did better than their counterparts. Those who adapted their program to fit the needs of mobile users saw the best results.

Lastly, the gloves are off on volume; it’s totally acceptable to send three emails in the same day–something unheard before Obama ’08.

Peter Pasi The EMILY’s List and Democrat emails have compelling subject lines. If you received those in your inbox, you’d want to read them. Unfortunately, the Romney emails have subject lines which are aspirational but don’t encourage action.

I believe all successful fundraising appeals have four things in common: 1) A statement of a challenge, which can be partially solved by the recipient’s donation; 2) An enemy or “devil” that needs to be defeated; 3) A compelling story which succinctly explains the challenge and the donor’s role in addressing it; 4) A deadline by which a prospective donor must respond.

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