With the interminable American Presidential election season now hitting full speed we thought we would grade the campaigns on their mailing practices. The CAN-SPAN law that governs commercial bulk email in the US does not apply to political email, but it is still a good idea to follow best practices when contacting your supporters, if you want them to remain supporters. Unfortunately most of the campaigns fall short of this. For example, only the Pataki campaign used a genuine “double opt in” subscription where you had to click on a link in the first email to confirm that you had signed up for the list.
We signed up for each campaign with a different email address in mid November, and monitored the results in each mailbox until just after the Iowa Caucuses. We checked for things like use of double opt in, unsubscribe links, mailing frequency, personalization failures, etc., and gave each campaign a grade. (See below for details of our scoring.) Here are the grades we came up with:
As the campaign continues and the debates between friends on social networks heat up, it may be all too tempting for some to sign up their entire address book to receive mailings from their favorite candidate. That is why it is important for campaign to confirm that the owner of that email address really does want to receive their email. Our preference is double opt in (thank you Governor Pataki) but failing that, every email should have an unsubscribe link. Seven campaigns failed this most basic test for one or more emails.
The volume of email sent by each campaign varied dramatically from Huckabee and Jindal who did not send a single message before they dropped out of the race, to Paul, who averaged more than two a day before he gave up.
Here’s how the different campaigns performed.
Bush: Sent a medium volume of mail, with unsubscribe links on every message. Bush’s website only requires an email address and zip code to sign up for messages, but his campaign then attempts to personalize the messages which leads to gems like this. “Dear #N/A, I couldn’t let 2015 end without personally reaching out to you…”
Carson: After an initial acknowledgement when we signed up, we heard nothing from the Carson campaign for two months. While most of the campaigns were in a year-end fundraising frenzy, Carson maintained a respectful silence. Since mid January we have received three emails from a local campaign manager for the Bay Area, but still nothing from the national campaign. However, few as these messages are, there is now no escaping them. Only the first message contained an unsubscribe link, and subsequent ones have not. The Carson campaign was the only one to require a full street address to sign up, and its fundraising has relied on expensive direct mail rather than email solicitation.
Christie: Sent medium amount of email with unsubscribe links on every message. The initial confirmation message apparently contained a double opt in link at the end: “To make sure this is real person and not a robot please click here to confirm your contact information.” We set up two accounts to see if clicking the link made any difference, and found that Christie sent the same amount of email whether you clicked on the link or not.
Clinton: Sent a high level of emails (averaging more than seven a week) with the rate increasing recently as Sanders closed the gap in the polls. No unsubscribe link in the initial welcome email, but there were in subsequent emails. There was also an option to receive fewer emails.
Cruz: Sent a high level of emails (averaging almost eight a week). No unsubscribe link in the initial welcome email, but there were in subsequent emails. Sometimes used misleading subject lines such as, “EXPIRED”, “ERROR: Unreachable”, “(1) Message Unread”. The Ted Cruz Christmas sweater caught our eye as the most alarming merchandise:
At least Cruz’s web team have no illusions, the filename of the image is Ugly-Sweater.jpg.
Fiorina: Sent a medium amount of email, with unsubscribe links in every message.
Graham: We only received one email before the Graham campaign was suspended. It did not contain an unsubscribe link.
Huckabee: Though the Huckabee campaign was not suspended until the Iowa Caucuses, we did not receive a single email from it. Was it the fact that we supplied a San Francisco Zip Code? Or are they like this with everyone?
Jindal: Like the Huckabee campaign, the Jindal campaign did not send us a single email, but Jindal dropped out of the race shortly after we signed up.
Kasich: The Kasich campaign got off to a slow start, with nothing but an initial acknowledgement email (which did not contain an unsubscribe link) for two weeks. However, it is now sending at a moderate rate, and the emails do contain unsubscribe links.
O’Malley: Sent a medium volume of email. Initial email did not contain an unsubscribe link, but subsequent ones did. Campaign now suspended.
Pataki. Congratulations to the Pataki campaign who were the only ones to use genuine double opt in subscriptions. Unfortunately the campaign was suspended shortly thereafter, so we only ever received the confirmation email.
Paul: Sent by far the highest volume of emails, averaging over two a day, covering a range of political and personal subjects. Our favorite was the one where he compared Trump to Gollum from the Lord of the Rings movies, and himself to Aragorn:
Tolkien purists will be aware that Gollum was a hobbit and not a man, and he did not want to rule Mordor, he just wanted the ring back, but let’s not let that get in the way of Andy Serkis starring in “Trump! The Movie!” The Paul campaign was suspended after the Iowa Caucuses. The gates to Mordor are now wide open.
Rubio: Sent a high level of emails, averaging more than one per day. All emails had unsubscribe links. There was also an option to receive fewer emails.
Sanders: Sent a high level of emails, averaging more than one per day. All emails had unsubscribe links. There was also an option to receive fewer emails. Did not respond immediately to the sign up request.
Santorum: Sent a low level of emails, averaging about three per week. Like Christie, Santorum had what appeared to be a double opt in link in the initial email, but not clicking on the link labeled “Click here to activate your account” resulted in only one less email being received. Did not respond immediately to the sign up request. Campaign now suspended.
Trump: Sent a low level of emails, just over two a week. Initial email did not contain an unsubscribe link, but subsequent ones did. Unlike the other candidates, Trump is financing his own campaign, so he does not have to send out as many emails begging for money as the others.
The ability to run an email campaign does not necessarily translate into the ability to run the executive branch of the US government. However, a disorganized or disrespectful campaign reflects badly on the candidate. We understand how much the campaigns believe in their message and the importance of getting it out, but it is equally important to respect their supporters, and prevent accidental or malicious sign ups. At minimum we would suggest that campaigns use double opt in, include an unsubscribe link in every message, and if they feel obliged to send more than five emails a week to allow the user an option to receive fewer messages. For more information on best practices for mailers see the M3AAWG Sender Best Common Practices [PDF] document.
How we scored the campaigns
We signed up for each campaign with a different email address in mid November, and monitored the results in each mailbox until just after the Iowa Caucuses. One engineer examined the responses and noted all the bad mailing practices that were found in them. This list of bad practices was shared with five other engineers who were asked to assign penalty point to each one. They did not know which campaign(s) were responsible for which practice, to avoid bias. The penalty scores were averaged, and the results were as follows:
|1) Not using double opt in||36|
|2) Having a confirmation link on the initial email, but continuing to send emails if it is not clicked||45|
|3) Not collecting first name but then beginning emails with “Dear N/A”||14|
|4) Not having an unsubscribe link on the initial contact email||35|
|5) Taking more than an hour to send an initial response to sign up||4.4|
|6.1) Not sending any emails at all||4.2|
|6.2) Sending only one email, but no follow up emails||4.8|
|6.3) Sending less than one email per week||-2|
|6.4) Sending more than 5 emails per week||13|
|6.5) Sending more than 10 emails per week||32|
|7) Unsubscribe link in initial response email, but not in any subsequent emails.||48|
Note that our team felt that sending less than one email per week was a positive thing, and actually subtracted penalty points for that! Candidates were not penalized for sending high volumes of email if they provided a link to request fewer messages.
Of course these rating are subjective, but we did our best to eliminate individual or political bias.
We added up the penalty points for each campaign, and graded them as follows
Here are the results, with scores
We note that Sanders missed out on getting the next grade up by a mere 0.4 points, but that should be a familiar feeling for him after Iowa.