When Digital Goes Wrong: February Email Edition

EMAILSLast week, state Senator Jeff Jackson (D-Mecklenburg) won the Internet by pretending to pass all of his legislative priorities through a vacant North Carolina General Assembly during a "snow day." He expanded Medicaid, increased education funding, and made national headlines.

This isn't Jackson's first time in the limelight; he lucked out last year when the progressive Internet curators at Upworthy made a video of a floor speech go viral (one more miracle and Jeff is eligible for digital sainthood). However, people tend to create their own luck on the Internet: Jackson's video had an interesting hook, and his team put in the groundwork so the video could go viral.

Unfortunately, one of the reasons Senator Jeff Jackson's "snow day" got so much traction is because very few politicos in North Carolina are doing digital engagement right. Campaign digital - websites, emails, paid engagement, and social media - has taken a backseat in the Old North State. Our "digital" bench is so weak that Jackson has been mentioned as a possible candidate for Lt. Governor simply because he knows how to use a computer and a smartphone.

This is an even bigger disappointment since our campaigns should have learned how to do this by now. Kay Hagan's campaign raised over $4.6 million in small-dollar contributions last cycle, and much of that came from one of the most effective email programs in the country.

In this edition of "When Digital Goes Wrong," I'll critique some of the emails I've received from North Carolina campaigns in 2015.

Why emails? Every campaign does them, and they're an increasingly important source of revenue for campaigns.

Below are some of the worst offenders. Specific campaigns and subject lines won't be discussed because we're all on the same team:

  • The Atrocious Ask: An email that asks for money directly is almost always better than one that doesn't, but sometimes the ask is simply shameless. It's not backed up by any rationale. When a candidate asks for money without a reason, they're only going to get support from the most hardcore supporters.
    • Preventing the problem: Having a clear "theory of change" in individual emails - and over the course of your email program - is vital. In a nutshell, this means explaining how the action you're asking the supporter to take - contributing, signing a petition, sharing a post on social media - will help create change in the supporter's community. For example, Kay Hagan's theory of change in many emails wasn't simply "elect me," it was closer to "working together, small dollar donors like you can defeat the Koch brothers and change the way politics works." A clear theory of change can make up for a weak ask.

  • The Avalanche Ask: This email has buried the "ask" (usually a bold link that asks for a contribution/RSVP/signup) under paragraphs of text. It may not have been seen before the reader deleted the email.
    • Preventing the problem: Very few email programs can go paragraph after paragraph and expect their supporters to read everything. Graphics, bold links, and moving the first ask to the third line is an easy solution to this problem.

  • The Misinterpreted Misfire: You thought you did everything right, but this email isn't being read how you intended. Unfortunately, just because you intend for something to be read a certain way doesn't mean it will be. An email (or tweet, or blog) can be read more ways than one.
    • Preventing the problem: One of the most important ideas in writing is that once you put something down on paper, it no longer belongs to you. People can and will interpret it differently than you intend. When readers "misinterpret" your political communication, it's not always their fault; it's often yours. Involve a diverse group in your planning, creative, and approval processes. Everyone will read an email differently, and if an alternative reading is both damaging and popular, you may want to think about changing your message.

  • The Offensive Oversight: Related to above. Sometimes "smart" people say dumb things and offend entire communities.
    • Preventing the problem: Campaigns in general tend to be very white and very male; digital can be even more so. This isn't a "pro tip," it's a requirement: involve a diverse team in your planning, creative, and approval processes. Ask everyone to be relentlessly honest with you and be open to their criticism.

  • The Poignant Paperweight: We've all read this email. There's a big announcement or a policy position from a politician or candidate, but there's no action we can take. The copy (the text of the email) just sits there. Sometimes it's well-written, sometimes it's very well-written, but the email isn't doing anything.
    • Preventing the problem: Having action links - petitions, social shares, and contributions - is a simple tactic. It allows you to better track engagement with your email program. For example, by looking at the number of clicks on an email per open, you can tell if the people on your email list are actually engaging with your message independent of whether or not they're opening the email in the first place.

  • The Troubling Typo: Typos happen. You probably don't have the time to prevent them all, but some are really bad. AHHH HOW DO WE FIX THIS?
    • Preventing the Problem: If you're reading over your emails multiple times (try reading backwards), using spell check, and having someone else check your work, you'll catch most typos, but some are going to be a fact of life. Unless a date or a key fact is wrong, don't bring attention to the email by sending out a correction. Just move along and don't be so hard on yourself!

  • The Dumpster Fire: Some emails have it all - a great subject line, a great hook, a strong theory of change, and a kick-ass ask. Other emails get everything wrong: the signer of the email is different from the sender that shows up in your mailbox; the subject line is wrong (or nonexistent); the graphics are bad (Pro Tip: no graphics are better than bad graphics); fonts change for no reason; links don't work, or go to the wrong website; you can't click on the graphics; there are tons of typos; and so on.
    • Preventing the problem: Typos happen, and occasionally emails go out with bad concepts, but there is no excuse for a dumpster fire email. If you're sending a test email to yourself before you press the big "send" button (Pro Tip: ALWAYS DO THIS), and you're asking someone else to actively look at your email (Pro Tip: ALWAYS DO THIS TOO), you're not going to send an email where everything goes wrong. Oh, and remember to click all of your links to make sure they work.

That's all for this month. I hope your open rates are high, your unsubscribes are low, and your supporters stay supportive.

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