Last month came to an end, and right on time, the crazy emails came flooding in with subject lines like these:
“Can we chat real quick?”
“We’re so sorry!”
“THIS CAN’T WAIT”
“Democrats NEED you to open this”
“Wow just wow”
Like car salesmen itchy to make their quotas, political campaigns ooze with desperation as each month draws to a close. In an election year like this one, the Federal Election Commission counts donations monthly for parties and quarterly for campaigns, and candidates get eager to post impressive numbers before the deadline as an indication of momentum and strength.
So they flood their backers with pleadings, proddings, urgings, come-ons and sometimes even veiled threats, all via email -- a source of campaign fundraising that’s exploded over the last decade.
The authors of these breathless entreaties often go unnamed. But they are political e-mail gurus such as Anne Lewis, who runs an eponymous Democratic firm, Anne Lewis Strategies. And also former Obama consultant Andrew Bleeker and former Sen. Elizabeth Warren consultant Lauren Miller, of Bully Pulpit Interactive, which contracted with the president’s reelection campaign in 2012. Then there’s Republican Kurt Luidhardt of The Prosper Group. For them, this is a science and an art.
“I eat, sleep, and breathe e-mail subject lines,” Lewis said.
Lewis writes emails for Democratic campaigns, and lately that has meant sending some weird, occasionally creepy stuff. Hyperpersonal subject lines were in vogue during the 2012 election, when President Obama’s campaign infamously subjected its backers to a parade of phrased tested and perfected by a team of analysts, including "hey," "Something I’d like to ask you" and "Do you still live in Illinois?"
Weird emails weren’t invented in 2012. Lewis recalls using subject-lines such as “hey,” “Holy Moly” and “Yowza” in 2008. But since then, they’ve only gotten more extreme and psychodramatic. During a one-and-a-half-hour span in March, this is what the inbox of one ABC News reporter looked like:
“People’s inboxes are very much like their Facebook feeds right now,” Lewis explained. “What makes someone want to open an email is if you’ve invoked their curiosity, or induced anger, or ... an argument.”
Emails are a campaign’s prime mode of online fundraising, and House and Senate campaigns want the newest and best, consultants said.
“A lot of people look at Obama and say, ‘I want what he’s having,’ so it’s become the thing to mimic,” Lewis said. Which is why, since 2012, the emails have seemingly become stranger and stranger.
|‘Here’s the thing’|
–Eloise Gomez Reyes for Congress, 3/28/2014
People hate them, sure, but campaigns are asking for some extraordinarily text-message-ish, “hey-what’s-up”-sounding subject lines, and by all accounts, they work. The candidates themselves often sign off, to make sure the voice of an email bearing an elected official or office-seeker’s name in the “from” field actually sounds like he or she wrote it.
“We’re very careful on that,” Lewis said. “We very much view it as 'these are the words of that person.'”
With an email list of 13 million strong, Obama had it easy; the House and Senate candidates trying to imitate his campaign, not so much. Their smaller lists, in the ballpark of 50,000 to 100,000, mean less freedom to test and fine-tune.
“You’re trying to find some statistical significance -- you can test a couple of things, rather than 20 different subject lines for each email,” said Lauren Miller, a senior director at Bully Pulpit Interactive, a Democratic firm launched by Obama ’08 digital-marketing guru Andrew Bleeker.
Smaller campaigns -- or rather, their consulting firms -- will test nonetheless, sending different subject lines for the same email, using distribution software to track which get opened the most. So the process remains scientific in the midterm year, but less so.
Midterm campaigns tend to look at larger groups and races and “borrow freely,” Bleeker said, acknowledging that “the trends from more of the campaigns are becoming more extreme.”
“Most groups have gotten better at this, not worse,” he added.
Styles and trends evolve, and what worked in 2012 might not work in 2014. When the president emails to say, “hey,” you know he’s running an important race against Mitt Romney. For a little-known House candidate, a basic introduction, and some information about the import of the race might be warranted before the email equivalent of a text after a first date. But as Miller puts it, even smaller campaigns have realized they can write fundraising material in a conversational style, and during this midterm cycle, the approach remains the same.
“When I’m writing a subject line, my point is: Does it make you laugh? Does it make you cry?” Miller said.
|‘We’ve not met yet’|
–House Majority PAC, 3/29/2012
Hyperfamiliarity can be terrifying. Emails that mimic a boss who wants to talk, a friend who wants to say “hi,” or a significant other with designs on a “chat” can evoke shivers. Miller admits to using that tactic to get attention, a strategy that works, because when inboxes are super-crowded, recipients’ eyes gravitate toward the familiar subject lines that sound like they’re coming from real friends or acquaintances.
“I certainly will write a subject line that says something like, ‘do you have a minute,’ or, ‘can we talk?’ that sounds like Andrew is going to fire me or some guy is going to break up with me,” Miller said.
Ian Prior, a regional press secretary for the National Republican Congressional Committee, has a prolific record of notably tantalizing (or, put less favorably, trollish) subject lines in blast emails to reporters, and even he admits to victimhood on this front.
“I’ve seen an email on a Saturday, like, ‘We need to talk,’” Prior said, groaning at the recollection.
Functionally effective as this tactic may be, consultants all said voice matters, and it’s important not to turn donors off by terrorizing them.
“If you’re trying to get someone to give you their hard-earned $25,” Lewis said, frightening them is “probably not a good way.”
|‘I’m going to book your flight and hotel, Chris’|
–Democratic National Committee, 6/27/2014
Thankfully, many would agree, the old tricks may fade as consultants adapt. The shudder-inducing days of “hey, we need to talk” could be nearing the end.
“Once something is adopted by everyone, it loses its effectiveness,” Lewis said. “I think the extreme subject lines have somewhat lost their impact, based on the data and the testing that we’ve done.”
That leaves campaigns, parties, and groups to either get more extreme, or find a different way of doing things. Here are some of the new trends we can expect to see more of, according to Lewis, Miller, Bleeker and others:
-Emoji. The Democratic National Committee has been using emoji in its subject lines of late. Not everyone likes it; one reporter for a national magazine recently tweeted his dismay.
-Long subject lines. Longer, more descriptive subject lines work well, Lewis said: “In that case, you’re probably not maximizing the number of opens, but you’re getting the right people to open.”
-ALL CAPS. It’s not all about the lowercase “hey.” Some parties and campaigns are practically yelling at their backers. “We’ve seen sort of a move to the more personal with all-lowercase. That happens a lot. Recently you’ve also seen all-caps became really popular at the end of the Obama campaign,” Miller said.
-Ending with a colon. Subject lines that seem to say, "Hey, look at this:"
-Doom and gloom. Doom and gloom is “back,” the Bully Pulpit strategists agree: For a while, they said, every other Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee seemed to involve dire projections from Nate Silver that Democrats would lose big. For Democrats, dire warnings about getting outspent are popular, as are cautions about the nefarious designs of Karl Rove and the Koch brothers.
-Customized preview text. In most emails, the “preview text” -- the small bit of text visible after the subject line -- is simply the beginning of the email. But consultants are starting to customize the preview text and test for effectiveness.
|‘David Perdue owes us an apology’|
–Friends of Jack Kingston, 7/2/2014
Republicans, by almost universal acclaim, don’t dabble in subject line theory as much as their opponents. Democratic strategists say the GOP is newer to the email-fundraising game and lacks a deep bench of consultants to do it, borrowing more heavily from staid direct-mail aesthetics. They’re “far behind the curve” in online fundraising, one neutral strategist said.
Kurt Luidhardt, a Indiana-based GOP fundraising strategist who wheels and deals in email list rental and composes emails for dozens of House, Senate, and gubernatorial campaigns each election cycle, said it’s more about preference. None of his clients are asking for weird emails under their names.
“I generally get more requests for things like, ‘Hey, let’s do an email for my birthday,’ or that sort of thing,” Luidhardt said. “Are [Democrats] more advanced? I don’t think so. We just do things differently.”
Luidhardt doesn’t care much for this “hey” nonsense.
“I never could reconcile the fact that the President of the United States’ [persona], on an email, was that of a 13-year-old girl,” Luidhardt said. “If I’m writing, and I’m getting a little emotion, then I must be doing it right. That’s sort of the way I think about writing it, so does ‘hey you’ and ‘what’s up girl?’ from the president do that for me?”
–Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, 6/30/2014
There are weird emails, and beyond. Take the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, for instance: Supporters who’ve provided their email addresses but haven’t donated can expect etiquette-bereft messages like this one:
As it turns out, a supporter’s own behavior matters: Donations (or a lack thereof) can influence the tone of emails one gets. Luidhardt said firms sort supporters according to engagement and are willing to get a little more aggressive with those who’ve remained on the list but haven’t donated.
“Particularly if you haven’t donated, if you’re opening an email, you’re a hot prospect,” Luidhardt said, meaning groups and campaigns can get “crazier and crazier” with you.
“You’re on their list, and you haven’t given, so what can I do to shock you into action? Shame is one option. That should affect the subject matter you’re receiving. If you gave to the DCCC every month, you’d probably get, ‘We love you, join our monthly membership program, and get on a phone call with President Obama,” Luidhardt said.
The moral: donate, unsubscribe or endure. And, of course, the next wave of FEC-deadline-induced hectoring is only a month away. Not like the subject-line gurus would let you forget anyway.