Online Advocacy Tools: Email Lists

Updated January, 2011

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If you’re an online organizer, your activist list is often your most precious possession outside of your website — its members are your supporters, your regular readers and frequently your source of precious cash. You’re likely to spend an enormous amount of effort building the list, and you SHOULD spend a lot of time thinking about how to maintain it. Traditionally, email has been the primary tool for keeping in touch with supporters, but as Facebook, Twitter et al become more prominent and email deliverability become more of a problem, email may find itself dethroned in the future. As of this writing, though, email is still by far the most widely used online supporter-contact tool — despite constant predictions of its imminent demise.

[As an aside, back in 2000 I briefly flirted with a national campaign for a certain third-party candidate, but the dalliance ended for good when they lost a hefty chunk of their activist list to a server crash — I was already a little turned off by what seemed to be a dangerous level of disorganization, and I ran away in disgust when they didn’t even have a backup copy of the one database they desperately needed to hold on to. Anyway…]

What About Listservs?

Though we’re going to spend most of this chapter talking about blast-email lists, which campaigns use to send messages from a central source to many subscribers at once, interactive email-based discussion groups are also a valuable tool. Listservs have been around since the early days of the ‘net, and as of 2011 they’re still going strong — I belong to several back-channel discussion groups composed of online campaigners and communicators, and many, many similar communities connect activists, journalists and bloggers. One example, the reporter-heavy Journolist, even blasted into the news in 2010 when messages featuring comments from a prominent libertarian blogger appeared in public and angered his conservative colleagues enough to cost him a writing gig at the Washington Post.

Besides illustrating the danger of putting ANYTHING online that you wouldn’t want printed on the front page of the New York Times, this episode demonstrates the continuing utility of an old tool. Campaigns should look for opportunities to join existing communities to learn from others and connect with important or influential voices, and in some cases it will make sense to start a new discussion group or listserv to connect with and organize activists.

The Basics of Email List Management

Back-channel messages and listservs can be useful, but campaigns typically focus on email’s power as a mass-communications tool. Let’s look next at some basics about lists and list management.

List-management software

You can run a small list through a normal email program (BCC your recipients, please, to protect their addresses), but it’ll become a serious pain once you reach a certain size. Even worse, you’re likely to see at least some of your messages get caught in spam filters. Better option: plenty of companies will be happy to provide specialized software help you with mass emails, as we discussed earlier. At the very least, you should be able to find a system that automates the subscription/unsubscription process and allows people to update their information without having to go through you (not that that will stop them from asking you, the needy bastards). (For a more-detailed examination of mass-email/Constituent Relations Management software, see the “Tools, Time and Resources” chapter in the Winning in 2010 guide.)

One note: be sure that YOU keep ownership of your names and email addresses, not your provider — a serious problem historically in working with Yahoo groups.

The next step up the ladder is to move to a system that also lets your list members send emails to their congressmembers or to other targets (governors, federal/state agencies, corporate CEOs) that you specify. These modules will match people to their elected officials by zip code and generally will let them edit a sample letter or even assemble a letter from suggested snippets of text that you provide. Many of them, particularly if they’re designed for political candidates, will allow you to raise money as well. More sophisticated systems plug social networking outreach, email and even text messaging together to reach supporters through whatever channels they prefer.

We’ll discuss some secrets for effective email advocacy below, but for now keep in mind Two Golden Rules of email organizing: if you’re contacting Congress or another representative body, you generally should only let people contact their own legislators through your system (rather than spamming all of Congress). Second, that a personally written email is much more effective than a mass message — the value of an online action is often inversely related to how easy it is to take.

List Building

The big question for many organizations and campaigns — how do you build a list from nothing? The frequent answer — by ruthlessly promoting yourself and never missing an opportunity to get someone’s email address in the process. Most of the time, your main source of new list members is your website, and successful campaigns make every effort to convert casual visitors into active supporters.

EVERY page on your website should have a signup button at the very least, for instance, and it’s even more effective for every page to have a little blank that visitors can fill out with their addresses and start the process right there (generally, the more steps you put between the invitation to join and the actual joining, the more people you’re going to lose along the way).

Asking people to join is great, but if you have a full-scale legislative action module, it’s even better to have an action alert posted — people are on a page because they’re interested in the subject, so a standing alert (i.e., a link that impells them to “Tell Congress to Stamp Out Blue Fizzies”) lets you catch them when they’re in high dudgeon.

If your site covers a lot of subjects, try to have topic-specific actions for readers to take. If you don’t want to be bombarding Congress with random emails (they get more than enough as it is), try posting a petition or some other alert that doesn’t immediately send a message to a target — people will feel like they’ve done something, you’ll get new names, and you won’t be bothering that legislative staffer whose just a bit hacked off at being pestered by your messages. Shh, don’t tell — even if you never do anything with the petition itself, you’ll still have captured the names.

If you have staff or volunteers working with people in the real world (meatspace) rather than the virtual world, you can get them to gather names as well. Are you getting supporters’ names and phone numbers at local events? If so, snag their emails and add them to your database.

And as people spend more and more of their lives on Facebook and other online social networks, these have become potent sources of new email-list subscribers. As you build your fan base on Facebook, for instance, always think of ways to move people from the fairly loose connection they’ll have with you on the site (your updates won’t exactly be the only things in their news feeds) to a more robust connection via email. Post links to your actions on your profile as well as on Twitter, of course, but also try to integrate the actual alerts directly into your Facebook pages, a feature that online advocacy providers increasingly offer.

As an aside, I once worked with an organization that aimed to mobilize hunters for environmental advocacy, and they grew their list amazingly fast at gun shows and sportsmen’s events by offering signers a chance to win a free elk hunt. Of course, since folks signed up out of something other than zeal for the cause, not many of them were inclined to actually DO anything the group asked them to do or even to read the emails, but at least the list got built.

Another trick to remember is that advocacy itself can build the list — when you send an email alert out to your list, assuming that your system makes forwarding easy, enough of your activists will usually send it to their friends, neighbors and pets that your list will grow. Most of time, you’ll only see slight growth, but if you happen to catch a wave of public indignation you might see a massive spurt of signups — I heard a presentation in 2005 from a group that had gone from zero to over 100,000 names in just a few months (if I remember right) because of outrage over gay marriage (they were on the let-us-marry-dammit side).

Finally, if you need names and you have cash, you can buy them. If you’re on the progressive (lefty) side of the spectrum, companies like Care2 and do an excellent job of gathering names from their massive list of eager activists. Plenty of other consultants will be happy to work with you to build your list in exchange for large bags of cash. Always be sure that the names you buy are opt-in! (i.e., that people voluntarily agreed to be a part of your list). If you’re planning a big buy, you might try getting a smaller sample first and testing to see how well those names work (i.e., sending an alert or two and testing the response rate).

A second way to use money to build your list is through online advertising, which we’ll discuss in more detail in the appropriate chapter to come.

List Management

List management and list building are fundamentally intertwined — using the list the right amount can build it, but using it too much or in the wrong ways can erode it. Some basic observations:

Balance your message frequency

Too many messages and you risk burning out your audience, too few and they won’t remember who you are when you DO send. List exhaustion and list erosion are the twin enemies of email campaigns — exhaustion from too many messages, and erosion from email addresses joining the dinosaurs and Southern Democrats (i.e., going extinct) as your subscribers leave school, change jobs or just get sick of you. One message per week is pushing the limit for some lists, between two and four per month is about right for others, though if you have rabid supporters you’ll be able to bug them more often. Particularly around fundraising deadlines and Election Day, you’ll typically be able to deluge people with fewer consequences, since they’ll understand that respite is right around the corner.

Also bear in mind that most activists will burn out eventually, and that your list consequently is in a constant state of churn — jaded activists drop off, dewy-eyed newbies take their places. It’s part of the natural chain of life

Never forget that your subscribers are in it for what THEY want, not what YOU want

You may want them to open their wallets repeatedly and with the enthusiasm of a biker thug reunited with crystal meth after a long drought, but they probably joined your list just to keep up with your issues. If you ask and ask and ask without keeping their needs in mind, this relationship can’t last, you never buy me flowers and I’m leaving.

Keep a close eye on your statistics

Every time you send to your list, a certain number of people will unsubscribe. It’s usually not personal (they may be cutting back on emails in general, though I’d double-up on the deodorant just in case) but they’re lost to you nonetheless. If a certain kind of message tends to cause an unusual number of folks to bail, stop sending them! Or at least try to isolate what it is that’s causing them to abandon you.

For instance, when I was running the National Environmental Trust’s action list, I usually got about about a 1/5th of one percent (.2%) unsubscribe rate for an action message (i.e., “Tell Your Congressmember — Pass Some Bill or Another”). For email-newsletter-like issue updates that didn’t contain a call to action, that number would double or even triple. Clearly, our list was into pestering elected officials and not so much into hearing what we’d been doing around the office, so I became sparing with the update emails and much more profligate with the action alerts.

At other groups, you may find a very different situation — your monthly e-newsletter may have the highest average open rate of any of your full-list messages, meaning that your people are actually hungry for the issue updates. Every list is different, so watch those numbers carefully to see how yours behaves.

List members can be needy

They’ll often ignore your handy automated ways to take action, change their user profile or unsubscribe and instead will demand that you take care of these processes for them, which will usually take you approximately ten times as much time as it would have taken them to click on the damn link. They can also be quite rude in the process, particularly if they’ve forgotten that they signed up and think you’re some kind of spammer (this happens all the time).

Your job: suck it up and be nice to them — this IS politics, after all.. If you’re working for a candidate or an officeholder and they’re constituents, certainly be nice, but do so even if they’re casual supporters of your cause or fellow travelers. Your job is to change minds, and a rude answer to a list member or to anyone else who writes you does your cause no good — and you never know who’s about to slag you on a blog with thousands of readers. Remember your grandmother’s advice: if you don’t have anything nice to say, keep your mouth shut and do what you can to help smooth things over. At the very least, send a polite non-answer — you can quietly plot the recipient’s demise on your own time.

One final thought about email lists

Are they doomed to diminishing returns? Spam blockers are our enemies, for one thing, since they have the potential to cripple email advocacy (the spambot at one of my old day jobs sometimes caught our OWN advocacy messages, reminiscent of the early B1 bombers jamming their own radar).

Longer term, younger folks don’t seem to be using email as much as those of us over thirty (damn kids, get off my lawn). College students in particular live on Facebook and Instant Messaging, with email apparently seeming about as hip as spats and starched collars. As they move into the professional world, will it change or will they? My money’s on the latter, particularly as they get their hands on Blackberries, but we won’t know for sure for some time. Also, the sheer volume of email limits the effectiveness of each individual list — I don’t even KNOW how many lists I’m signed up for these days, but it’s a lot, and I don’t have time to read most of them.

Next: Blogs and Blogger Relations

Written by
Colin Delany
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  • “College students in particular live on MySpace, Facebook and Instant Messaging, with email apparently seeming about as hip as spats and starched collars.”

    Even Myspace is losing it’s effectiveness for building a list. The problem is mostly with the amount of time we as humans have to devote to this.

    I think the best method of building a list quickly and effectively is through the selling of a product. If you can offer 100% commissions to your affiliates, they are making money while putting buyers into your list. Once a person has proven that they are a buyer, they are more valuable than anyone else you could get on your list!

    Want to know another reason emails are getting less attention? Throwaway email accounts. The ease of getting an email account at yahoo, hotmail and many other places makes it almost impossible to know whether the email address someone gives you is valid or a throwaway that will be full and abandoned within a week.

    The solution? At the earliest opportunity, get the postal address of each of your customers and send them an occasional postcard to get them back to your site for an update, a download or just for a greeting!

    Have an amazing day!

    Micheal Savoie