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Questioning the Efficacy of Email Campaigns

BY Joshua Levy | Friday, October 13 2006

A tussle has developed among top political communications vendors over a study commissioned by Capitol Advantage that claims that thousands of emails citizens send to Congress aren't reaching Congress at all. If true, this would be a major disappointment to anyone who has been prompted to send Congress an email in support of a political cause.

As Jeffrey Birnbaum of the Washington Post recently noted, the study claims that six of the top 10 companies that send these emails to Congress not delivering even half of the emails they're claiming to deliver. Who has the best delivery rate? Capitol Advantage, the commissioner of the study, with a 97.3% delivery rate!

Two notable organizations -- Democracy in Action and BIPAC -- came out on the bottom, both with 0% delivery rates. Democracy in Action protested the report, noting that their software "has long passed to congressional web forms addresses that pipe replies back to our own network as opposed to the sender's actual email." In response, Capitol Advantage added a disclaimer to their report: "DIA claims that it sends e-mail using an e-mail address that is different than the one provided by the sender. Accordingly, the study can not track deliverability for them." Nevertheless, Capitol Advantage still lists a glaring "0%" next to the DiA entry in the report's chart.

In addition to questioning Capitol Advantage's methodology, what should we make of these claims? Are thousands of emails on behalf of various interests being sent to Congress in vain, and are these vendors guilty of deceiving activists into thinking their voices are being heard?

Some think so. Pam Fielding, president of E-Advocates, is demanding an "Online Activists Bill of Rights" that would guarantee that activists' emails are getting through to Congress.

If constituents go online to communicate with their elected officials, there’s a significant responsibility on the part of the vendor community—and the organizations that hire them—to ensure those messages are delivered. It is not too much to ask for vendors profiting from the advocacy community to demonstrate their ability to deliver communications with a high degree of success.

She also calls into question less-than-transparent behavior like replacing activists' email address with special email addresses provided by the vendor and faxing emails to Congress (as BIPAC does).

Birnbaum, however, raises an important question:

Is it a good or a bad thing that interest groups gin up large numbers of their members to e-mail messages to Congress?

Is it too easy to do, and therefore not valid? Or is it Democracy in action in the modern day?

The problem, says Birnbaum, is that Congress often fails to take these emails seriously, instead choosing to believe that "all mass mailings are fake and can be easily disregarded." Perhaps there's more here than vendors' supposed inability to get emails through to Congress: even if the vendors do their jobs right, there's no assurance that Congress will actually read their constituents' emails.

Birnbaum is right; this is about democracy in action. While we should certainly hold vendors responsible for claiming to put citizens in contact with Congress, we should also hold Congress responsible for responding to its citizens. If email is the best way to initiate a two-way conversation with Congress, we need to be looking for better solutions.

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