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[Op-Ed] Your In-Box is Personal, and That's What Makes Email Powerful

BY Martha Patzer | Wednesday, December 3 2014

Joe Rospars recently wrote in Time about the perceived “creative crisis" in the Democratic Party, a debate about online fundraising, and the responsibility writers, digital directors, and even candidates have to the creative direction of a campaign.

Joe's answer -- “Don’t be lame” -- is a great place to start. But it doesn’t answer the why:

Unlike those TV ads, email is personal.

We protect our inboxes fiercely. They hold our receipts, recipes, invitations, job applications unanswered, flirtations unsent. Not even our partners or friends get access. Unlike social networks that encourage us to put our stuff out there for the public not just to see but to evaluate, your inbox is private. We can't predict what Facebook will do with its algorithm. But we can always sign up, unsubscribe, block, filter, even start over entirely, with email.

You’re in control, so there’s a rightful expectation that an email in your house (or inbox) is something you invited in. It's how an email to me from Barack Obama, that presumably went to millions of other people, is still a personal message. An email to me from J Crew, even if I’m unaware of it, acknowledges my preference for styles, colors, and not freezing in Chicago. (November 16 subject line: "Whoa. It got cold out.")

Online retailers have embraced this concept ahead of political campaigns, and they've got the data to back it up: the inbox is personal.

This year, it didn't always feel like home. Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi came around begging at all hours, in all caps. There were unsubstantiated promises of triple -- and quadruple! -- matching funds. All hope was lost.

This strategy rejects the inbox as personal property.

When brands, campaigns, or candidates exaggerate, or fail to acknowledge recent actions (like donations), or send an email from the President that doesn't sound like the President, they reject the inbox as personal.

It's not simply a question of volume. In 2012, the Obama campaign sent more than 20,000 segments of email over 19 months. We tested "more email" as a tactic, and made a choice to send a lot more email, without sacrificing the OFA brand. We started from the assumption that every message -- in addition to the immediate, tangible goal of raising money or recruiting volunteers -- was a chance to build or break trust with the list.

Why did we make this assumption, instead of testing it, as David Karpf suggests?

Because we tested (nearly) everything else. Even with a 21-person email team and the largest political list in the country, time, staff, and sample size were limited resources. We had to make choices about what to test, and those decisions mattered to us as much as the results. We started with more personal emails and optimized from there. Realistically, no campaign manager is going to choose brand-optimization over making more money today. The question is: how do you build a program that does that and also lends itself to long-term engagement.

On September 30th, 2012, we sent an email from our finance director, Rufus Gifford, with the subject line "Holy moly!!!" It was our last deadline, and Rufus (read: the email team) was beside himself. After 19 months of fundraising, he'd poured his heart and soul out, and maybe used a few more exclamation points than usual. But Rufus's descent into deadline-madness was a year in the making. In his first email in September of 2011, he talked about what he ate, not calling his mom, and the real pressure he felt around these deadlines. He was disarming and personable, like Rufus is in real life, and he made a connection with individual readers, in millions of inboxes.

That first email from Rufus Gifford raised $800,000.

It's difficult to argue with the data on an individual A/B test on any given day, and, as Joe put it, email writers "just want to get through the cycle and help the good guys win." They work around the clock. "More email" is the new normal because it works.

But what those emails say is always a choice, and in an election cycle that begins 20 months out from E-Day, long-term is relative.

4.4 million people gave to the Obama campaign between April 4, 2011 and November 6th, 2012. They gave an average of $53, and donated an average of three times. When the presidential campaigns send their first email for 2016, they will need their best people to donate, volunteer, and stay tuned in for a long time, perhaps 20,000 segments of email worth of time. They'll have to raise the most money possible from small-dollar donations, and stay relevant, smart, urgent, funny, and honest.

Viewing that choice as zero-sum is limiting, and disregards the people we're counting on to win.

In Nora Ephron’s You’ve Got Mail -- an amazing movie about the power of email! -- Joe (Tom Hanks) visits Kathleen Kelly (Meg Ryan) at her home to apologize for putting her out of business. He told her it wasn’t personal.

Kathleen Kelly: All that means is that it wasn't personal to you. But it was personal to me. It's personal to a lot of people. And what's so wrong with being personal, anyway? ... Whatever else anything is, it ought to begin by being personal.

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Martha Patzer is a Vice President at 270 Strategies. She was deputy email director for Obama for America in 2012. Follow her at @marthapatzer.