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How Low Can You Go? Why the $3 E-mail Ask is Working

BY Micah L. Sifry | Thursday, February 16 2012

Panhandler in San Francisco, February 2008. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The first time I got an email from the Obama campaign asking me for a measly $3 contribution was back in October 2010. "Micah, I need you in the game," read the subject line, with "Barack Obama" as the sender. The ask made sense in context: the campaign was trying to pull as many people as possible back into action, and thus the absurdly low-dollar ask--coupled with a promise of a dollar-to-dollar match from another Obama supporter--didn't seem outlandish. If money is the mother's milk of politics, every drop counts--especially if the cost of scooping it up is ridiculously low as well.

Fast forward to today. We're bombarded with pitches for cheap apps, and when spending 99 cents on one is less than the price of a cup of coffee, lots of us are springing for them. The sweet spot for many e-books seems to be somewhere around three or four dollars, and some authors are reporting that when they cut their book price down to that level they more than make up in volume what they lose from the lower price. And guess what: My email in-box is clogged with politicians asking for a measly $3.

And it isn't just the Obama campaign. I've gotten similar asks in recent weeks from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, Credo Action, Grassfire Nation and Senate candidates like Kirsten Gillibrand. The Romney campaign sent me an email last night offering me the chance to "meet Mitt and watch the [Super Tuesday] results with him and other supporters" for as little as a $3 donation.

Two weeks ago, Karl Rove tried to turn the $3 ask against Obama. An email I got from the RNC titles "Deliver a Knock-Out Punch to the Campaigner in Chief" noted:

Check out what Karl said, "enthusiasm for Team Obama continues to drop and last Friday he got really desperate. How do we know? He lowered his donation request in a fundraising email to '...$3 or whatever you can afford' This from the 'greatest fundraiser in political history.'

But obviously something else is at work, or rather--campaigns are shifting to a $3 ask for potential new donors because it's working.

Matt DeBergalis, the chairman and founder of ActBlue, the Democratic donation-aggregation powerhouse, offered an explanation: The first donation, however small, makes givers into stakeholders.

Low dollar fundraising is a strategic move, one we've advocated for years. ActBlue allowed tiny $1 contributions long before that was typically permitted. We're seeing more campaigns and organizations taking the long view with respect to the grassroots.

You want people to be invested in outcomes. That first donation, no matter the size, creates a strong bond to the campaign. The small fundraising asks are a perfect first step: you get a lot of participation and a base of actual grassroots donors.

There's more, of course. Seth Godin, the author of many books on marketing, including "All Marketers are Liars," told me, "I think the reason for the superlow donation is simple: it earns the campaign permission to upsell."

I can't imagine any campaign is long-term enough and patient enough to settle merely for the emotional boost they get from a donation (you're way more likely to vote if you've donated even a dollar). No, I think they use it to double down, to say to the donor, "don't waste your donation, we need more!"

Permission marketing, at least until they get too greedy or too insistent. At that point, it might backfire.

DeBergalis agrees that campaigns have to be careful with these new microdonors. "It's a nurturing process," he told me. "The smartest campaigns invest in the grassroots to build a strong force, rather than mining their lists for quick bucks. To be sure, that strategy pays financial dividends from recurring contributions and future asks. But it also positions more supporters to be advocates, volunteers, organizers, and voters."

It remains to be seen if $3 donors really can be turned into more passionate supporters. Even if they can't, in the age of "big data," the smallest contributions not only add up, they add knowledge to the campaigns that are collecting them. Of course, as more people give to campaigns, it's also possible they'll expect more from them.

If you're reading this and you are a $3 donor to a campaign, add your story to the mix in the comments below. Why did you give? What happened next? And what are you hearing from or expecting from the campaign, now that you're a donor?