Comedy, Tragedy, and Your Campaign Email List

22 Oct

The subject lines were foreboding . . . terrifying . . . shocking . . . and ultimately irritating. As the Miami Herald’s Alex Daugherty put it, “for David Richardson’s congressional campaign every day is doomsday.” This was made evident by Richardson’s fundraising emails, their headings reading “we cannot afford this again,” “this is becoming dangerous,” and “REALLY REALLYYY BAD for Democrats!”

David Richardson was running in the Florida primary this year in the state’s 27th U.S. House district. He justified his method of hard-hitting subject lines because it seemed to bring in money—he was at one time ranked sixth out of 1200 Democratic House candidates in bringing in small-dollar donations. But Richardson went on to lose the primary to former U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala.

It’s not just inexperienced local candidates doing that kind of thing, by the way. Recently, the Democratic Party’s much-maligned Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) fell under fire for sending a fundraising email to supporters with the subject line “Mueller FIRED.”

Yeah, that’s pretty bad. And, I think it’s a slippery slope you risk sliding down the moment you let your creative energy fall into a “positive messaging/negative messaging” dichotomy. Philosopher and literary critic Kenneth Burke believed that humans are at our worst when we live in the “tragic frame,” pitting every conflict as a battle between good and evil where one side must vanquish the other. A more sustainable and less harmful position is the “comic frame,” where humans and our predicament are seen as more fluid and changeable, and every conflict doesn’t need to end in the annihilation of an enemy. Ultimately the comic frame, rather than the tragic frame, does a better job of making us feel like we have agency and responsibility to fix the problems in our political system.

So I think it’s not really about positive messages versus negative messages—at least not all the time. It’s about sustaining a conversation with your supporters, and bringing in more supporters. That requires good writing and a sense of being able to talk to voters as if they were normal, thinking human beings. It also requires good data.  

In fact, when I see campaigns relying only on these simplistic, dichotomous, fear-mongering subject lines, it makes me wonder how much those campaigns actually know about the voters in their district, or even their own supporters. It’s likely that they know relatively little about their voters’ age ranges, income levels, or the industries in which they work. Instead, such campaigns take the easy way out by relying on the quick fix of fear appeals yielding small-dollar donations. What these campaigns may not know is that there are data solutions for their lack of specific knowledge.

Accurate Append is a client of mine, but I also love their services: I use their email verification and append to create comprehensive voter contact lists that I can then use for surveys and other conversational methods of gathering information about voters in a district. But Accurate Append also has a Demographic Append service. This allows you not only to append your voter or supporter lists with accurate contact info, but also with updated demographic information, including estimated income and wealth, whether they have kids, marital status, age, how long they’ve lived in your district, whether they own their own home, and many other pieces of information.

It’s that knowledge about people—even if it’s just surface knowledge, even if it doesn’t tell you everything about who they really are—that is the gateway to writing good emails that go beyond just trying to scare the crap out of people or piss them off. Let’s say that after examining a voter list (that’s been supplemented with a demographic append service) that a large number of voters in a district are college graduates aged 25-40. Chances are very good that they will be concerned about student loan debt. Instead of writing a subject line like “OMG STUDENT DEBT WILL KILL US ALL!” and a hyperbolic email to match, you can title your email “A Serious Plan to Forgive Student Debt,” and let people know that your campaign is, well, serious. Readers can enter into the conversation with you. Your ask will not just be for money, but for a personal investment in your campaign’s focused approach to a policy issue your voters care about.

Sure, there are times to call your opponent, or your opponent’s party, out for doing and supporting policies and other things that are harmful. And sure, sometimes that call out shouldn’t be diluted and should totally be an uncompromising call to reject bad policies (or personalities) and embrace good ones. But even the fiercest battle cry will be more effective if the campaign has a deeper knowledge of the material, financial, occupational, and other circumstances of voters in the district. The more you know, the less likely it is that what you believe to be a powerful and attention-grabbing subject line will seem, to others, like silly, alarmist rhetoric.

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