When email gets political

There can be no
doubt Barack Obama rewrote the rulebook with his use of digital marketing
during the last US election. Catalysed by this success the UK’s political
parties have jumped aboard the bandwagon for the 2010 general election.

One of the main
elements of Obama’s campaign was email – a channel which many organisations
take for granted, as more fashionable platforms take centre stage. However,
used in the right way email is hugely powerful.

So how do the UK’s
political parties measure up in their use of email? In September 2008 I signed
up for e-newsletters from Labour, Conservative and the Liberal Democrats to get
an idea of how their canvassing approach would evolve.

Party Time

One of the most
crucial elements of all email strategies is the initial sign up and data
capture process. Done well, this part of the process can drive effective
communications and enhance the brand perception.

The Liberal
Democrats site offered a straight forward sign up option on their homepage and
I had received an email confirmation within 10 minutes – slick and impressive.
The Labour party’s sign up process seemed not to work. After submitting my
email address I was transported to another page that requested further address
details leaving me unsure as to whether my subscription had been successful or
not. Similarly, the Conservative’s process did not confirm my registration but
did offer me the opportunity to sign up for the mobile messaging service.

Round one to the
Liberal Democrats, but it did seem strange that none took the opportunity to
record my preferences and establish whether I was interested in canvassing or
contributing and what issues were important to me.

Revisiting the sign
up process 18 months later there were key
improvements all round. All took the initiative at sign up to raise awareness
of donating, joining and volunteering, giving me greater opportunity to add
more personal data, but I can’t help thinking they missed a trick by not doing
so earlier on.

Where’s the Frequency, Gordon?

Over the course of
the next two months, the frequency of contact helped clarify who was most keen
to engage my interest. A month after registering, I received my first
communication from Labour, but heard nothing from the Tories until a month
after that. Considering I received eight news bulletins from the Liberal
Democrats within the first month alone, it was clear the others had some
catching up to do.

obviously had other issuese to
attend to. In the first 16 months, over which I’d received 51 emails from the
Liberal Democrats and 72 from the Conservatives, the Labour party had only sent
me three emails. This could have been linked to another key area of email
marketing – deliverability. Labour emails may have failed to reach my inbox as
a result of poor ISP relations on sender reputation, but Labour simply didn’t
send many emails. Curiously however, the situation changed very swiftly. I
received three emails the following week.

Getting Personal

Despite their email
frequency, the Lib Dems initially overlooked a core aspect of email marketing –
‘from’ and ‘subject’ lines: two of the most important factors in compelling
recipients to open email. Their approach had changed by May 2009, when contact
came ‘direct’ from high profile MP’s. Soon after however, email volume began to

The Conservatives
used an obvious yet effective ‘from The Conservative Party’ line initially, but
began broadening their strategy within a couple of months, issuing emails ‘from
David Cameron’ to address specific issues or events.

In fact contact
from all three parties soon began to read like a list of political heavyweights
– including George Osbourne, Vince Cable, Gordon Brown, Ed Milliband, and Nick
Clegg. All recognised the importance of adding a personal touch. Labour
however, was the only party to request my name during the sign up process and
therefore was the only party to include a personalised salutation. The Liberal
Democrats made up for this with a ‘Dear Friend’ but the Conservatives issued a
generic message with no salutation.

Change is Visible

Another important
aspect of email is visual impact. Here the Conservatives are clear winners.
Their use of HTML is simple, uses a consistent style, regularly embedding
images and video content as well as copy. The Liberal Democrats seemed to take
notice, upping their messages’ from text to HTML – albeit basic and
inconsistent. However, Labour is the worst offender by far. Emails were text
heavy, devoid of images or video, offering little option to click through.

On the balance of
all evidence gathered, the Conservatives would appear the leaders of the pack
with consistent and visually impactful creative, reactive messaging and
integrated video. The Lib Dems can lay claim to a solid yet underwhelming
strategy with Labour straggling in third, hindered by inconsistent frequency
and poor branding.

While it’s clear that
all three organisations improved their overall approach to email, none can
really be congratulated on completely mastering the discipline. There are
numerous reasons why this may be the case, but the most obvious is a focus on
other more ‘fashionable’ areas of digital media – social networks and smart
phone apps. True to life, politicians are quick to follow the zeitgeist.

The key to any
successful campaign is integrated strategy, consistent messaging and individual
targeting. Email marketing remains a pertinent and influential platform and
continues to evolve alongside other forms of digital marketing. However, only
time will tell whether it will have a bearing on offline conversion rates when
voting booths open next month.

Richard Wright is EMEA marketing director at Epsilon