Interesting Christian Science Monitor piece on the hazards of email miscommunication. Not specific to politics, but something to keep in mind for every kind of email interaction.
One of the original goals of BlueBroward.org was to allow members to create volunteer profiles that they could share with campaigns they wanted to support. This feature has never been used as much as I’d like, but I still have high hopes that it could be useful as we go into the Fall elections and gear up for 2008.
The idea is that your profile is supposed to be a sort of volunteer resume, with the essential information about how to contact you as well as a summary of your skills and the issues that matter to you (your selection of the checkboxes in the issues section of the profile also feed the “Top Issues” section on the home page). So in this respect, BlueBroward is supposed to function sort of like one of those career Web sites where you prepare an electronic resume that you can submit to multiple employers.
The “New & Improved” part is that I’ve worked on making the system easier to understand and easier to use.
The new Campaign Listings page features a bright red white-and-blue “Join Campaign” button.
Clicking on that takes you to the sign up screen —
— and I’ve added an opportunity to add a message to the campaign up top. If you’re already a BlueBroward.org member, I ask you to login first. Once you’ve entered your password, you’ll be returned to the campaign signup screen with your profile filled in:
So at that point you would make any updates, maybe add a message to the campaign (like, “The next couple of weeks would be good if you’d like me to go door-to-door or do phone banking, but after that I’ll be on vacation”) and click Submit.
The campaign will then get your information via email, with a cheery “Here’s someone who wants to be part of your campaign!” at the top.
So that’s the big idea here. It was inspired partly by the experience I had (and I know I wasn’t alone) finding it much harder than it should have been to volunteer for the 2004 Kerry-Edwards campaign. I got the impression that the campaign, or the party, or maybe both, weren’t very organized. So with the encouragement of some other grassroots workers, I set up BlueBroward.org as a way for the volunteers to organize themselves.
Now, I don’t mean to reopen arguments about what went wrong in 2004 and whose fault it was. Maybe there were just too many votes aligned against us, and nothing anyone did in Broward County would have made a difference. Let’s just make sure we’re as organized as we possibly can be going into these next rounds of elections. I’m doing my part to help the best way I know how.
I’m happy to report that we now have a listing for Sen. Bill Nelson’s reelection campaign, something I’ve been trying to get for months.
I ask the campaigns to submit a short blurb, as well as some contact info, so I need their cooperation to do it right.
Why does Bill Nelson need a listing here, when he has his own Web site? Well, to help you find his campaign Web site, for one thing. Directories are one of the things the Web is really good for (that’s where Yahoo! got its start) and even in the age of Google they have something to recommend them.
This is also supposed to make it easier for you to submit your BlueBroward profile to the candidates who are listed here. (On my to-do list: making that easier).
This is a perfect example of how even big campaigns sometimes miss on the basics of email communication. So I’m scanning through my email on a busy day, and it contains a mix of spam and commercial promotions. I make my living as a tech magazine writer, so some of the promotions are legit, such as press releases from companies I maybe should be paying attention to. There are also a couple of political emails in this batch. Can you spot them?
The one that jumps out more is Martin Kiar’s (good job, Martin), because it includes little details like the name of the candidate. But the other is from a much more high profile campaign, Jim Davis for Governor. Except I don’t know that until I actually open the message.
This is what I see then:
OK, up until now the only way I’d know this was from the Jim Davis campaign is if I recognized the name Jennifer O’Malley. No disrespect intended, as I assume she’s an important person in the campaign. But sorry, no name recognition here. And that subject line, “And we’re off!” could be anything. In my world, could definitely be a publicity person writing about the launch of a new product. Could be one of those messages telling me that some stock is about to take off and wouldn’t I like to get in on the ground floor? In other words, it’s a message I’d be inclined to ignore and maybe even delete unread.
Now that I have the email open, I can see that the email is from jimdavis2006.com, and the candidate’s name is in the first sentence, so now I know why I’m supposed to pay attention to this. Still not as eye catching as it’s supposed to be because by default my email program doesn’t display images (a defense against certain spam and hacker techniques).
So it’s not until I tell the software I trust jimdavis.com that I see the message in all it’s glory:
Having the images displayed wasn’t critical in this case, which is good. The worse thing that I’ve seen campaigns do is send out something like an event information where all of the information is embedded in an image file. Often this is done because someone has come up with a cute graphical treatment that they’re proud of, but the consequence is that if image display is turned off, all recipients see is a blank message. There are technical ways to work around this (alternative text that can be displayed if the image isn’t), but you really have to work at making sure that, no matter what, your message gets through.
In case it wasn’t clear, the point of this critique was not to say anything bad about the Davis campaign, just to emphasize how important it is to identify campaign emails clearly enough that email recipients can see at a glance why they should open your message.
Here’s the way it works, or at least is supposed to work, in newspapers:
- Editorial content appears on the editorial page
- Regardless of the opinions expressed on the editorial page in favor of one candidate or another, everyone’s supposed to get a fair shake in the news pages
On BlueBroward.org, anything that appears in my blog or any other blogs here that takes sides in, for example, a Democratic primary is “editorial page” content.
The campaign and event listings that appear elsewhere on this Web site are more like “news” content, presented without bias. In fact, it’s not a perfect analogy because most of those items are submitted by the campaigns themselves or by local Democratic groups. Really, what I’m trying to offer here is more a set of communications and community building tools than an editorial product. But the point is, this is supposed to be a level playing field for any legitmate Democratic candidate, regardless of whom I or any other “editorial page” writer might favor. The only bias here is supposed to be a bias in favor of Democratic victory.
Is that clear enough?
Candidates interested in reaching lots of people cheaply via email tend to want to be pretty aggressive in terms of who they send to, but that aggression can backfire (getting you on spam blacklists that in turn prevent you from getting your message through to those who do want to receive it).
Check out this posting at Mandate Media’s Politics and Technology blog.
Happily, one of the eggregious examples they point to is the Charlie Crist campaign’s practice of adding people to its lists at random and ignoring requests to be removed from the list. But don’t doubt for a minute that Democrats have been guilty of the same overreaching. To be honest, these clips are making me rethink some aspects of how email has been handled in campaigns I’ve been involved in as well.
Campaigns and other political organizations, like most organizations of every type these days, have made use of the Internet integral to their operations. But they don’t always do a good job of it. I’ve been known to make some mistakes of my own, of course, but there are certain principles of how I think Web sites and email campaigns ought to be run that I’d like to explain in this space from time to time.
A very basic thing that I often see done poorly is email communication between a campaign and its constituents or a political organization and its members. In particular, one error can make your email a failure before it’s ever read – failing to identify yourself and your message in the email Subject line and From address. If you can’t do that, your email is likely to blend in with the background noise of spam clogging everyone’s inbox and either be deleted unread or just be ignored (possibly until after the date of the fundraiser or election or other event you were trying to alert recipients to).
The worst case would be something like this:
Subject: about tomorrow
Definitely looks like spam, doesn’t it, even though firstname.lastname@example.org might be someone important writing from a personal email address. To make it just a little worse, this person could also leave the subject line blank, a bad habit I see from a lot of folks.
But consider even something like this:
From: John Bowden <email@example.com>
Subject: Our Meeting Tomorrow
This is a made-up example, but I’ve seen things just like this from campaigns (including some I worked on) and Democratic clubs and other groups whose messages I care about. The problem with this message is that if I don’t instantly recognize the name on the “From” line, I might think it was spam. One of the insidious things spammers have done in recent years is craft the subject lines of their messages in the form of routine communications you might receive from a friend or associate, such as “follow up” or “Our Meeting Tomorrow.”
Maybe this is an important message. It might be the secretary of my local Democratic club announcing that a speaker I’d really like to see will be at tomorrow’s meeting. It might be the volunteer coordinator for the campaign saying that tomorrow’s meeting will be at the library instead of the coffee shop, a last-minute change. But if I’m having one of those days where there are hundreds of messages in my email inbox, and this person hasn’t achieved instant name recognition with me, this would not be one of the first messages I’d read, if I’d read it at all.
Some people can get away with this. When I get one of those messages that has “John Kerry” on the From line, yeah, I know who that is (I still might not read it, but that’s another issue — a little late for you to be campaigning hard, isn’t it, JK?).
But unless you’ve run in a national presidential campaign, you probably shouldn’t assume that every recipient of your broadcast email is going to instantly recognize your name. I don’t think the state party chair should be making that assumption, for example, and I definitely don’t think the local Democratic club secretary should be.
Now, if you’re the candidate, obviously you’re trying to build name recognition. But still it would be better to have the From line be
From: John Bowden for Mayor <firstname.lastname@example.org>
From: John Bowden for Mayor <email@example.com>
The point is that somehow you’ve got to set the context, whether for a campaign or a meeting of your organization or whatever, just from those two pieces of information — From and Subject.
In addition to / instead of putting the info in the From line, you can get it into the Subject line, as in:
Subject: Tamarac Democratic Club Meeting Tomorrow
Subject: John Bowden Campaign Meeting Tomorrow
Some mailing list software will automatically insert an identifier, often between brackets, at the start of the message. For example, I used the Web site domain as sort of a short hand identifier for one of the campaigns I worked on:
Subject: [electscottjbrook.com] Saturday March 19 Meet and Greet
There are other things you can do in the body of the message to identify your candidate or cause more thoroughly. But if you don’t do it with the From and Subject lines, recipients may never get that far.