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Let’s talk politics! Wait — don’t worry, we’re not going to take sides. Instead, we take a look at the email marketing strategies of the major candidates, Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and Donald J. Trump.

What's in this article?


Who is doing email marketing right and who could stand to improve?

More importantly, how can you apply these same lessons to your nonpolitical email marketing campaigns to see better campaign performance and higher conversions? That’s our topic today.

1. Email Marketing Is Effective

The first point to note about political email marketing is that it’s very effective. Barack Obama’s reelection campaign in 2012 raised approximately $500 million through email marketing. That tally represents 90% of 2012 Democratic campaign donations. Experts expect the 2016 election cycle total for all candidates to bring in around $5 billion in donations. Email is expected to bring in the lion’s share of that total.

“When you go to check your email, you’re already prepared to make those action-based decisions, in a way that isn’t true when you’re scrolling through your [Facebook] timeline,” Toby Fallsgraff, Obama’s 2012 email campaign director, told NPR in December. “Something you’ve received might cause you to pull out your credit card.”

2. Personal and Relevant Works

Return Path, an email marketing research firm dubbed “the Nielsen of email,” found that the more personal and relevant an email from the Hillary Clinton camp was, the more likely it was to be read.

The best open rate came from “reaction to news” emails, with subject headings like “What did you think of last night’s debate?” This type of email got an open rate of 23% according to an analysis by NPR. Second came personable email invitations, like Hillary’s “dinner?” “Bill wants to meet you” and “dinner!” subject heading emails. A Clinton email invitation signed by Hollywood star Drew Barrymore with the heading “I’d love to meet you and your family” also fell in this camp. These emails averaged 17% open rates.

The overall lesson for marketers is that email works best when marketers understand the immediate, intimate, and personable nature of the medium. “Ultimately you’re able to have a one-on-one conversation with an individual, rather than blasting a conversation to the masses,” noted Jordan Cohen, CMO at Fluent.

3. Best Practices Avoid Spam Problems

It’s often said there’s “best practices” and then there’s the “real world.” But in some situations doing things the right way is a must. Take Donald J. Trump. He put off building an effective email marketing machine for the most of the primary season. He went big in June with a “tremendous” email marketing rollout. But most people on his list never saw this message.

His first campaign email message had an unbelievable 60% spam rate, according to Return Path. A further 6% deleted it without reading it and only 12% opened it. Trump’s other campaign emails have also suffered from a “very high” spam rate of 7.9 percent, according to AdAge.

AdAge notes that Trump changed URLs in June from to and began his fundraising campaign from there. “Since it’s a new domain he’s being penalized,” noted Tom Sather, senior director of research at Return Path. “These are things that professional email marketers prepare for,” he added.

That 12% open rate is far below the 22.84% benchmark for political emails. AppBoy’s Relate Magazine adds that poor list management, lack of IP warming, and nonexistent audience segmentation also didn’t help the businessman’s fundraising attempts.

4. Frequent, Small-Dollar CTAs Work

Done right, email marketing works. And with the right touch, you can raise an awful lot of money. In June, the Seattle Times noted Bernie Sanders may be out of the running, but he’ll go down as the best “panhandler” email marketer to date.

Bernie managed to convert a huge number of email subscribers into primary campaign donors — 110,000 Washington state donations per the Seattle Times through the end of May. That’s nearly triple Hillary Clinton’s 30,000 Emerald State donations during the same time frame. In 2012, Obama had managed just 29,000 donations over the same duration in a year that the President set records for online fundraising. The paper reports Trump had earned just 314 donations from Washington residents through May.

Frequent email asks have been important for Sanders. On big primary days, he’d send out 4-5 short messages, never asking for much beyond his famous average haul of $27. This volume is common across all campaigns. An Alto Mail survey found 41% of respondents got 6-10 campaign emails a week, while 26% got 11-20 per week. This strategy worked great for Bernie, who the Seattle Times says raised $220 million nationally, from more than 7 million individual donors.

Email Lessons Learned

For candidates, doing email marketing right was crucial. There’s proof that email marketing is one of the most effective ways to nurture leads and win sales because the audience is primed to respond. A one-on-one message tone gets the best response from readers. Frequent and small-dollar CTAs worked for Sanders and may work for your business, too. And lastly, please follow best practices for your own sake and the sake of other email marketers out there. That goes for big-time political candidates as much as small mom and pop businesses.

Need help with your business’s email marketing strategy? Call us at 313-338-9515 or email to learn how our full-service digital agency can help.