The Risks of Political-Style Email for Unions
I spent three weeks training labour union staff in the art and science of digital campaigns in November, December, and January. In our small group and one-on-one sessions, we talked a lot about the role of bulk email in engaging and mobilizing members and members of the public.
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A recurring theme was the staff’s hatred of the political-style email, epitomized by Canada and BC’s New Democrats, but no different than what you’d see from the Liberals or the DCCC in the U.S. Bulk email in this style is memorable for its volume (3-5 emails per day on many days), its use of incentive (“Donate NOW and your donation will be triple-matched!!”) and its nearly exclusive focus on fundraising.
For the record, I’m pretty aggressive on email and generally in support of the approach of the political-style the staff was railing against because I know that it works. Political campaigns are a zero-sum game where you need to squeeze everything out of your list.
That said, unions aren’t running political campaigns and there is a real, structural risk to importing the political-style model and applying it in another context.
In political campaigning, we often tolerate high unsubscribe rates as long as we’re acquiring new supporters at a higher rate, usually through petitions and other acquisition methods. For unions though, those unsubscribes are members. If that churn is costing you the ability to communicate with members for non-mandated communications then no acquisition can ever replace those unsubscribes.
Imagine this scenario for your union: you have a relatively stable membership of 50,000 members and working emails for 50% of those, so you’ve got a 25,000 member email list, no non-member emails. You want to start running public-facing campaigns more assertively using bulk email.
If you’re bringing in 5,000 new emailable supporters each month from your public-facing campaigns and you’re sending 20 bulk emails per month with some modest segmentation, and each of your 20 emails per month is averaging 10,000 recipients with an unsubscribe rate of 2% then you’re looking at 200 unsubscribes per send, or 4,000 per month. On a superficial level you’re looking at an emailable growth rate of 1,000 new people per month.
But if we project this out over 12 months across your list composition we see something like this (pardon my rough math):
Total List after 12 months
Month 1: 25,000
Month 12: 30,500
Month 1: 25,000
Month 12: 9,455
Month 1: 0
Month 12: 21,045
Within a year, you will have replaced 20,000 highly invested members with supporters who have less than a year’s contact with your union. As anyone in a union will agree, your members are your greatest asset. Churn and burn emails not only require a huge amount of internal capacity to run (delivering 5,000 new emailable supporters per month is no easy task), they can also have a terrible return on investment.
When you contract this approach -- which is ripped from U.S. politics -- to the ones taken by large digital-first or digitally savvy NGO’s (think Leadnow, Moveon.org, RAN etc.) you see an entirely different approach that has a clearer application to labour. In the digital-first model, organizations place longer term engagement and the development of leader-activists first, not acquisition and rapid conversion. They map out campaigns and align strategies and tactics that put supporters first. They make sure that those same supporters are able to see the how their contributions have assisted in the change they want to see and report back on progress.
Again, this isn’t meant as a take-down of political style email -- it makes a lot of sense in its context -- it’s a reminder that not everyone, and especially not union's, lives within that context.