The off-year isn’t an easy time to build an email list. It’s when your campaign has little-to-no budget and most people aren’t yet paying attention to your candidate.
Your list is important because it’s the foundation for all the work you’ll be doing later in the cycle. But where do you start?
If you’re working with a rock star candidate, it can be fairly easy to build an email list. For everyone else, you need a strategy. Let’s look at some ways to grow your list in the off-year.
Scour through old records
Have your candidate go through their personal email address book and social media accounts. A good place to start is their Christmas or holiday card list. Make sure they have current mailing addresses, phone numbers and email addresses for all their friends, neighbors and acquaintances. Moreover, some consultants are sitting on a treasure trove of data and don’t know it. Things like old donor or volunteer lists, stacks of business cards or email lists in, say, an old Constant Contact accounts can also form the basis of the your new email list.
When resurrecting old data, take the time to do a professional list cleaning. Many services will “verify” email addresses for a small cost, and make sure they’re deliverable. This is important because undeliverable email addresses are often turned into spam traps by major internet service providers (ISPs), and having too many on your list can hurt deliverability to the people who want to hear from you. Whether or not an email address is still active, major ISPs use engagement levels (how many people open and click on/respond to your mass emails) to determine whether to deliver your messages to inboxes or spam folders or a black hole.
After your spring cleaning is finished, gather all those lists together and import into them your chosen mass email software platform. If you don’t have a budget for technology right now, you can use MailChimp (free for less than 2K email addresses). But keep in mind, though, MailChimp may not be the best tool once the campaign hits full swing.
Once you have a starter email list, you should also get social media accounts set up. Facebook/Twitter/LinkedIn all have the ability for you to upload an email list and see which people on your list are also on the service, so you can friend request them. Your campaign will strengthen its relationship with supporters by communicating with them on multiple platforms as your messages may be missed if you stick to just one.
Make it mobile
It’s important that people on mobile devices can easily interact with your content, sign up for emails or to volunteer, join you on social media, and make small dollar donations via their cellphone or tablet. Mobile audiences are ever increasing, and you’re leaving supporters (and money) behind if you don’t make it as easy as possible for them to join you no matter what device they’re using. Note that many reporters on the go are using mobile devices too, so make sure that reporters on deadline will have a good experience on your site via mobile, and get the information they need to write their stories.
Even if you already have audiences circulating on social media and the web, you can’t assume that people will automatically choose to sign up to get emails from your campaign. We live in a world that’s saturated with political email, and unfortunately most people aren’t going to rush to get more. As a result, you’ll need to keep asking people to sign up for your email list and give them a reason to do so.
Just asking someone via Facebook or Twitter to sign up for campaign updates won’t motivate them unless you make the benefits clear. That could be appealing to their desire to be informed: “Sign up now for breaking updates from the campaign, exclusive invites to events in your area and more, based on your zip code.”
Or ask for their help: “In order to win our election next fall, we need all hands on deck. This election will be close, and we can’t do it without you. Please sign up for our email list now and we’ll keep you informed on how you can make the difference.” Ask at least once a month because you can’t assume every supporters saw the message on social media the first time.
Create a cause
You can also use online advocacy in the off-year as a list-building tool. If your CRM (customer relationship management) software offers petitions or direct online advocacy, then you can do issue-based work that will appeal to your supporters to take action (and also give you their updated contact information). Note that people are getting more and more cynical about this tactic because so many campaigns use it just as a list-building ploy. Make sure you’re respecting your supporters’ intelligence, and that your advocacy work has a real external reason for being.
You should be able to explain how taking an online action will help you solve the problem the action is about. Think through all the steps to get from point A to point B, if point A is signing a petition and point B is achieving your end goal. An online action doesn’t have to solve the entire problem, but it does need to be a concrete step on a path towards making a difference on the problem. Make sure you plan a delivery of the petition to the targets in question, and next steps to turn up the heat on the decision makers.
Put your money where you want your email to be
If you have the budget for it, paid advertising can be a great source for list growth. Facebook and Twitter advertising can allow you to target people who are fans of your campaign and you can use exclusion lists to disregard people who are already on your list (so you’re not paying to reach people that are already with you).
You also can use “lookalike” targeting to go after people who are similar to supporters already on your list, which can greatly increase return on investment. Social media also has very low startup costs and you can set the size of your budget based on however much (or little) you have to spend in the off year.
Blogs are another good source for list building. The audiences may be smaller overall than in the heyday of the last decade, but they’re a great way of getting your message to local, likeminded activists.
If you have a larger budget, there are great services like Care2, Change.org, Democrats.com and LeftAction that’ll let you target online advocacy to likeminded supporters and pay CPA (cost per acquisition) instead of cost per click or CPM (cost per thousand impressions). These four services are open to liberals. If you’re with a Republican campaign you can still look at Change.org, which is bipartisan, and there’s a brand new service called StandUnited.org that aims to be the Republican equivalent. The more you geotarget your list acquisition through a paid CPA service, the higher the rates you’ll pay – so you will find it more affordable to get national names than names in a particular state, or metro area.
Consider partnering with likeminded campaigns and organizations, and doing a joint action or swap. But you must be very careful with this technique: once your list is substantially shared with another organization, then there may be all kinds of unforeseen effects. Is the other group or groups going to share it further? Will they treat the list with respect? This is a quick growth source, but it can open up your supporters to mistreatment if you’re not careful.
Many campaigns have substantially the same email lists these days because of so much joint activity, and it means increasing list fatigue for all. Be very careful when sharing your list because your supporters must be treated with respect and feel that you’re treating their contact information with respect, or there could be blowback on your campaign.
Now is a great time to get your house in order. Keep in touch with your supporters via all mediums and methods of conversation, and put information out at least once a month so people know you’re still active and involved.
Laura Packard is a partner at PowerThru Consulting, a Democratic digital strategy and web development firm.