Just over two weeks ago, we subscribed to the campaign email lists from candidates in 29 of the competitive House of Delegates and State Senate races we’ve been watching in Virginia. We received 18 days of emails from all of their campaigns (yes, that’s a lot of Gmail notifications) to see how their teams are using their email lists to convert supporters into donors and volunteers.
In total, we managed to sign up for the email lists of 55 out of the 58 candidates across our 29 districts. Over an 18 day period, 24 of those campaigns sent at least one email to their supporters, which is our (frankly, low) bar to be considered an active list. Across all of the lists, we received an average of 0.98 emails per list, but that number is dragged down by the majority of email programs that lay dormant. Among active email lists, we received an average of 2.25 emails per list between August 9 and August 26 – just about once a week.
Unbelievably, we didn’t get spammed.
The email programs for state-level campaigns are understandably less active than they are at the national level (presidential campaigns send multiple emails per day) — after all, even the most competitive state legislative campaigns in Virginia typically only have a handful of paid campaign staffers at most. There’s also no magic number for how often a campaign should email their list to optimize donations.
Still, the campaigns that either didn’t have an email list we could find an online sign up for or the ones that didn’t message their lists at least once over an 18 day period are neglecting a vital source of small-dollar donors and potential volunteers.
In general, Democrats were much better than Republicans at maintaining and communicating with their email lists. 28 of the 29 Democratic campaigns we tried to sign up for had an email signup form on their website and 15 of those email programs messaged their lists at least once between August 9 and August 26. Across all lists, we received an average of 1.39 emails per list, and across active lists, we received 2.60 emails per list.
Republicans, on the other hand, mostly neglected their email lists – even the active email programs were much less consistent in contacting their lists. We found email signups for 27 of the 29 Republican campaigns we tried to add ourselves to, but just 9 of these lists sent an email over the 18 day period. Across all lists, we received an average of 0.56 emails per list, and across active lists, we received just 1.67 emails per list.
The discrepancy between Democratic and Republican email programs likely reflects different priorities among political operatives in each party. As of the second quarter campaign finance report, 19 of the top 20 small-dollar fundraisers in House of Delegates races were Democrats – the only Republican in the top 20 was Tim Hugo, whose campaign is 13th. If small-dollar donors aren’t a major part of your fundraising strategy, it makes sense that Republican campaigns focus less on their email programs.
Source: Virginia Public Access Project
Below the top-line numbers, there’s a lot to breakdown throughout a prospective supporter’s experience with an email program. Partially inspired by the Conversion Funnel Teardownseries at Learn, Test, Optimize, we did a small breakdown of the email signup experience on our Virginia legislative campaigns.
The conversion funnel
Optimizing the signup experience for supporters is critical for converting supporters into donors. While handing over their email allows a campaign to continuously ask a supporter for a contribution, campaigns should do everything they can to convert a supporter into a donor right when they add themselves to the email list. After all, this may be the only moment a campaign has the undivided attention of a supporter – even though they’ve added their name to an email list, a campaign’s email program will then compete for attention with potentially dozens of other political email programs.
Two key features that even state legislative campaigns can implement on a limited budget are sending a welcome email to a supporter immediately after they sign up (ideally asking for a donation) and automatically redirecting email sign-ups to a donation page.
Shelly Simonds’ campaign did an excellent job of implementing both of these features. Immediately after signing up, supporters are automatically directed to an ActBlue page:
Supporters are also immediately sent a welcome email recapping her coin-flip defeat in 2017 and manages to fit four separate links to her ActBlue page plus a section to submit an express donation through ActBlue.
The Simonds campaign isn’t leaving anything on the table with their email program, but their campaign is the exception, not the rule. Both Democratic and Republican campaigns have lots of room to improve, but Democratic campaigns generally do a better job optimizing their email sign-up experience.
25% of Democratic campaigns sent a welcome email that was more than a default “confirm subscription” email, and 18% of Democratic campaign websites automatically redirected to an ActBlue donation page after a supporter filled out the email form.
FWIW, the Republican campaigns lag behind their Democratic campaigns on both features, with just 19% of campaigns sending a welcome email and only 7% of their websites redirecting supporters to a donation page.