In case you missed it, now both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have ’email issues.’ Here’s a bring overview of the latter situation along with some tips for avoiding the rookie mistakes made by the Trump Campaign.

Mr. Trump’s problems are a little different from Mrs. Clinton’s — his revolve around deliverability caused by a gap in some basic email knowledge within his organization and/or its consultants. In a nutshell:

According to Return Path, 79% of the email messages sent by Paramount Communication Group on behalf of the Trump campaign were not delivered to the inbox. As a result of this and the spam complaints generated by the send Adestra, Paramount’s email service provider, suspended their account.

There were a number of things the campaign did that contributed to the deliverability issues. It appears that they did not warm up their IP addressess — it also appears that they purchased an email list that wasn’t well targeted.

Let’s talk in detail about the second one. 

According to reports the list included the email addresses of  British citizens (who can’t vote in the US election) as well as celebrities widely known to be liberals. This shows that it wasn’t well-targeted and pretty much proves that these people did not explicitly opt-in to receive email from the Trump campaign. Often times lists like this are compiled by “harvesting” email addresses — basically pulling them from websites and other sources without the owner’s knowledge or consent.

This isn’t the first time I’ve seen a political campaign get into trouble as a result of purchasing low quality email lists. Here’s the rub: bad as this all sounds, this campaign didn’t violate the letter of the law.

That’s because political campaigns are exempt from CAN-SPAM regulations. But did Congress intend to give them permission to harvest email addresses and knowingly send to lists built via harvesting, both of which are “aggregated violations” under CAN-SPAM?

When I first came upon a political campaign behaving in this manner, I spoke with Trevor Hughes, then executive director of the Email Sender & Provider Coalition and an attorney specializing in spam issues. He confirmed the harvesting section of the CAN-SPAM act was directed specifically at commercial emails and added, “There are strong protections on political speech, which extend to use of email. This doesn’t seem like an FTC issue, as they only regulate commercial email. It’s more a question of political speech.”

What do you think? Should political campaigns be prohibited from harvesting and using harvested email addresses? How about other “aggravated violations,” such as dictionary attacks (define)? Or should political parties, elected officials, and candidates adhere to the same CAN-SPAM guidelines commercial emailers are obliged to?

No matter where you fall on the questions above, you have to question whether this email program was a good business investment for the Trump organization. Reasonable questions to ask in this case include:

  • What percentage of the list met the list criteria specified in the contract? What percentage didn’t? How many unqualified names did the organization pay for?
  • What percentage of the list was harvested or otherwise gathered in a non-CAN-SPAM compliant fashion? How much of the organization’s budget went toward purchasing these names?
  • How much of the organization’s money was spent on the nearly 80% of messages that didn’t make it to the inbox?
  •  Was the potential upside of the email campaign justified by the downside of negative PR that they’re now getting?

Want to factor the email’s results into your decision about whether this was a sound business investment? Unfortunately, we don’t have information on revenue generated by this program. Because email is so cost-effective it’s possible that the campaign broke even or made money on this initiative — even with nearly 80% of the messages not making it to the inbox. But even if it made money in the short-term the long-term implications of this program are negative.

Want to avoid a similar fate? Here are some tips you can use, whether you’re a political campaign, an association, or a regular for-profit enterprise, to keep yourself and your organization out of these types of situations.

Protecting Yourself

The email list market, especially in the business-to-consumer (B2C) space, can be a minefield. You can’t work on faith and hope the people you’re dealing with are being straight with you. “Trust, with verification” is definitely the approach to take. Some best practices:

  • Build remedies into the contract. If something goes bad, what are your options? If the email addresses don’t match your target audience criteria, do you still pay for them? If the email addresses were harvested, do you still pay? If 80% of the messages don’t reach the inbox, do you still pay?You can add clauses addressing these types of concerns into the email list agreement, but this isn’t done very often. Some list companies push back on putting these types of things in the contract; they may not be comfortable “vouching” for the legitimacy of their email addresses. If this is the case, think twice about working with them.
  • Have the list owner handle the send — and make sure they have a good email reputation. Ask for the sending company’s name as well as the IP addresses of all the servers it sends from. Check them out. I like SenderBase because it aggregates information from a number of anti-spam sources. Look for recent issues; a spam complaint last week or last month is much more worrisome than one five years ago.
  • Be skeptical of below market rates. A rule of thumb is that renting (not purchasing) a legitimate consumer email list will run at least $100 per thousand for one-time use (you provide creative and the list owner handles the send). The good lists are never sold for unlimited use — it just doesn’t make sense for a list owner to do that. And if they are going to do it, you are going to pay a lot more than the one-time rental fee.You get what you pay for. The lower the price, the more likely there’s something not quite right with the list. Buyer beware.
  • Be completely comfortable with how the list is built. Confirm there was an explicit, knowing opt-in by registrants. Don’t just take someone’s word for it. Ask to see the Web page or the offline form that was used to obtain the opt-in.If you’re asking for very specific criteria, things like political affiliation, physical location or past activity, find out how this data was collected. Be sure the list source had a reasonable likelihood of being able to obtain the information. If you ask for something very specific, be skeptical if the vendor has “exactly that,” particularly if they have it in a large quantity.
  • Know whom you’re dealing with. Research everyone involved with your email initiative, including consultants, contractors, and vendors you deal with directly as well as their subcontractors, affiliates, and partners. A Google search is good; a SenderBase search (which you can do by IP address or domain) is better. Find out if they’re active players in the email community via their involvement with respected industry associations, online or print publications, or conferences.You can delegate tasks, but not responsibility. In the end, it’s your brand name that’s front and center on the email message, not your vendors’ or their subcontractors’. Be comfortable about putting your name out there with their work behind you.
  • Don’t be so set on doing email marketing that you shoot yourself in the foot. A lot of organizations stumble into questionable email practices that end up tarnishing their brands (or candidates). Many say they didn’t know any better. That doesn’t erase the damage.

Educate yourself. Reading my articles and those by the many other great email marketing folks out there on a regular basis is a good start. Get involved in industry groups like the Email Experience Council and Only Influencers. The more you know, the better you can protect yourself.


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