I’m not a junkie (anymore), but I am definitely interested in the political process. One of my undergraduate majors was Political Science and I spent a few years working in marketing at Congressional Quarterly back in the 1990s. While in college I also volunteered on a few campaigns, including the 1986 Scranton for Governor bid which is a bit infamous for the “Guru Ad” brainstormed by James Carville that most agree won it for the other side.

So I was interested to read that the Democratic National Committee (DNC) was being given carte blanche with regard to the Obama campaign’s email list. From the article:

“DNC officials declined to discuss the size of the list, but DNC digital director Matt Compton’s excitement at owning the list that helped Obama raise “more than $500 million” last cycle according to the Wall Street Journal was palpable in an interview at the DNC’s Summer Meeting. DNC officials said the list was the “largest political email list in the world.””

This appears to be the same list that was rented to a political nonprofit for a cool $1.2 million a year. I don’t know how many sends were included in that rental agreement or if the DNC will be renting the list to third-parties, but it’s certainly an asset that could have a positive impact on the DNC’s bottom line in more than ways than one. Notice I said “could” — not “will.”

Buzzfeed reports that this will more than double the size of the DNC’s email list. And it’s not just email addresses they’re getting — the list apparently comes with reported and observed data on each member, including contact preferences, which types of appeals moved them to donate and how much they gave.

But just as being allowed to use Roberta Vinci’s tennis racket wouldn’t guarantee that you could beat Serena Williams, having Obama’s email list doesn’t necessarily mean the DNC will be able to leverage it to its fullest. Here are three reasons why.

Reason #1: It’s Not Just About the List

When I am presenting on data I often reference a quote from Joe Rospars, the Chief Digital Strategist for Obama for America:

“Big data is about having an understanding of what your relationship is with the people who are most important to you and an awareness of the potential in that relationship.”

In order to fully leverage this list the DNC needs to have people on their digital team that “get it” the way Joe Rospars got it. It’s great to have all those email addresses and all that data — but if you don’t have a sound strategic and tactical plan for using it, as well as people who can execute on that plan, you won’t be successful.

Reason #2: The List is Aging

Email list attrition is estimated to be between 25% and 30% per year. It’s been nearly 3 years since the last Presidential election — and 8 years since it was first created in the run-up to the 2008 election. So there’s a good chance that many of these email addresses are no longer in use by their owners.

Has the campaign continued to actively solicit new members for the list? Have they continued to mail the list to maintain the relationships they built with subscribers? Has the renting of the list to third-parties caused members to unsubscribe? How the list has been treated and used in the nearly 3 years since the last election will impact it’s viability today.

One option to address some of the issues here would be to use an email change of address service like the one offered by FreshAddress — but that’s not necessarily a 100% solution.

Reason #3: These People Didn’t Sign-up for Email from the DNC

And, lastly, the elephant in the room — did you catch it? Permission. The people on this list were interested in, and hopefully actually opted-in to receive, information from the Obama campaign. Will they be as keen on hearing about — and donating to — other candidates?

The transferring of email lists from an organization that built them to another organization has become a privacy issue. In the recent Radio Shack case the Attorneys General of 38 states along with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) opposed the sale of customer data, including email address and 20+ other data points on list members, to a third-party. An agreement was reached, but there are similar issues with the transfer of the Obama list to the DNC.

Even if the DNC doesn’t face a legal challenge with using the list, permission isn’t transferable — if people on the list start reporting messages from the DNC as spam that could lead to blacklisting. This is the worst case scenario. The likelihood of this outcome would be greatly increased if the DNC doesn’t include a way for people to unsubscribe. While CAN-SPAM requires all commercial message to include a method to unsubscribe, there are protections on political speech which some legal experts interpret as making political campaigns exempt from all CAN-SPAM regulations.

The DNC might also see its missives treated as BACN, when people don’t unsubscribe but they stop opening and reading them. Or people might actually unsubscribe. While not a worst case, the more recipients who go these routes the less effective the list will be for the DNC. Only time will tell…


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