Comparing England’s eCampaigning

Funny – after the Presidential election in the US – I was expecting a very spirited online campaign effort in the UK – especially with a six-month build-up to the anticipated May 5th election date. And, as an interested party and a spectator – I have been watching the websites and on the three major party websites for the past month – ever since PM Blair dissolved Parliament. So, have the parties and campaigns leveraged the vantage point from across the pond to communicate to the masses via the Internet?

Basic Principles
Initially, the question is what does the campaign wish to accomplish with the Internet effort? In the Dean Campaign, it was (my assumption) to build the mailing list and then drive actions by the supporters to help the campaign in various forms (volunteer, donate, gather supporters). In the Kerry campaign, we refined this act by building the list, requesting support (first in terms of fundraising and then in terms of house parties and volunteer efforts). originated a lot of these concepts – derived directly from fundraising tactics – and took what many of the dotcommers said about the Internet: it is a way to get a distributed group of people to act in a unifed fashion. The best analogy I can derive is watching a swarm of bees – each individual one is moving in its own fashion, but the group looks like they are moving in a unified direction. By focusing on the desire of the group, the swarm can be generally lead in a direction that is along the gradient of their desire.

One comment made frequently in my conversations with English political players was that the “donation society” that exists in the United States would not translate to the UK’s “membership society” – Britons are used to paying for memberships, but are not frequently found to donate to charities or political parties (unless it is tied to a disaster or to a cute puppy/kitten). So, would requests for donations fall on deaf ears? And if so, how could supporters of the parties demonstrate their support aside from simply voting?

In email campaigns, there were a couple of lessons that improved the performance of email campaigns. They were:

  • Emails coming from “real people”, not systems or websites
    Instead of, emails from John Kerry or Mary-Beth Cahill were found to be much more effective in having people read them
  • Email subject lines that were engaging
    Instead of “Kerry News”, subject lines that were either evocative or directly relevant to the news of the moment would find readers much more inclined to open the emails and engage in action
  • Emails sent midweek (Tues, Weds, Thurs) and between 9am and noon
    Interestingly enough, Monday emails were often found to be caught in the deluge of the start of the week and emails sent from Friday noon to Monday were often lost in the spam that were accumulated over the weekend. Prime days were Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursdays in the morning after people had already read their emails from the day before.
  • Emails that focused on a problem, engaged the audience and offered an action
    In the MoveOn, Dean and improved Kerry emails, the reader was engaged in the campaign – a problem, an issue, a cause. Then the email lead to how the candidate would solve the problem or how he/she was a better alternative BUT it was the reader’s support that was needed to accomplish the goal. But the action was rarely “go and vote for XXX”, rather it was a smaller task – email others, sign a petition, sign up to volunteer or donate. Using the tools from the fundraiser’s toolbox, it is a small action that leads a supporter to make a bigger commitment. Rather than trying to close the deal at the beginning of the sales meeting, accomplish a small victory that have the supporter show their support – which makes it easier for them to follow the path to eventual action in the long run. The old adage of being cheaper to keep an existing customer than to find new ones runs the same philosophy.
  • Branding and keeping the content the focus within the email
    Once the Kerry website was revised, the emails were the next elements to be improved – to be in line with the website branding – and the other elements (address of campaign, extraneous content) were minimized. As the campaign moved forward, emails began to take a life of their own – John Kerry’s emails looked like “From the Desk of” and Mary-Beth Cahill’s emails were from the “Kerry/Edwards” campaign. The branding elements began to augment the look – but the focus was always the content of the message.

So – how are the English parties faring? Let’s have a look:

Labour – Benefiting from MoveOn, Dean and Kerry
On January 25th, a new form of email came the the Labour Party, addressed from Frasier Kemp, MP entitled “When pigs fly…”. After opening the email, I was provided a chance to vote for my favourite poster that would be used for the upcoming campaign – posters that had Michael Howard’s face on a flying pig and another which had him looking like Shylock in some graveyard site. Once you chose the poster, the supporter was then sent to the Labour website – where they could enter their postcode and submit their vote. An innocuous campaign designed to update the Labour Party member database with updated emails and postcodes – but became a media bonanza when the broadsheets listened to the Conservatives crying foul for potentially anti-Semitic content.

After the initial flurry, the Labour Party used their good fortune to send another email a week later to have another campaign that was not as provocative – but just as productive to garner email/postcode pairing.

Was this a tactic put forward by Zack Exley? I highly doubt that Labour or Zack ever intended an anti-Semitic bent for any email campaign. But Zack and his eCampaign team were on the ball when I found an email in my Inbox a week later – demonstrating the benefit of leveraging timely media events. By using the earned media attention on this relatively small email campaign, they were able to generate involvement by the list members to commit to a small action that demonstrated their involvement in the party – both to the party and, to themselves.

On March 29th, I only assume that Zack’s influence manifested itself further when I received an email from John O’Farrell (supposed notable British author, broadcaster and Labour supporter). Keeping with the ownership principle and engaging subject line, the email continued the template focus (clean, simple and matching the branding/message of the campaign) while introducing a human voice to the online campaign. Every Thursday, John’s emails have kept me chuckling – telling me of his humourous “exploits” and engaging me in the problems/issues of the campaign – and detailing, through simple actions, how I could help.

I make note that his email comes on Thursdays – which happens to coincide with the upcoming election day. So I anticipate an email both from him and from Tony Blair on the day of the election. In the other emails from the party, I have “met” Matt Carter (Party Secretary), Alastair Campbell (Campaign Manager), Alicia Kennedy (Field Organizer) and Tony Blair. Almost all emails providing a simple content (no more than five paragraphs), a problem or issue, a call to action – and almost all emails designed to be opened around the lunch hour. Alan Connor, the BBC’s Daily Politics Internet correspondent, seems to feel that these emails are “blokey and chatty” – and I am none too sure if this was not the intent…

I must note that there were two anomalous emails – the first from Matt leading me to see the Labour website at 4:30pm on a Tuesday. This email coincided with a effort to communicate that the Labour site has jumped in the online traffic stats, a reaction to the perceived second-place it had been in compared to the Conservatives. While I am not sure if this was necessary (at the Kerry campaign, we would often be misled by Alexa stats as well), it served its purpose by drawing attention to the website and the Labour performance.

The second anomalous email was authored by The Labour Party – and was a reaction to the Conservative Party’s Manifesto that “threatened” NHS. By sending a rebuttal email five hours after the Conservative Party’s email was sent (at 10pm) – the Labour Party email would be visible to the reporters when they opened their email Inboxes FIRST the next morning – and diminish the impact of the earlier email from the Conservatives (which would be found further down the mail queue).

Comparatively, the April 27th release of the legal documents regarding the legality of the Iraq war was barely used by the major opposition parties – opting for press release-like content. In the case of the Conservatives, a new poster appeared. In the case of the LibDems, a press release from Charles Kennedy was paraphrased before having to go the press section of the LibDems site.

For the most part, Labour has stayed within the parameters mentioned earlier – with one exception of sending emails on some Mondays and Fridays – but that could be easily explained to the shortened campaign cycle. While this week, the focus has been to “volunteer, donate or both” – I fully expect the campaign to focus their efforts on pulling out the vote and volunteering – through the “personal” relationships that have been formed with John and Matt and Tony. And what about that “membership society” problem? According to the emails – the Labour supporters have donated in small amounts – especially after a “Biddle Email” (named after Larry Biddle, fundraiser and direct mail guru for the Dean campaign) outlined how donations would be used. A day later – 50,000 Pounds has been donated. If an average donation was 25, then Labour had an outpouring of 4000 supporters in one email. Not bad for a “membership society”.

Conservatives – Listening to the Republicans?
On the Conservative website and their emails, it seems as though design leverage the old broadcast model – but using the tools of HTML and branding to ensure the Conservative brand was there.

Unfortunately, most of the emails were “newsletters” – communicating events or interesting promotional links to the Conservative website. In only three emails, did the Conservatives not place too many actions on their email. In two of them, the email read like a press release – with “useful links” to the website – but barely engaging the supporter. The only email that showed promise was one from Liam Fox, Co-Chair of the party whose subject line changed from “News from” to “Conservative Cinema Advert”. Upon opening this email, a new design was unveiled, and a call to action was presented (“Wipe that smile off Tony Blair’s face”). Unfortunately, the solution – still 20+ days away from the vote – was to Vote Conservative. Little engagement, no small steps – just a chance to see a media advert.

The general tone of the emails were more of managed communication – and rarely of engagement with the party faithful. And, if not managed communication – it was seen as advertising the website features – with an after-thought of getting involved (see bottom of the most recent emails for links to volunteer and donate).

And what about that web traffic?
As mentioned earlier regarding Matt Carter’s anomalous email from April 19th, why were the Conservatives generating a lot more traffic to their website? And what is the quality of that traffic? Are we measuring hits (number of server requests for pages, images and other web objects) or are unique users?

Researching this quote lead me to this FactCheck from Channel4 in the UK, quoting both Hotwise and Alexa – two traffic measurement tools we used during the campaign. One thing to note – Alexa and Hitwise are somewhat flawed in their analysis of traffic – especially since they are sample services (think Neilsen rating boxes) and are found in different places. Alexa (which you can see the comparison graphs here) is primarily leveraging installations of the Alexa toolbar on Windows PCs – and leveraging people who have had Alexa installed when Microsoft partnered with Alexa to provide browser search support (try hitting Search on your Internet Explorer to see). One other thing to note is that it is relatively easy to influence the rankings on Alexa – as commented by an Internet team who used their tactics to increase the value of their site “traffic” by increasing their Alexa ranking. (Simple trick – have all of your email images hosted on your website)

One personal fact-check on the above FactCheck – was the fact that Alexa adjusts their traffic stats as more information comes in and website traffic fluctuates over time. As the Alexa graph demonstrates, all parties have been ranked higher the others at one time or another – with the Conservatives and Labour trading off. As of this writing, the April 25th graph shows Labour on a strong rise and both Conservatives and LibDems in a falling curve. I wonder how the release of the legal documents will imapct this?

LibDems – Automated News Delivery of Press Release Paraphrases
Introduced to me by friends in England and here in the US, the LibDems are the third party in British politics – made notable by their strong stance against the Iraq War. While this stand is more aligned with my personal politics, and some of their positions on the issues are also somewhat in line (reduction of certain taxes, improved social spending), I am saddened by their squandering of their third-party status that could have elevated them to the likes of Governor Dean’s outsider campaign. In the midst of the campaign, the LibDems modified their website to reflect their new branding. Unfortunately, they did not extend this branding to their automated emails – which regularly tick out of their mail server at 2pm every day – if there is a press release in their queue.

Of the three parties, the “eNews” comes to my Inbox with regularity – with the ominious “[LIBDEMS-NEWS] Latest News: XX/XX/XX” – easily allowing my spam filter to redirect the email to my Yahoo! Bulk Folder. And, while the emails are timestamped 2pm GMT – due to their email list service which is not designed for bulk delivery, I regularly receive my eNews at 4:30pm GMT. While the email is “sent out” at 2pm, the delay in getting the email out to the subscribers is costing the campaign opens – since the email arrives at the end of the day when most people will skip over the email or will wait til the morning, where it will be caught in the deluge of overnight emails that will have to be sifted through.

Interestingly, the following article mentions the LibDems collecting emails in local constituancies and emailing the people directly. While I am wholehartedly in support of this tactic, I hope that the content of the emails are more than the press release paragraphs that I have been getting almost constantly in my Inbox (a number even on Saturdays from!). While I am not in the constituancies that the LibDems are focusing their efforts – one conclusion I have drawn from their unbranded, text-based, automated, press-release emails – if I am not in a targeted constituancy, I do not rate quality targeting. Sounds almost like the refrains I heard from my New York and California friends complaining that they never saw the adverts from the Bush and Kerry campaigns – since these states were already in the Blue…

While I may be biased on the tactical front (full disclosure – I worked with Zack at the Kerry Campaign), I believe that Labour has built a much more engaging online campaign with with their supporters – even if the content has been chatty and blokey. What the other two major parties have missed (from my vantage point) has been the opportunity that Labour has – which was to build a long-term relationship with their supporters.

Taking a page from the of John Kerry operational manual, the goal of the online campaign is not just getting as many seats as possible in the upcoming election – it should be about building the communication channel between the party and the party faithful. Labour has built started building a channel – and by giving their supporters a way of being “involved” during this election, Labour has the potential to regrow their membership after the winds of political discourse have blown in another direction. Instead of simply broadcasting, Labour and the other parties can move into the concepts that are discussed in terms of eGovernment – where participatory democracy becomes closer to reality.

While people point to “The Big Discussion” as an attempt at eGovernance (which to me was more of a online news and managed communication between the policy people in 10 Downing and selected responses), the advent of blogs and other online communications efforts will eventually force all parties – and not just in England – to open up their communication channels. If done, the dialogue between the party faithful and the elected officials can build the momentum for the by-elections and the 2009 election as well – leveraging the distributed power of the internet – and using the power of the swarm to improve the chances of the party who understands it best.

Tony, Michael, Charles (as well as Pat, James and Chris) – are you listening?

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