This is a rough transcript of a presentation I am about to give at Netroots Nation. I am posting it in the diaries so that people in the audience can follow along more easily, and so that those of you not at Netroots Nation can have a little bit of insight into the Daily Kos email program.
Email is not new or hip. Unlike Snapchat or Pokémon Go, there will never again be an article about the cool new email fad sweeping the nation.
Email is definitely not what all the kids are doing these days. Maybe it was when I was a kid, but I am 42 years old and it has been 23 years since I got my first email account. (FWIW, it was a bitnet account, which might be a fun fact for a few of you reading or listening to this.)
It's probably been a long time since you wrote or received a long, reflective, emotional or confessional email. It might be even longer since you were on an email chain that was used to organize a social get-together. In fact, it has probably been a long time since you looked forward to opening your inbox at all.
You read your email more often than ever, but now it's pretty much all for work. Email is no longer fun. It is now boring, ubiquitous, and--most of all--mandatory.
Back in July of 2000 I missed a meeting at work because it had only been announced over email, and for whatever reason I just hadn't looked at my inbox yet that day. Even sixteen years later, I distinctly remember the foreboding sense that something sinister had just happened. A line had been crossed that could never be uncrossed. There would no longer be any escape from email. Not now, not ever. And it would only get worse.
Since we all know now that there is no escape from email, really your best bet is to embrace it. Instead of grumbling about how much email sucks, instead it's best to figure out how you can make this mandatory monstrosity of time suckage work for you. Really, just think about it for a moment--if tens of millions of people are required to be incessantly checking their inboxes, perhaps being in their inboxes would be good place to get you, your campaign, or your organization noticed.
Email can help build power for your organization or campaign by allowing you to reach large numbers of people at once. That is email's fundamental strength--it allows you to reach lots of people, free of gatekeeping algorithms, and with data tracking and A/B testing ability unavailable in any other digital platform.
There are three things that email does particularly well: activism, communication, and fundraising. Here are some of the more dramatic things that progressive, digital organizing has recently accomplished through email in each of those area:
1. Activism. In 2014, a big coalition of progressive organizations combined to submit over 4,000,000 comments directly to the Federal Communications Commission in support of Net Neutrality. This was primarily accomplished via action alerts to their email lists, and it was crucial is preserved the network neutral internet that everyone here depends on.
2. Communication: Over the past 18 months at Daily Kos, we have averaged over 500,000 pageviews generated to dailykos.com URLs every single day--including holidays and weekends--from our Daily Kos Recommended daily newsletter. That's traffic equal to a pretty big website, generated only by email, every single day, and not subject to the whims of a new Facebook algorithm.
3. Fundraising. During his presidential campaign, Bernie Sanders raised over $200 million, overwhelmingly from his email list. Hillary Clinton has raised tens of millions through email as well, and come September and October expect her totals to equal or exceed Sanders's.
Now, these are all really dramatic accomplishments with email, and it is highly unlikely that your organization will be able to pull off something like them. But consider, instead, these more tangible achievements that are most definitely within your grasp, even if you don't have an email list right now:
1) You can raise a couple hundred thousand dollars for your organization a year. Democratic House campaigns and campaign consultancies have spent years investing in an email-based fundraising infrastructure. Their efforts are unrivaled on their Republican opponents, and the result is a dramatic advantage in small donations. As Matt Kerbel and I wrote in our new book, Next Generation Netroots:
In September 2014, National Journal quantiﬁed this advantage with a study showing Democratic candidates in competitive House contests lapping their competition, averaging $179,300 in donations under $200 compared with $78,535 for their Republican challengers. This advantage was evident in red and blue states and for incumbents and challengers.
Across all 435 House seats, Democratic candidates averaged a $100,000 small donor advantage on their Republican opponents, almost entirely because of their work in building up their email lists. Further, keep in mind that those numbers were in September of 2014. Because of the nature of email-based fundraising, that advantage most likely doubled before the November election.
Even if you don't have an email list right now, I believe that in one year, eighteen months at the most, you can start an email list and raise at least $100,000 from it. In future years, you will be able to raise even more. Making this happen isn't free, but you should be able to turn a net profit. More importantly, you will build a long-term revenue stream for your organization that doesn't require call-time or grant proposals.
2. Communicate with your supporters as much as you can over social media
With tens of millions of people required to be regularly checking their email for work, there are a lot of people out there open to being temporarily distracted if something more interesting were to appear in their inboxes. This is the best theory I have for what several news outlets, including The Awl, The New York Times, and Higher Logic have called a "Golden Age of the Internet Newsletter."
Now, public email data tends to be proprietary information that organizations hold close to their vests, difficult to come by, so it is difficult for me to quantify the strength of email in driving clicks and eyeballs across the broader digital spectrum. But I can tell you about both my personal experiences with my inbox, as well as share some information about our wildly successful Daily Kos Recommended daily email.
First, on a personal level, now that I receive almost no personal email whatsoever--it's almost all work related--I have started signing up for a lot of daily newsletters in order to keep my inbox experience enjoyable. Since yesterday evening, I have received my Futurism daily email, my Brexit morning briefing from The Guardian, my Brookings Institute morning email, my update on the Labour Party leadership fight from Labourlist, my Morning Tipsheet from The Hill, and my daily email from Atlas Obscura. And now you know more about the sorts of things I find interesting that you probably ever wanted to.
These newsletters have transformed my email experience, and I only want more of them. While I love my job, you better believe that when I am digging through my inbox I don't mind taking a few mental breaks every day to read curated content from publishers and organizations who have produced content that I enjoyed in the past. Whenever I read an article on a site that I enjoy, and they ask me to sign up to receive a daily email, I do it.
On a professional level, the numbers that I see from our daily email support the idea that this is a mass trend. Whereas we might get only 4-5% of the people we send a petition to actually sign it, for every Daily Kos Recommended email we send we can get 50% as many pageviews back--an interaction rate ten times higher than any other type of email. Everything I have seen suggests that people LOVE having content sent to them over email.
Our heavy investment in our Daily Kos Recommended email has made Daily Kos one of the very few organizations that can drive more visits, pageviews and engaged minutes to our website than we can through all social media channels combined--and it's not as though we have a small social media presence. What's more, our email traffic steady traffic that comes day in and day out, free from changing algorithms and the unpredictable nature of what stories go viral and which ones do not. At the top of this post, check out this graph of our pageviews from derived directly from clicks on the Daily Kos Recommended email in 2015.
The peaks tend to be the days when we sent more than one Daily Kos Recommended email. The valleys are days when we sent none. Otherwise, note how little variation there is. This is nothing like social media traffic--it is steady, consistent, predictable. You own this traffic, not Mark Zukerberg.
You won't be able to get 500,000 clicks a day on your email newsletter, most likely. But you can get as much as you are currently getting from social media. Tens of millions of people are stuck looking at their inboxes, and they are practically begging for something to come and distract them for a few minutes. You can be that distraction.
Generating as much communication with your supporters over email is not incompatible with raising a couple hundred thousand dollars with your organization over email--it is in addition to it.
3. You can get 100,000 people to sign a petition for your cause by working in a coalition, or 20,000 all by yourself.
If you can get 200,000 people to sign up for your email list--and I believe that almost any organization can do that, in one year--then you can get 20,000 of them to sign a petition in support of a cause you are promoting.
Or, if petitions aren't for you, then you can get 15,000 of them to contact their U.S. Senators or members of Congress about it.
Or, you can get 1,000 of them to make a phone call to their members of Congress.
Better, yet, if you find a group of like-minded organizations who want to work with you on the action and who also have email lists, then you could get 100,000 petition signatures, 75,000 emails to Congress, and 5,000 phone calls. You really can!
I have seen this happen so many times--and even done it a couple of times myself- that I believe your organization, whatever it is, really can do this. In just one year, you can use email to generate sizable grassroots activism in support of your causes.
I was hired to build the Daily Kos email list from the ground up, and in our first month we generated 20,000 signatures to Democratic U.S. senators in support of filibuster reform. Those signatures got me into meetings on Capitol Hill with some of the early members of what became the Fix the Senate Now coalition that eventually delivered on eliminating the filibuster for judicial and executive branch appointments--one of the great progressive victories in recent years.
Last year, I worked with a woman named Beka Economopoulos, who had just founded an organization called The Natural History Museum, on a petition to kick the Koch Brothers off the board of science museums around the country. Her organization had only a tiny email list to start with, but by working with a long list of allies we generated over 230,000 signatures on that petition. And, earlier this year, David Koch resigned from the board of the American Natural History Museum, in part because of the pressure and media energy that Beka generated with that petition.
If you have allies who will work with you, then you too can come to us at Daily Kos, and we might well help you put together a gigantic petition with those allies that can have a real impact. In the process, you will be able to build your email list, and start doing all of the other wonderful things I have mentioned here as well.
OK, so how do I grow my email list?
This, I admit, is the trickiest part of all. While you can use email to build an entirely new revenue stream, communicate with your supporters at the same scale as social media, and engage in quickly scalable grassroots activism, you can't do any of these things on a consistent basis unless you have a decent-sized email list.
Building your email list isn't easy. If you want to do it, most likely you will have to hire a specialist and consulting firm with knowledge of the field. You also will probably have to spend some money. But there are ways you can do it, and as I describe above, the payoff can be big.
So here are some starter tips on building your list:
1. Sign the petition. The biggest mistake you can make about email is to think that petitions are stupid. It is true that most petitions don't accomplish much of anything in terms of political outcomes, and that political leaders and decision makers are not very impressed by petitions--even ones with big numbers. However, even with that said, if you think that petitions are stupid, then either stop thinking that or just give up on email entirely.
Here is why petitions are not stupid: they are sign-up forms. At their most fundamental level, petitions are just ways to find like-minded people, and get them to sign up for your email list. Once you get them to sign up, then you can contact them over email to do some or all of the amazing things I have listed so far.
You cannot organize people unless you sign them up and have the ability to contact them later. The way you do that over email is through petitions.
Petitions are not just sign up forms--they are really good signup forms. People are ten times more likely to sign up for your email list if you ask them to sign a petition for your cause then if you just generically ask them "please, sign up for our email list." "Sign if you agree: Donald Trump is a fascist, racist asshole" is a lot more effective at putting together an email list of people who want to take action to stop Donald Trump then "sign up to receive email alerts to help defeat Donald trump."
If you want to grow your email list, you need to get people to sign petition.
2. Go where people are. If you want to get people to sign your petition, then you have to put them in places where people are already going.
This is why, if you have gone to Daily Kos at any time in the last few years, you have been immediately asked to sign a petition. During the first two years of its existence, we built our email list largely just by asking people to sign petitions when they came to Daily Kos. People stream into our website, and so we put a signup form for our email list in front of them when they enter. This is how I was the ninth employee at Daily Kos when I was hired, but now there are nine employees in our email department. We asked people to sign petitions, they signed them, and now we can do all sorts of amazing things with the email list that resulted from that.
If you don't have much traffic to your website, then put petitions in front of people on your social media channels. And if you don't have much in the way of social media channels for your organizations, have your employees put petitions in front of people on their social media channels. Whatever you can do to put petitions in front of people in places where they are going on their own, do it. It is one of the most effective, and certainly the least expensive, way to build an email list from scratch.
3. Pay. If you have absolutely no way to get petitions in front of people in places where they are already going, then your only recourse is just pay what is known as a "lead generation" vendor to do it for you. For a cost of about $1.50 to $2.00 per new signup to your email list, a large number of companies, such as Daily Kos, Care2, Left Aciton and, for at least a few more months, Change.org, these vendors will build your email list for you. Just tell them the topic or action that you want to use to build an email list, and they will make it happen.
In a totally not-self-interested way, please email me at dailykos.com if you are interested in this for your organization.
4. Swap. Once you have a starter email list, built either organically or through a vendor (or both), the next, crucial thing you need to do to keep your email list active and growing is to engage in joint actions with other organizations or campaigns that have email lists, and swap the emails of the action takers afterward.
There is no way to avoid these joint actions and swaps anymore. Even at Daily Kos, where we have the benefit of an enormous number of people just showing up on our website on their own, 80% of the new signups to our email list come from joint actions with other organizations. I'm not exaggerating when I say that this is our lifeblood. We have now have a member of our staff whose job is almost entirely to make sure that swaps and joint actions keep happening.
If you aren't swapping, your list will start shrinking (or you are running for president). Find other organizations out there who need to swap, start developing mission-aligned petition actions with them, and make the swaps happen.
And that's it. Thank you very much. These things are always better with questions, and so I am happy to spend the rest of the time answering them.
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