The Trump Campaign's Unorthodox Email Tactics -- Do They Work?
The 2020 Trump reelection campaign has been anything but traditional and this has extended to their email practices as well. Political campaign email in the US is notorious for breaking general email best practices. Political email is explicitly exempted from compliance with CAN-SPAM, and so it is often a bit of Wild Wild West in regard to list acquisition and unsubscribe maintenance. Even when viewed through that lens, though, the 2020 Trump campaign is extremely unorthodox.
As the election started to come to a crescendo in mid-October, and possibly as a result of the Trump campaign falling behind the Biden campaign in fundraising in early October, the Trump campaign began ramping up the cadence of contact to individuals, peaking at 26 mails per day. That’s not a typo: the Trump campaign on the eve of the election was mailing their respondents an average of 26 times per day. Here you can see how that cadence built over the past few months, looking at traffic from joebiden.com and victory.donaldtrump.com, the primary sending domains for the two campaigns:
It’s interesting to note in the graph that while the Biden campaign mails have trailed off following election day, that the Trump emails are continuing at a high rate/fast pace as he looks to fund efforts to contest election results around the country. Indeed, while the President’s messages are increasingly getting flagged for content on Twitter and Facebook, he’s continuing to use email as a direct channel to supporters. Unlike Twitter, however, the Trump campaign’s emails are presented without fact-checker review and 100% focused on raising money for the campaign - every single campaign we identified post-election has been a fundraising mail. Subject line samples post-election include:
- VOTER FRAUD
- We need to HOLD the line
- STOP THE STEAL
- Can you chip in?
(the emoji eyes subject being my personal favorite). Every one of these emails contains a fundraising call-to-action for the ‘Official Election Defense Fund’ (the majority of which actually goes to his leadership PAC. Biden has not stopped his fund-raising mails post-election either, though not all of his mails are fund-raising emails, some simply thank supporters. In keeping with the characteristic tone of his campaign, Biden has been running subject lines like:
- [NAME], we need to re-launch the Biden Fight Fund
- A victory for ‘We the People’
- I am honored and humbled to be your President-elect
- Keep the faith
Biden’s contact cadence has dropped to 1-2 mails per day to subscribers, while Trump’s cadence has actually increased post-election. My colleague John Landsman observed: “In fifteen years of working with email analytics, I've never seen a brand or candidate with anything like an hourly contact frequency per subscriber.”
Trump has seemingly taken his rapid-fire Twitter strategy now to email. Perhaps he’s doing this to creatively work around the warnings on his Twitter messages given email’s semi-independence from walled gardens. The question is, is this technique effective? Ultimately, we will see how that plays out in the campaign finance numbers, but we can get a leading view by looking at the inboxing and read rates on these emails.
First off, the inboxing statistics for both campaigns look fine, with the Trump campaign’s emails inboxing very reliably. During the 2016 campaign Trump had a real problem with spam filters, which resulted in significant blocking issues. In the runup to the 2020 election problem, this seems to have been significantly improved. You can see in the chart below that Trump’s inboxing has been ‘fine’ (especially given its volume) and has performed ahead of Biden’s mails every day in the observed period.
But are people reading them? Interestingly, the cadence the Trump campaign has adopted hasn’t seemed to affect this, with the read rate hovering around 10%, contrasted with around 20% for the Biden mails. Both of these results are within a normal range for political parties and candidates as a category this campaign season, with Biden’s performance being close to the top quartile and Trump’s just inside the bottom quartile for read rates.
With the campaign’s basically identical call-to-action (“donate now!”) across a large number of touchpoints per day, the read rate on individual emails matters less than the gross number of mails a given recipient opens daily. Meaning that since the outcome that all of these 26-daily mails is the same, it’s a mistake to focus on them as individual campaigns and look at their individual read rates. Instead it’s better to look at the entire barrage as a campaign and judge the success based on whether or not any shot in it ‘hits’.
Prior to October, the two different approaches of the campaigns resulted in basically the same number of emails read by an end-user on a given day. But as the Trump campaign’s cadence rose, these numbers diverged significantly. Based on open data, the average Biden campaign subscriber is now actually reading an email every other day; the average Trump campaign subscriber continues to read multiple emails per day.
Trump is also mailing a larger portion of his overall list on any given day, though those lists are slightly shrinking as the daily cadence has gone up.
It would be interesting to see what the effect of this high cadence has been on unsubscribes, but it’s important to remember that in the US political mails are not bound by CAN-SPAM and political entities can mail whomever they want how often they want, without legal concerns around maintaining subscription information and handling unsubscribes. A notable difference between the Biden and Trump campaigns is that Biden, in accordance with emailing best practices, includes links to manage your subscription. In contrast, the Trump emails provide no mechanism for recipients to unsubscribe. This is perfectly legal under CAN-SPAM since these are political emails, but it’s a poor practice and I certainly wouldn’t recommend anyone try it at home.
We can see this difference if we look at inferred unsubscribe rates between the two campaigns. We can’t measure the actual unsubscribe data, but what we can look at is how many recipients stop getting emailed after a given send.
When we look at that, we see a very low unsubscribe rate for the Trump campaign emails, especially compared to the Biden emails, but this is almost certainly highly affected by the lack of an unsubscribe method in the Trump mails.
Trump’s email strategy has been both effective and unorthodox, but it’s likely to cause subscriber burnout in the long run as well as blocking issues if it continues. It also seems likely to be a strategy that will not work beyond his most devoted base - how many people would opt to receive emails at this cadence and for how long?
Trump’s strategy of increasing frequency so far has worked when it comes to total emails read, but like with all marketing mail, it’s really the downstream conversion (in this case donations) that will measure the ultimate success and time will tell how that has worked. If you are a contrarian, you might be speculating that this increased cadence isn’t a sign of email abuse, but that instead Trump really knows his audience’s appetite for hearing from him and will eat up this strategy. Donations to the legal fund will tell us in the end.
Either way, Trump and Biden both continue to do major fundraising pushes post-election as they look to fund the expensive work of contesting (and defending) the 2020 election. If you happen to subscribe to either of the campaigns’ emails, I think you will continue to have a full inbox for some time.