Campaign Emails: A Hung Parliament

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Despite the buzz round new media, old-fashioned campaign emails are more important in the General Election. Which party is getting egg on its face?

This is the General Election when Britain finally used TV effectively – about fifty years behind the US – and new media has also played a big role. But it turns out that political parties have been making good use of old-fashioned email.

From online crowdsourcing to viral advertising to social networking, this year’s election campaign has been awash with politicians using “new media” to connect with their supporters. In one of the most high-profile events of the year – Britain’s first televised election debate – political spin doctors used Twitter and Facebook to provide their own real-time commentary and gauge the public reaction.

However, some commentators – including usability guru Jakob Nielsen – say that politicians should stop embarrassing themselves, concocting glib tweets to get down with the kids and grab headlines. “The parties tend to tweet more or less hourly, which is overkill for anybody except political wonks,” said Nielsen. Instead parties should be sharpening up their delivery of that good old-fashioned campaigning tool: the newsletter.

Party newsletters: analysis

Neilsen has conducted an in-depth analysis of the email newsletters from the three main political parties – the Conservatives, Labour, and the Liberal Democrats – rating the newsletters according to criteria such as the sign-up process, publication frequency and subject field. Overall, Nielsen found that the Conservatives had the most effective newsletter distribution, complying with 63 percent of his 149 guidelines for newsletter usability.

The sign-up page for Labour’s newsletter violated many of the guidelines, including having too many distractions on the page – such as a “Facebook friends” widget, which diverts potential subscribers away from registering their details. Neilsen also described Labour’s attempt to explain its privacy policy on the signup page as “half-hearted”, but conceded that this was better than the other parties, both of whom failed to mention how they would use private data.

The post-signup experience also differed greatly between the three parties. According to Nielsen, the Lib Dems were the first party to send a welcome message, beating Labour by 4 minutes. Meanwhile, the Conservative party did not acknowledge the subscription at all. The Lib Dems also had the best “From” field and “Subject” line, with “From: Liberal Democrats – Subject: Thank you for signing up for Liberal Democrat email news”, as opposed to Labour’s “From: labourparty@email-new.labour.org.uk – Subject: Thank you for signing up”.

“Given that users are drowning in spam, it’s important that your subject lines be as precise and descriptive as possible to encourage users to open your messages,” said Neilsen. “For the same reason, it’s also better to have a human-readable From field than to rely solely on a geeky-looking (and less readable) email address.”

Publication frequency

Over the 14-day evaluation period, Neilsen received three emails from the Labour party, four from the Conservatives and nine from the Lib Dems. While three was considered too few during an election campaign, nine borders on “information pollution”, particularly on one day when three emails were sent within an hour. The Tories’ four was more appropriate, but Nielsen criticised the marketing of the newsletter as “David’s weekly email”, when communication was evidently not weekly, nor was it always from David Cameron.

“In general, 2–3 emails per week is appropriate during a campaign’s early phases, with the frequency increasing to daily updates during the final hectic days before the election, when subscriber interest intensifies,” said Neilsen. “American politicians make the mistake of courting supporter fatigue by spamming subscribers with far too many emails. British politicians make the opposite mistake: they communicate too little during a period when supporters want frequent updates.”

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