Email campaigning is dead, long live email campaigning!

As many people know, I have had a mixed relationship with mass email campaigning. My career in the Charity sector capitalised on recruiting, activating and mobilising supporters and yet here I am advocating the death of mass email campaigning. Why? The rise of technology-enabled mass campaigning to happen in a cost-effective way. Fifteen years on and email is embedded as a standard communication tool, and politics is no exception.

Last October I published my report on e-campaigning: ‘Shouting Down the House. The report looked at the impact of mass email campaigns on Politicians of the Upper Chambers in Canada, Australia and New Zealand (which is unitary). The report followed a similar one I conducted in 2011 in the House of Lords called ‘Peering In’.

My research revealed many themes around issue based campaigning and party politics, but the strongest one by far was the discordance between online campaigning, third sector organisations and policy change. Simple put the high volume of mass emails tended to to dominate the channels and drown out individual voices and case studies. The result of my research was clear: mass on-line campaigns will not solely alter the opinion of decision makers, in much the same way that traditional postcard campaigns did not previously. Without a strong campaign strategy behind it, good policy analysis and a few accounts of the lived experience, mass email campaigns were doing more to damage than to change.

Addiction to mass email campaigning?

Yet the use of email campaigning is not going away or evolving. It seems that the campaigning sector is actually addicted to mass email campaigning.  A quick glance at my inbox this morning revealed over 15 emails from different organisations / pressure groups / charities asking me to lobby my MP/MEP/Peer about a cause, convincing me that it is my email activity alone that will tip the balance into saving the world.  I was interviewed about this very issue last week by Jim Coe – you can listen to the podcast here.

Last week I emailed my MP Dawn Bulter, about a subject I really care about: Welfare Reform. I got a response from her office thanking me for emailing about the hunting ban.

Even scarier is who on the 12th of April, was celebrating their one millionth campaign email sent to a decision-maker. A quick play around on their site has enabled me to email my local MP with a campaign request that is 8 months out of date. It still let me do it.

Last week I emailed my MP Dawn Bulter, about a subject I really care about: Welfare Reform. I got a response from her office thanking me for emailing about the hunting ban.

What is going on?

Email is here to stay and actually there is a very public expectation around using it as a form of communication between MPs and their constituents and because of that, as a key part of what is perceived as democratic process. However, I have now interviewed over 40 senior politicians around the world, from across a political spectrum and across an age range and they have consistently reported that they are unable to deal with the high volume of digital traffic from email, Twitter and Facebook.

Is this a customer service issue?

We have a two-fold dynamic. The charity sector seems to be unable to stop sending mass emails, and the mass emails they are sending are not having the desired consequence –  mainly because the majority of the people receiving them are unable to manage them, or believe them, or be influenced by them.  Even more than that, the high levels of email campaigns actually down out the true voices of the legitimacy – those with the lived experience that have a story to tell.

the digital targeting of voters might end up reducing the democratic process to a marketing exercise

As I have written before, this is a systems problem and the campaigning sector cannot continue to do the same thing and expect a different outcome each time. However, the political side of the problem is starting to address the issue. From the drastic i.e. not accepting email correspondence completely like Dr Julian Lewis MP to the pragmatic, i.e. helping to train politicians to manage their email traffic more efficiently, something dotteveryone is starting to do. Politicians are beginning to look at how they can tackle what they perceive as a problem, the public perceives as their democratic right and organisations perceive as an effective method.

There was an incredibly interesting article in the Economist discussing the impact of digital comms and data on politics. It concluded that one unintended consequence of technology and politics was that the digital targeting of voters might end up reducing the democratic process to a marketing exercise where politicians can use big data insight to only target those who have value.

Robots lobbying robots?

My greatest fear is that once Parliamentarians catch up with the technological revolution and start their own clever use of email data, the unintended consequence will be that we end up with robots responding to robot generated campaign emails much like my response from Dawn Butler’s office. There won’t be any humanity in that interaction. It will all be clever algorithms and that beautiful art of working with the lived experience to create change will be gone.

Until we work out a way to continue to represent that humanity in our lobbying and communication, mass email campaigns will be the only way to create that change and it will continue to invoke the same reaction from decision-makers who I think, are moving to halt it.

As I said, this is no longer a debate about slactivism v. clicktivism. It has become an issue around the customer service end of democracy.  We owe it to the cause to stop the madness and start investing in better forms of communication. I’ll be testing out ideas on how to do this at the E-Campaigners Forum this Thursday at 2pm and again at Digital MPs a constructive relationship? with Stella Creasy MP on the 27th of April.

Email campaigning is dead, long live email campaigning!

Sign up to our newsletter for the latest news, insights and trends

Free resources

Movement Building Canvas

The Movement Building Canvas is a practical framework and printable worksheet to help you or your organisation design and build a social movement.

Power Mapping Canvas

The essential, practical tool for campaigners – If you want to influence change you need to understand who holds the power.

See more resources