The cross-channel stress test – election year communications

Believe it or not, the internet has played a role in U.S. elections since 1996. That year all of the presidential candidates created websites, and yes, they looked like websites built in the 90s on cutting edge Netscape and Internet Explorer browsers. There was no Chrome to speak of back then, no Firefox, no Safari, and Opera was celebrating its first birthday in 1996. In 1996, the internet didn’t hold sway over the electorate as it does today—it was a shiny new object to be experimented with—the real action was still on TV, radio and in newspapers.

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Today, candidate websites and internet marketing campaigns aren’t just “nice to have” – they are THE must-have toolkit in every candidate’s arsenal if they’re planning on reaching diverse voting blocks in all 50 states. The internet has, in some ways, leveled the playing field as it can allow savvy operators to amplify their message at a fraction of the price that traditional media charges for similar reach.

The bullhorn casts a wide net

Email has long been the workhorse of retail, B2B and interoffice communications. Thus it should come as no surprise that email is very much the workhorse of the campaign world. Last summer we conducted a study that looked at how the largest Democratic slate of candidates, and their Republican counterparts including the incumbent, used email as part of their strategy to reach voters.

We discovered that the tactics associated with good email in the retail space don’t seem to apply to the political space. Quite the contrary, campaigns operate from the standpoint of extreme urgency and break an incredible number of norms such as:

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With that in mind let’s dive deeper into the bullhorn approach that can land both political senders and apolitical ones in a tub of hot water. The same message naturally doesn’t appeal to the same set of recipients, regardless of if you’re selling an ideology or a pair of shoes. The advice is the same for both sets of marketers: know your audience and adapt your message accordingly.

More recently than the study mentioned above, we used a tagged address to re-signup for the remaining campaigns and the DNC/RNC to see how their communications have changed. In one campaign we saw the same subject line across the address but with slight modifications showing a different number. Clicking into each email we saw that each message to each tagged address was customized based on the state and number we used. This shows a high level of personalization — something I would consider an absolute best practice.

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What might be perceived as a bullhorn — given that the political channel tends to be so noisy — is actually more refined, but you wouldn’t see this unless you had the opportunity to view it across various states, constituencies and voting blocks.

The case for SMS

Since this article is about cross-channel, I can’t help but mention the need and use for SMS. SMS has emerged as a crucial component of political campaigns, and retailers are also getting on board. As mentioned in our study, SMS costs more than email on a CPM basis. This means that as a tool it’s powerful, and the preferred method for urgent communications at a rate of 2:1. The wide net cast by email is augmented and reinforced through SMS, which has a much higher open rate than email.

Through SMS, political campaigns are arming volunteers to canvas neighborhoods on foot, engaging voters, and empowering them to get out and vote, rally other potential volunteers and spread their candidate’s message far and wide. As the political field narrows, we are starting to see an uptick in SMS communications and campaigns are responding by deploying more messages across more channels to reach more voters.

The question that really needs to be asked is how coordinated are the SMS campaigns versus the email campaigns? The answer to that appears to show a lower level of coordination for SMS versus email because their application is different. Where email casts the net wide and affords the recipient the leisure of viewing it whenever they want, SMS grabs attention and is used as a way to get people to engage in phone banks, hit the streets and notify supporters of their candidate’s impending appearance in a state. What makes SMS particularly powerful is its micro-targeting capability.

Area codes are a great first cut at segmenting numbers. Understanding where people reside by area code can be further refined by zip codes and other data points to ensure that the message you deliver is one that will resonate and be most engaging among the people you’re sending it to. The wide net of email doesn’t work with SMS – it needs to be relevant, actionable and engaging because it comes with a higher price tag, and potentially negative fallout if done wrong.

Where it can go wrong

Cross-channel communications have been something of a holy grail for brands for the better part of a decade and possibly more. Long have we acknowledged that the consumer drives the conversation, and given the many corners of the internet and the many channels through which those conversations take place, customer communications can be tricky. Setting up cross-channel communication requires a few basic things to happen:

  1. Customers need to want to hear from you outside of traditional channels, because a unique utility exists with each particular communication type.
  2. You need to ensure the consistency of messages across channels so that the experience a customer gets in one channel is not undermined by another.
  3. Tools in place that will prevent duplicative messaging, e.g. the left hand has to know what the right hand is doing.
  4. A keen understanding of channel limitations, i.e. understanding character length for SMS or when to engage with a recipient through social vs. email.
  5. And the universally applicable caution of “don’t be creepy”: Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.

Done correctly, cross channel communications can substantiate numerous use cases and deliver value to both the recipient and the sender. However, the key ingredient in transforming the aspirational to operational is context. Context is everything when you consider messaging a recipient through multiple sources, given the individual nuance of each. If you don’t have a reason to do it, or you can’t easily communicate the why for the shift in channel (when it’s not user-driven) then you stand to create confusion and irritation on the recipient’s side. Another way to think of it is this: make sure you have permission from your recipient to shift channels.

Making it jive

Across the political- and apolitical-sending world are a set of discrete best practices that can be applied to improve outcomes.

The first is that email authentication is not to be ignored. Bad actors are not only trying to meddle in elections but actively looking to defraud inboxes around the globe. Protect your brand, your recipients and the internet at large by authenticating your email via SPF, DKIM and DMARC at enforcement.

Next, understand the use case of your chosen channel. Does it require a response immediately? Or can it wait? Using SMS to write a novel is probably not the best use of the channel. Vice versa, using email to get people to the polls could work, but SMS has a more instantaneous effect.

Lastly, remember consistency is key. The internet is rife with fraud. Therefore, creating consistent, recognizable brands across channels is a great way of educating recipients on the look, feel and “authenticity” of your brand.

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Marketing Land. Staff authors are listed here.

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