political email marketing

3 Psychological Triggers Ruining Political Emails

And 3 We Should Be Using More Often

There’s an old saying in Washington that “money is the mother’s milk of politics”. While that may have been true in decades past, with the ruling of Citizens United v Federal Elections Commission in 2010, it is most certainly the case now. Having the most money in the coffer won’t guarantee you a win, but having the least will almost certainly guarantee you a loss. This forces political fundraising to the core of any modern campaign — a focus especially true for a campaign or organization’s digital team. And despite the panoply of digital communication available to us, email remains our most fruitful fundraising channel.

Political Emails 101

Email is where smart digital teams can begin to work strategic magic through segmentation and personalization, moving voters up the value scale and ever closer to conversion (i.e. $$$). But email marketing isn’t easy. To be successful you will have to write compelling content, A/B test and segment by issue, by conversion, and by sentiment. Above all else, you have to understand that real people are on the other side reading, feeling, and clicking. You’ll have to use the psychology of human behavior to influence and motivate. Go back and look at the last two or three emails you’ve sent (or received). Did you invoke emotion? A sense of urgency? Did you include social proof? Make a value proposition? These are all psychological triggers and each one can play an important role in whether someone takes action or not. But it’s not always easy to know what triggers to use where and when. So let’s take a look at three of the most overused psychological triggers in political email marketing. Even though we see them all the time, you may not be aware of them.

Old Trigger: Belonging

Everyone has an inherent desire need to be part of something bigger. The draw to feel connected lives in us all and plays an important underlying role in party politics. In her talk at TEDxHouston, University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work research professor Brené Brown discussed the human connection, specifically our ability to empathize, love, and belong. She states:
A deep sense of love and belonging is an irreducible need of all people. We are biologically, cognitively, physically, and spiritually wired…to belong. When those needs are not met, we don’t function as we were meant to. We break. We fall apart.
Our sense of belonging not only makes us feel secure, comfortable, and validated, being part of a larger whole provides inspiration and motivation. Consider the study by politically opposite economic professors John List and Dean Karlan. Performed in late 2014, List and Karlan sent out four variations of a fundraising ask on behalf of an unnamed liberal group. The letters were identical, except some included mention of a donation match and some did not. In one letter, sent to the control group, there was no match. A second letter made mention that a donor had agreed to match any gift, dollar for dollar. In a third letter, the match was increased to two to one, and in a fourth, it was three to one. What they found was surprising. The size of the match in the experiment didn’t have any effect on giving. Donors who received the offer of a one-to-one match gave just as often, and just as much, as those responding to the three-to-one offer. So why were they not driven by economic incentive? Because, as it turns out, most of us really don’t put much thought into the economic value of our giving. Further review of the data showed that in blue states (Defined as those that voted for John Kerry) the existence of a matching gift had only a minor effect, lifting responses by ~5%. In red states, however, a matching gift increased donations by almost 60%! List and Karlan concluded that liberals living in states that swung for Bush’s re-election felt more isolated, alone. The sense of belonging, of community that came from knowing others were willing to match their support served as a much stronger driving force. A good example of this in action comes from the Democratic email below: Belonging Email Example 1 With Professor Karlan summing it up:
“Giving is not about a calculation of what you are buying, it is about participating in a fight.”

Old Trigger: Hate

We love to hate the enemy. Boy, do we. Decades ago, sociologist George Simmel made the case that we create common enemies to unite us with others that we perceive to be like us. In short, we need a collective enemy to justify the bad things around us and contextualize our interactions with one another. Having a common enemy, it seems, makes the world feel safer and more secure. In fact, a study published in the journal Personal Relationships suggests that the fastest way to friendship is for two people to actually hate the same person. So, it’s no wonder we see emails like this from the Democrats: GOP Shutdown email And this from the Republicans: Stop Hillary PAC email When organizations can point the finger at a single politician or political group, it’s actually creating cohesion, reinforcing the community, and giving context to why things are so bad (from their perspective). In addition, an enemy makes it easier to tailor messages that highlight one’s strengths, especially if one’s competitor lacks (or is made to appear to lack) in those areas. Painting a vivid picture of an enemy not only helps you relate to your community, it helps to answer the voters’ primary question: “How will you help me?”

Old Trigger: Urgency

This is perhaps one of the oldest marketing tricks around and for good reason. The human urge for “fight or flight” can drive conversions in just about any market. A collection of studies by Marketing Experiments presents the myriad use cases of urgency in marketing:
  • In one example a discount computer parts company “implied urgency” by using a date-stamp on their weekly deals page to increase sales by 10% for 48 hours after the page launched.
  • In another example, the “soft” mention of quantity implied a limited supply and increased conversion rates by 508%.
But urgency alone isn’t enough. As silly as it may sound, we still have to come out and make the ask explicitly clear. That’s right. You have to be told what to do next. A classic example comes from a study by Howard Leventhal in which he analyzes the effects of creating urgency with and without a call to action. Leventhal conducted the study by handing out two different pamphlets, both sparing no detail on the horrid effects that the tetanus disease can have on the body. The first pamphlet described only the effects of tetanus, while the second included the effects and information on where to get vaccinated. Those who received the second pamphlet were a whopping 25% more likely to get vaccinated. In addition, he found that those who received the information on next steps were also more engaged with the pamphlet as a whole, being able to recall much more specific information. Why? He revealed that those who didn’t receive information on what to do next were prone to convincing themselves that, “I don’t need to worry about this because it won’t happen to me,” whereas those in the second group had little reason to feel this way because they had a plan of action to keep it from happening. A large part of this successful tactic stems from that ugly word “soon.” We all tell ourselves that we’ll get to something “soon,” but we often forget, can’t seem to find the time, or lose interest. Hell, I’ve been trying to lose a few pounds for as “soon” as I can remember. So we need to counter this inherent behavior by making sure we tell the user exactly what to do to defeat the enemy and protect the community. If you have been following along, our email recipe now looks like this: Ingredients 2 Tablespoons of Belonging 4 Tablespoons of Hate 2 1/2 Cups of Urgency Directions 1. Mix Belonging and Hate together over medium heat. 2. Stir in Urgency and bring to a boil. 3. Simmer down until all creativity is removed. 4. Serve piping hot with plenty of bold font. If done right, you’ll get something like this: Democratic begging email example Or perhaps this: Republican stop Hillary email Overlooking the fact that both Democrats and Republicans seem to be sending the exact same emails, we should be asking ourselves if fear and hate is the right strategy? While it may be serving its purpose in the short-term, are there no better triggers available? And what are the long-term effects of pushing partisan rhetoric?

Being Responsible For Partisan Anger & Stubbornness

Ever heard of the hypothalamus? Turns out it is pretty darn important. The hypothalamus is the portion of our brain responsible for anger, along with a lot of other base level needs like hunger, thirst, and sexual satisfaction. And while our brains can turn anger into aggression, it can also create a curious form of stubbornness, especially online. In a unique study by from the University of Wisconsin participants were asked to read a fake news story on the risks and benefits of a new technology. The content of the post was balanced and the same for everyone, but one group got civil comments below the article while other got rude and hateful comments. The results were both surprising and disturbing. The hateful comments not only polarized readers but often it changed a participant’s entire interpretation of the story. Those not feeling strongly one way or another had no change of opinion when reading the story with civil comments, but when that same segment read the rude comments, they became deeply polarized in their opinions of the risk associated with the new technology. By simply including ad hominem attacks in the comments, researchers were able to dramatically divide the respondents. So while inducing anger and fear in a series of email blasts may raise a marginally greater amount of money today, what role does it play in disrupting the larger mission of a campaign, committee, or organization tomorrow? And what role does this political polarization play in the larger context of legislation and governing? If the long-term strategy is greater participation, approval, and engagement, perhaps it is time we try a different approach.

Better Political Emails 101

Originally published in 1984, Influence by professor of psychology and marketing Robert Cialdini is a timeless read for any marketer. In the book, Cialdini presents at total of six psychological triggers you can use to get voters to “yes” more often. For the purposes of this post we’ll focus on two of the most important:
  1. Reciprocity
  2. Commitment & Consistency
…I’m going to take Cialdini’s six triggers a step further and add a seventh: Curiosity. Let’s take a look at how you can use some of these psychological triggers to get better results from your emails, both in the short and long-term.

New Trigger: Reciprocity

The principle of reciprocity is simple. When someone gives us something we feel compelled to give something back in return. This is part of the reason free samples at the grocery store are so successful. Although your campaign or organization may not be able to offer something in advance, perhaps you can offer something in return, or alongside. This email from Scott Walker is a good example of offering something in return: Reciprocity email example In addition to exchanging value, any individual willing to pay the extra $60 or so above the Amazon price for this book simply for his signature is someone who has self-identified as a likely continued campaign supporter. But you don’t need a book to provide value. Mattress company Casper offers free bedtime stories on their website. This is an incredibly clever way to stay in contact with those that may not be in the market for a mattress at this moment. Your organization could come up with a fun political quiz or a guide to the immigration debate in Washington. Anything that may provide value AND help you segment is a great strategy. Offering your supporters value for value is an excellent way to build on the curiosity that peaked their interest in the first place.

New Trigger: Commitment & Consistency

The principle of commitment and consistency simply means that people will go to great lengths to appear consistent and that they expect the same in return. This is why group workouts like CrossFit are so popular and why Weight Watchers is so successful. Public commitments make you more likely to stay consistent. This can be explained, from a psychological perspective, by the fact that people have established these commitments as being in line with one’s self-image. Take the progressive training organization New Organizing Institute. Their core mission is to train fellow activists and organizers. In fact, their tagline is “for organizers, by organizers.” They pride themselves on being a grassroots group, from the grassroots and working in the grassroots. So, when they faced a bit of financial and structural problems earlier this year, they chose to address it with honesty and transparency, like sending an email to a friend: Commitment email example As an organization that wants to make progressive activists better, they expect a bit of vulnerability. By showing their vulnerability and focusing on areas they need to improve, they are building on their commitment and consistency.

New Trigger: Curiosity

Human curiosity is a powerful thing. It has been the driving force behind the greatest discoveries in science, medicine, and technology. In fact, curiosity is such an important trigger that it formed the underlying basis for my original essay on political intent marketing. Yet, the curiosity around Bruce Jenner’s ABC special or that catchy song on the radio can disappear as quickly as you pass the supermarket tabloids or turn off the car. So how can we trigger voter curiosity and turn it into action before it dissipates? Thankfully, psychology and economics professor George Loewenstein conducted an in-depth study to answer just that. He discovered that the peak combination for triggering curiosity included the following:
  • Violating expectations+
  • Minding the information gap+
  • Knowing when to stop
Let’s take a look at each of Professor Loewenstein’s three triggers more closely and how you might use them in your political emails. Violating expectations Violating expectations is essentially challenging conventional wisdom – suggesting that something small can create big results or that something bad can actually turn out good. For instance, consider sending the following subject line to a Republican candidate’s email list: This subject line may violate some expectations, but overall most voters could probably live without opening it, as it may not directly pertain to them. This brings us to an important distinction. To create a real desire to click, read, or sign up, you have to violate the right expectations. Consider a headline like this: This is much more effective because it violates the assumption that Republicans will always do the right thing in Washington. In addition, this “good Republican” may be one that you support. You’ll have to open the email to find out! Finally, we tease a solution to their potential problem. Mind the information gap Even if you violate the right expectations, curiosity can be fickle. It’s not enough to create disorder. You have to stop the reader from thinking, “Oh, I read something like that already – I know what it’s about.” To sustain curiosity Loewenstein recommends highlighting a gap in someone’s knowledge, particularly when it relates to a topic that is interesting to them. His tests revealed that most people assume they know more than they actually do, so you have to create enough variation in your copy that they can’t see around the corner. For example, you could write the following subject line: But if the individual has been on your list for some time, they’ve probably seen a variety of asks, lowering the expectation that you’ll present anything new. Then there’s this: We are upfront about the ask so they know what we want, but we also use words like “strategic” and “win.” As a supporter or at least a curious voter, we want them to feel like they are seeing behind the curtain, into the strategic plans of your inner circle While they likely could have guessed which commercial you bought with their last donation, they have no idea how their $15 will be used strategically to win the state of Ohio and at the very least intrigue is hard to walk away from.

Know when to stop

Lastly, Loewenstein discovered that curiosity doesn’t intensify indefinitely, rather it peaks and declines if left unsatisfied for too long. A common problem in MUCH of email copy is overdoing the ask, believing the reader will stay interested forever. It’s true that your subject line is important in getting the attention of the reader. But it isn’t synonymous with a desire to read your novella word-for-word. Your subject line gets them in the door, feeds their curiosity. But the rest of the email should read more like a landing page, than an email. The first line should get them to the second line, that pushes them to the third line and so on and so on until the end. Curiosity is a strong motivator and if done right, will lay a stronger foundation than hate or fear in your email marketing efforts.

Go Forth In Good Faith

The human mind is complex and all the psychological studies in the world can’t predict our often irrational behavior. So it is important to research your audience, run A/B tests to validate a hypothesis, and build a library of triggers that resonate with them in a positive way. Will we ever see the end of fear and hate in political email marketing? It’s not likely, but my hope is that we’ll continue to think creatively about how we can inspire, instead of disheartening. Because when you capitalize on curiosity, exchange value and consistently reinforce commitment you come away with the strongest psychological trigger of all. You build trust. And perhaps Dr. Stephen R. Covey, author of the best-selling book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People put it best:
When the trust is high, communication is easy, instant, and effective.

Want to get next week's essay?

Got Something To Say?


  1. If everything is urgent, nothing is urgent. If every fundraising deadline is critical, no fundraising deadline is critical. I’d be interested in a long term study of list attrition rates in email campaigns that abuse urgency and fear-mongering vs those that do not.

    • Good comment, Jessica. I’d love to see a study done in which list segments are treated differently, with regards to the urgency and negativity: One segment gets 80% positive updates and 20% urgency/trouble, while another has that ratio flipped, and perhaps you could have a segment that was 100% informational and congratulatory to the org’s accomplishments. In my experience, people tend to open their pockets more when a brand they are invested in is rising, rather than failing.