Of all the factors credited for the so-called blue wave of Democratic legislators elected to the House of Representatives in November, there’s one that doesn’t seem to be on many people’s radar: personalized emails. But talk to the Democratic National Committee, and they’ll say the party’s success during the 2018 midterms—which saw a net gain of more than 40 seats—resulted in part from a quiet but effective overhaul of its email strategy.
The DNC, looking to put a motivated base front and center during the midterms, took a page out of marketers’ playbooks by personalizing emails sent to supporters in an effort to keep them engaged, involved and motivated to vote. Caitlin Mitchell, the DNC’s chief mobilization officer, said figuring out how to best personalize digital communications was a priority for the party in 2018 as the committee focused on rebuilding trust with supporters and improving digital outreach efforts. Because the DNC relies heavily on email communications to bring in donation dollars and volunteers, she said, cracking the email code was key.
“We have a ton of data on our supporters — on their giving history, on their volunteer history,” Mitchell said. “But [before 2018] we didn’t have a really good way of showing that to people in a way that was motivating and not creepy.”
It’s not the sexiest marketing method, but the DNC said it works. Mitchell said personalized emails sent out by the DNC in the 2018 midterm cycle resulted in an average donation of $45—more than double the average $20 donation coming from the DNC’s static emails. In October 2018, a month before the midterms, the DNC raised 38 percent more than it did in October 2016, even though it sent less than half the number of total emails to supporters than it did two years ago. All in all, the DNC raised $40 million in online fundraising in the lead-up to the 2018 midterms, more than double the $19 million it raised in grassroots fundraising on and offline in 2016.
To leverage its email list, the party partnered with the contextual email marketing company Movable Ink to send different email messages to the different types of people who support Democratic candidates. The DNC tailored messages based on recipients’ volunteering histories, past donations and locations. Mitchell’s team also worked with the machine-learning company Strong Analytics—whose clients include H&M, Mercedes-Benz and Stitch Fix—to determine which messages led to the best results in order to optimize future email messaging.
Some of the emails the DNC sent pinpointed local volunteering activities that were in proximity to potential supporters’ physical addresses, which the DNC has from voter registration and keeps on file for other marketing, such as mailers. Other personalized campaigns included information about polling locations based on physical addresses, and a request for a donation that included the dollar amount that the recipient had already donated in 2018.
The DNC declined to disclose the total size of its email list, but said it included multiple millions of people. Over the course of 2018, it executed more than 150 individual personalized email campaigns using Movable Ink, according to the DNC.
“I feel like every cycle there will be a story afterwards saying email is dead and something else is the next big thing,” Mitchell said. “But as far as we can tell it is still very much the king in terms of online fundraising.”
Mitchell likened the updated strategy to the airline industry’s use of personalized emails to reach consumers with information like point balances and location.
“In a much more crowded marketplace, there’s a higher bar to be able to move people into taking action,” Mitchell said. “By providing people hyper-personalized information that feels tailored, people are willing to take that greater action. We were showing people all kinds of data about their giving history, their volunteer history, and if it’s presented in a positive way and in not a creepy way, it means something to people.”