Email & the UK Election: The Good, the Bad, & the Undelivered!

Posted by Guy Hanson on

The UK general election is imminent, so it’s a great opportunity for us to have a look at how the main political parties are using the email channel. Over the next week, we’ll consider:

  1. What are they sending, and are they getting delivered?
  2. How are subscribers engaging with their emails? Are they showing signs of fatigue yet?
  3. What can we learn about supporter profiles from other programs they also subscribe to?
  4. With voting intentions too close to call, can Email Intelligence predict the outcome?

The Story so Far

We are certainly not seeing the levels of online sophistication produced by the last 2 US elections. That said, the UK parties are definitely upping their game! Back in January, the Times reported the Conservative party is reputedly spending £120,000 per month chasing Facebook likes.

Meanwhile, the Labour party, unable to compete in terms of spend, has clearly read the recently published DMA National Client Email survey (email generates an ROI of £38 for every £1 spent).

Analyzing Return Path’s Email Intelligence data, we can see the Times’s prediction was spot-on! The graphs below show Labour owns the largest email list, and over the past month has carried out more than twice as much campaign activity as any other party.

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However, when it comes to email program effectiveness the story is a very different one. Just like its performance in the opinion polls, the Scottish National Party is punching well above its weight – generating the best average Read rates and the lowest average Spam Filtering rates. It is closely followed by the Liberal Democrats, and in fact all of the smaller parties are generating better overall engagement metrics than the two larger ones.

Let’s consider some of the reasons for this.

Signing Up

I signed up with all the parties’ email programs – with the exception of the SNP which would only accept my email address in return for a donation! Some may say this is typical of the canny Scots, but may also explain their relatively small but highly engaged list.

Of the others, the sign-up form for the Conservatives, Lib Dems, and UKIP was prominently positioned “above the fold” while Labour and the Greens had it positioned below the fold. This represents a missed list growth opportunity for these two parties.

The Lib Dems, UKIP, and the Greens all operate a confirmed opt-in process, with new subscribers required to click on a link in their activation emails as part of the registration process. This will be a contributing factor to their higher than average engagement metrics.

The Green party also does an excellent job in setting subscriber expectations:

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They are sincere in thanking their new subscribers, and transparent in explaining what will happen next, what will be received, and how they will benefit from membership – all best practices in establishing the foundations for a successful long-term email relationship.

Great – but can they deliver?

All of the parties – with one exception – are generating Sender Scores in the 90-100 range. These reputation metrics are an indication of the trustworthiness of an email sender’s IP address and are used by email providers and filter providers to determine additional email filtering criteria. Email program owners can see their own Sender Scores at www.senderscore.org.

The exception is the Lib Dems, whose Sender Scores have tanked over the last week or so:

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This means their email deliverability is about to get a lot worse. A program with a score below 70 typically sees around 1/3 of its emails getting placed into the junk folder. In fairness, this isn’t necessarily the Lib Dems’ fault. They share their IP addresses with a range of other senders (including the British Kebab Awards!), meaning their program performance can be affected by the performance of other programs. It’s a bit like coalition politics – success isn’t in one’s own hands anymore!

Achieving a good Sender Score is a function of multiple variables including: good data quality; low complaint rates; IP address permanence; and sender authentication. The latter involves using techniques such as Sender Policy Framework (SPF) and/or Domain Keys Identified Mail (DKIM) to validate the IP addresses being used to send the emails. This is an important tool in the battle against phishing and spoofing, and the following table shows how the political parties fare:

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These results mean it’s not surprising the Greens are regularly delivering to my test account’s spam folder. Lack of authentication means mailbox providers will be more suspicious of their email traffic, and less likely to deliver it to the inbox as a result.

Another important email header element is a list-unsubscribe record. This record is used by mailbox providers to provide email users with the ability to unsubscribe from their emails directly from the inbox UI. Here’s how the political parties are faring against this best email practice:

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Not having this record means that list-unsubscribe requests will be treated as complaints, which in turn will have negative implications for email deliverability.

Finally, before the Conservatives feel too pleased with themselves, it’s worth mentioning that their inbox placement has also declined markedly over the past weeks. This brings us to another, increasingly important, deliverability variable – subscriber engagement. Mailbox providers are increasingly judging senders by the actions their recipients are taking in their inboxes, with positive behaviours (e.g. retrieved from spam, forwarded, etc.) being viewed more favorably than negative behaviors (e.g. spam complaint, deleted unread, etc.).

Recent Conservative emails have arrived with dull-as-ditchwater subject lines like:

  • “Early Starts”
  • “Our Plan”
  • “Try This”

Deleted unread rates have risen sharply, and more emails are now being placed in the spam/junk folder as a result. Contrast this performance with some of the highest performing emails that we have seen during the campaign to date:

  • “Disgraceful!”
  • “Destroy and decapitate the Lib Dems”
  • “Book Now for the UKIP Airshow!”

These calls to action are far more engaging, and subscriber interaction is substantially more positive as a result. We will consider subscriber engagement with election email programs in more detail in Part 2 of this series.

Deliverability is critically important for the ROI being generated by these email programs. We estimate that around 65 million emails have been sent by these 6 parties during the past 30-day period. Many of them are driving campaign donations – if we assume a response rate of 1%, and an average donation of £10 (the Conservatives suggest £25!) – then each 1% uplift in performance is worth about £70,000. In an election that’s too close to call, every vote is going to count, and numbers like this could be the difference between 5 years in the paradise that is power, or the wilderness that is opposition!

Check out part 2 of this series Email & the Election: Are voters engaging,  where we consider how subscribers are engaging with their emails.

 


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About Guy Hanson

Guy is a passionate advocate for intelligent use of customer data to drive responsive email programs. With a knowledge base that now spans nearly 15 years, he is a global e-mail expert and thought leader. Leading Return Path’s International Professional Services consulting team, Guy has worked with a broad range of clients across 5 continents to improve their email delivery, subscriber engagement and revenue generated. Outside of work, Guy is the Chairman of the DMA Email Council. In this role, he works with industry peers including brands, agencies, and service providers to promote the best interests of the email industry to a broader audience. He is also a regular contributor to the industry press.

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