Subscribing to the email lists of both Democratic candidates is like living the plot of 1987 teen film Can’t Buy Me Love: Suddenly I am incredibly popular, and for some reason people think I have a lot of money.


Over the course of this weekend I received nine total email messages from Bernie and Hillary. This doesn’t count any third-party messages from supporting organizations or local groups – this is straight-up national email from the campaigns. Every one of them is a fundraising appeal.

I thought it would be fun to take a close look at these messages and share some musings about how it all looks to supporters, and what we can learn from the campaigns’ tactics. (Your definition of fun may vary.) One thing to note: this email address is not connected to a giving history for either candidate, so this is the prospect perspective.


The Bernie Barrage comprised five appeals, just barely edging out the Clinton Cavalcade’s four. But if you take a look at my inbox up there, you’ll notice that “Bernie Sanders” sent just one message, while three came from “,” and one from “Bernie Sanders 2016.”

Similarly, I received just one email from “Hillary Clinton,” another two from “,” and one from special guest “Chelsea Clinton.”

We’ve done some of our own testing around sender names, and sometimes we do find that a simple change in the “From” line can lead to more opens, clicks, and even a higher response. The campaigns are almost certainly testing this as well (along with a zillion other variables — these folks tend to be testing fanatics!), but there is more here than simply boosting the open rate for a single message.

When message frequency is this intense, using a variety of sender names isn’t just about trying to match up the right signer with the right recipient — variety for variety’s sake matters, too.

Readers will start to tune out repeated messages from the same voice, so mixing it up could make the messages stand out a bit more. Or at the very least, be received with less annoyance by your list. I find it notable that the candidates themselves are only credited with one message each — Bernie just sent me one message, it’s the Sanders campaign website that’s asking for money three times in a day. Just, like, autonomously, I guess. This is how SkyNet starts.

Bear this tactic in mind if you are planning a campaign that involves several messages over a short span of time – especially in a single day, like with a 24-hour challenge or campaign deadline. Think about rolling out multiple signers: your E.D. to lay out major campaign themes, maybe a member of development staff to update on progress toward goal, a celebrity guest signer, even a message “from” the organization itself.

You may not notice a strong lift to any given message that uses a fresh signer, but the overall impact can still be positive.


The case for giving in every single one of these nine messages, from both campaigns, is essentially the same. Interestingly, none of them so much as reference the escalating violence at Trump rallies, which has been the major political storyline of the last few days. Instead, they focus strictly on what matters most to the campaigns right now: winning delegates.

Some common themes:


ONE: 8 of 9 messages mention Tuesday’s primaries – these campaigns know the value of urgency and a deadline! This Clinton appeal consists almost entirely of an animated gif showing the states that will vote (and is
the only one of the nine to include any graphics beyond the campaign logo and a DONATE button).

TWO: Goals, goals, goals. Half of the Clinton emails mention having already brought in 920,000 donors, with a goal of reaching a million. That’s a great way to show the size and scope of the campaign they want me to join, but big numbers can also feel pretty abstract. Luckily, the Clinton campaign also provides a micro-goal: “We’re looking for 57 people from your area to chip in today.”

The Sanders campaign wants to reach 150,000 contributions by Sunday at midnight. That’s the specific goal. But in a broader sense, becoming part of a large and growing movement is the central message of all the Sanders appeals.

This kind of messaging works by making victory feel achievable, and by putting subtle social pressure on the reader. If 920,000 Hillary supporters have given, what am I waiting for? I don’t want to let down the 56 other donors in my area who are looking to me to chip in. And do I really want to be left out of the party when 149,999 Berners celebrate potential primary victories on Tuesday? Remember that goals aren’t just about what you as an organization can achieve – they are also about what the donor can be a part of.

THREE: They don’t ask for much. As I mentioned, there is no donor history attached to this email address, so both campaigns are treating me like a prospect. For the Sanders campaign, that means a direct ask for a contribution of $3. And cutting against candidate stereotypes, the Clinton campaign wants less – just a $1 donation!

We’ve done plenty of testing around low-dollar asks like this, and typically see a few common threads that likely explain the campaigns’ strategies.

First, asking for a small, token donation can be a very effective way to motivate first-time gifts from prospects. For someone who has shown a commitment to your cause but never given, lowering the barrier to entry can work wonders – and you can always try to upgrade them later. Pay close attention to your audiences: a low-dollar ask won’t necessarily move your existing donors (and may turn off some – if I gave you a $100 gift last month and now you are asking for $1, that tells me you don’t know my giving history or care about who I am).

Second, asking for just a dollar doesn’t mean you’ll get just a dollar. While average gift does tend to go down a bit when we make a small-dollar ask like this, the drop isn’t usually very dramatic. You probably won’t get a flood of $3 donations, even if that’s what’s in the email, and higher conversion rates will often overcome the modest decline in average gift size so your total revenue is still higher.

Finally, that tiny dollar handle is just for the email. Clicking through on a Sanders $3 ask lands on a donation page where the lowest displayed gift amount is $15. For a Clinton $1 ask, the donation page gift string starts $3, $5, $10. This is a big part of why average gift doesn’t drop that much just because the email includes a low-dollar ask: the donation page still encourages larger gifts.


I’ve been using a few terms interchangeably: gift, donation, contribution. My thesaurus tells me they are all basically equivalent. The campaigns clearly disagree.

When the Clinton campaign wants me to reach for my wallet, they tell me to “donate.” Consistently. Not give, not contribute. Occasionally they’ll say “chip in,” but again and again and again: DONATE.

Sanders doesn’t want me to donate. He wants me to “contribute.” That’s the preferred term in both body copy and button text. It’s a subtle language difference, but it’s no accident.

Another subtle but noticeable difference is how they say goodbye. For the Sanders campaign, regardless of who the message is from, the sign-off is “In solidarity.” For the Clinton campaign, the closing is “thanks” or “thank you.”

I would be surprised if A/B testing by either campaign would find a measurable difference if they swapped one sign-off  for another. It’s possible, and like I said, presidential campaigns have a tendency to test every possible variable they can. But even if the message sign-off doesn’t affect immediate response rates, that doesn’t mean it won’t make a difference over time. This kind of language is about signaling, and it says a lot about how the campaigns see supporters – and more importantly, how they want donors (or contributors) to see themselves.

Finally, it’s worth noting just how verbose the Sanders campaign is relative to the Clinton campaign. The average Sanders appeal is 178 words long; the Clinton average is a little over half that, 96 words. And twice this weekend, the Sanders campaign included poll results in its messaging.

Subjectively, this adds up to a much more detailed case for giving from Bernie. Whether that will add up to victory in the Tuesday primaries or beyond…well, that remains to be seen.

Either way, I’m sure the campaigns will let me know all about it. After all, I am very popular, and they have a lot to say to me.