Ending abusive practices in campaign email programs
Josh Nelson on what the industry needs to do to improve
If you’ve ever made a donation to a political campaign or signed up to volunteer, then you’ve probably received unwanted mass emails from campaigns you’ve never heard of. Spamming and scamming email or SMS lists has, unfortunately, become too common in digital politics, and it risks turning off voters and disengaging potential supporters. For this week’s Campaigner, we spoke with Josh Nelson, CEO of Civic Shout and co-founder of The Juggernaut Project about abusive digital campaign practices and how to stop them.
Q&A with Josh Nelson on spam and scam in campaign email programs
Campaigner: How’d you get your start in politics and campaigns?
Josh Nelson: Back in college I was not particularly politically engaged, but the Iraq War and Bush getting re-elected were really a wake-up call for me that I needed to get involved. It was unbelievable to me that a president who was so obviously bad at what he did, who had lied us into a war, could get reelected like that. That sort of ignited my interest in politics, and I switched majors and wrote my undergraduate thesis on the role of the internet in the electoral process. After that, I got into blogging and have lived at the intersection of digital politics and advocacy ever since.
Campaigner: So what are you up to now?
Josh Nelson: I co-founded an organization called the Juggernaut Project a few years ago, which uses list rentals and Facebook ads to help progressive nonprofits and Democratic campaigns grow their opt-in email lists. I’m also the CEO of Civic Shout, a new platform for opt-in email and SMS acquisition. Broadly speaking, I use technology to help progressives and Democrats reach more supporters, mobilize them, get them to take advocacy actions, and donate.
Campaigner: You’ve become quite an advocate against something everyone hates: spam email in politics - what made you want to lead on the issue? What are some of the bad practices that are most common?
Josh Nelson: I always start from the perspective that as Democrats and as progressives we believe in treating people with respect and dignity, and that includes respecting people's privacy. That should show up in our campaign platforms and in our policy agendas, but it should also show up in our day to day work and how we go about running campaigns. There are two main “bad” tactics that I tend to focus on: spamming and scamming.
Related to spamming: Often, the first interaction an organization or a campaign might have with somebody is how they end up on their email list in the first place. The bad way to get somebody on your email list is to just buy their contact information from one of these shady data vendors and get a .CSV file of known Democratic donors, or to swap with another campaign. It’s a rude, intrusive thing to do, and it can sometimes backfire because people don’t like getting spammed by politicians they’ve never heard of. Even though some fraction of those contacts will donate, most of them will resent it. It kind of poisons politics for them, and I think decreases their appetite for civic participation. It may also make them less likely to volunteer for your campaign or to support your campaign in other ways. And it can also have email deliverability consequences, as people you spam are more inclined to report your email as spam - service providers like Gmail take that as a signal and will bury your future emails in the spam folder where you can’t reach anybody.
Then, there are a lot of different pieces to the “scamming” side of abusive practices. That includes any tactic where you’re deceiving people, guilt-tripping them, threatening them in some way to try to get them to click a link or ultimately donate. There’s sort of a spectrum of deceptive practices in the industry. On one end, there's the extreme hyperbole, which I think is unfortunate, but borderline okay as these things go.
For example, once every three weeks, someone like Nancy Pelosi sends an email that says, “this is the most important email I've ever sent you.” Clearly, that can’t possibly be true. They’re just lying to increase the urgency, to try to get you to click a link. That’s unfortunate, but that’s not the worst.
Then, you'll sometimes see fake donation “matches,” which a lot of campaigns have started to cut down on due to some legal guidance that came from prominent attorneys in the industry. That tactic looks like an email that says “we're triple matching or 1000% matching” any contribution that you donate - when that is in fact not happening.
You’ll also have guilt-tripping emails, where it's like “Republicans are so bad and I thought you didn't want Donald Trump to come back into power, but I must have been wrong. ”
As the New York Times documented at length last summer, more often than not the folks who are victimized by these types of scammy tactics are senior citizens. It's important for folks writing and sending emails to keep in mind and always try to remember that there are real people at the other end of these emails - and it may be helpful to picture your own mother or grandmother receiving a particular email and see if you still feel good about sending it.
Campaigner: I'm sure everyone reading this will have experienced either spammy or scammy tactics at least once recently. I’ve seen some really bad examples recently, and among Republicans, it seems even worse. There was that GOP candidate in Michigan that sent out an SMS blast asserting that Joe Biden would change your child’s gender. It’s completely out of control.
Josh Nelson: For sure. I focus mostly on Democrats because I believe there’s hope for change. I also believe Republicans based on their policy priorities are for the most part deeply immoral. We should make clear though that as bad as the Democrats have been on this stuff, the Republicans have always been worse.
Campaigner: Who are the folks that are responsible for keeping these bad tactics going? Is it the staffer writing the emails? The digital consulting firms? Software vendors? The campaigns themselves?
Josh Nelson: Ultimately, I don’t blame the low and mid-level staffers who are just doing their job. They have to earn a living and sometimes they don’t know any better. They're gonna do what they have to do until they can get their next job.
I think the ultimate responsibility for any email that goes out lies with the principal at that organization. Maybe that’s the candidate themself, the campaign manager, or for a nonprofit it would be an executive director. If their entity is spamming and scamming average citizens to earn a quick buck, they're responsible for that and should clean up their act.
There are lots of PACs out there, and even some of the big Democratic institutional players, who have not chosen to clean up their act and have decided that they are okay with scamming folks to make as much money as possible before the next FEC deadline. They’ll keep doing it as long as they can get away with it.
That’s why I and others have placed some emphasis on getting the CRMs and other technology providers to crack down on shady tactics. One of the biggest is called Bonterra, the owner of NGP VAN / EveryAction - as most of the emails on the Democratic side are sent from their tools.
That company’s acceptable use policy does not address the “scamming” piece at all, and they don’t think it’s their responsibility. But they do in fact prohibit spamming and sending unsolicited emails to people who did not opt in. For years, they essentially looked the other way and didn’t really enforce their own policy, but last summer, I wrote an open letter that was signed by close to 100 practitioners in the industry, calling on them to strengthen and enforce their terms of service. Since then, we’ve seen some improvement on the spam enforcement, but there’s a lot more they could be doing.
Campaigner: What are ways that campaigns and organizations themselves can still raise money while not deploying some of these bad tactics?
Josh Nelson: There are plenty of great ways to grow your opt-in email community. There's a lot of room for substantive emails, inspirational emails, emails that motivate people to get involved, donate, volunteer for campaigns, etc., without having to rely on fear and guilt.
There are different emotions that humans are motivated by, and some of them are positive. Hopes and dreams, inspirations, values and what you believe in can very much motivate people - you don't have to just scare them. We saw one recent example of this from the DLCC (Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee) a few weeks ago. They sent an email from Mallory McMorrow, the Michigan state legislator getting smeared by Republican attacks there. The committee sent an email from her along the lines of her viral speech, and it was their most successful fundraising email in over a year.
That was an example of a substantive, thoughtful email, with the right sender at the right time.
Campaigner: We recently spoke with a campaigner about the rise in campaign text messaging this cycle. I know that you kind of specialize in the email side of things, but are you concerned that some of these same bad actors are going to use text messaging to spam and scam folks as well?
Josh Nelson: Absolutely. Some of the stuff that we've seen on SMS has been even more aggressive, so I would not be surprised if spam and shady tactics cause SMS to be a less viable channel for fundraising in the future. Obviously regulation through 10DLC is going to help some, and we know the cell phone carriers themselves are increasingly concerned about text message opt-ins in particular. There’s some indication that the technology providers on the SMS side are going to be a little more helpful than the folks on the email side have been.
Any time we have a new channel for reaching supporters and donors at scale, bad actors will step in and try to exploit it for their own short-term gain, at the expense of the broader ecosystem and the Democratic party.
Campaigner: Is that just due to the nature of campaigns? Because campaigns are time limited and its just churn and burn until Election Day?
Josh Nelson: I think that's right. You see a little less of this stuff on the nonprofit side, as longer-term organizations need to maintain their deliverability and keep an engaged email community after Election Day.
I think another piece of this is that folks define success too narrowly. I think the scale of online fundraising over the past few decades, starting with the Dean and Obama campaigns, have created a perception among the old guard and the party’s institutional folks that a campaign’s email list is just an ATM. They've come to think of it solely as a way to raise money. That limits the potential of email as a channel and of digital organizing more broadly.
Email lists can be used for so much more - to recruit volunteers or get folks involved in your campaign, and provide constituent services.
That's something Alexandria Ocasio Cortez has been great with, by the way, with both her email program and the SMS program having been used to provide resources after a bad storm in New York.
One last thing I would emphasize is that email is a primary way that many people interact with a politician. Nancy Pelosi is on cable tv, she puts out press releases, she’s out there in public in all these ways. But actually, the way that most Democrats hear from Pelosi is by getting scam emails sent in her name, trying to trick them into donating. That's their primary interaction with her. It’s got to have bad, long-term reputational effects. 🇺🇸