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Deliverability, unsolicited email and political communication

June 19th, 2008

Everybody hates spam, which is often defined as “unsolicited email.” I’d argue, however, that spam ought to include the notion “unwanted” in it. If I get an email from an old high school buddy out of the blue, I hardly consider it spam!

I broach this subject because of an e-thePeople I am working on: how to contact campaigns to invite them to participate in election guides. The problem: hotmail and AOL automatically filter our invitations as ‘junk.’

Of course, our emails are technically unsolicited. In most cases, neither we nor the media company has ever communicated prior to the invitation. But unlike regular spam, our emails are arguably wanted, not unwanted. How do we know? Our response rates among campaigns that we do contact ranges from 60-95% depending on the guide.

Now, there are some solutions to help with this ‘deliverability’ problem like ReturnPath. But as its name suggests, this company is trying to make sure that you receive the emails that you’ve requested like newsletters and registration emails.

The other solution is to reach people via opt-in email lists. But there does not exist such an opt-in list for campaigns due to several challenges. First, campaigns are temporary organizations that are created and destroyed rapidly. Second, they are highly fragmented geographically. Third, campaigns are designed to send not receive messages!

But I’d argue that “free speech,” e.g., effective speech, requires that people be able to communicate with their campaigns! Moreover, as I previously argued, these invitations are generally wanted by the campaigns. So what can we do?

In the short-term, I think we can rely on pragmatic solutions. For example, if we send invitations through our affiliates accounts rather than our own, it becomes much more likely that the emails will be delivered. Also, we can target the laggard campaigns that use hotmail and AOL through other channels.

In the longer-term, I hope that we can develop more “democratic” filters. For example, email communication by citizens who can verify that live within a certain district should have higher priority in reaching their elected officials than those citizens that do not live in that district. Perhaps there is someway to differentiate between communication that is commercial in purpose from communication that is political or civic in nature. I know this standard is a little vague, but hopefully it can be developed more as the need for it increases.

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