A Message From the Governor Breeds
Political E-Mail Debate
By Jamie Murphy and Stephen C. McDowell, Wall Street Journal Interactive Edition.
Published January 5, 1999. Copyright, Wall Street Journal.
LAST HALLOWEEN, Bob Bownes, an official with NeWorks Networking Inc., a New York network-management firm, received an e-mail message with a puzzling subject line: "A message from Governor Lawton Chiles."
Why was the governor of Florida apparently sending him e-mail?
Mr. Bownes opened the message, thinking it might have something to do with his previous work with the Florida Internet Service Providers' Association. It didn't: The e-mail was a plea that Mr. Bownes vote for Lt. Governor Buddy MacKay in Florida's upcoming governor's race against Republican Jed Bush.
"Once I figured out what it was -- an unsolicited bulk e-mail -- I was pretty displeased," Mr. Bownes says. He was also displeased that he received the message despite the fact that he'd never claimed residence, paid taxes or registered to vote in Florida.
"To be assaulted by that [e-mail] from an out-of-state candidate for a race I'm not interested in or eligible for is incredible," he says. "You might as well be sending me campaign notices for whomever is running for the House of Parliament in England."
Politicians, consultants and political parties are eager to experiment with e-mail, attracted by its convenience, immediacy, intimacy, low cost and broad reach. But these experimenters are finding that late October political e-mail like that received by Mr. Bownes can be a matter of trick-or-treat. Sending political e-mail to a willing recipient is a treat, but recipients who don't want such e-mail may see it as a dirty trick.
"Internet users are sophisticated," says Jay Rayburn, past president of the North American Public Relations Council and a professor at Florida State University. "Trying to pass this off as a personal message from the governor was a mistake. Worse than that, it risks alienating a large number of people. It's bad public relations."
Knocking on Doors
The Florida Democratic Party saw things differently. It authorized the Internet Media Group, an Internet direct-marketing company in Boca Raton, Fla., to knock on almost a quarter of a million electronic doors on the evening of Oct. 30 and into Halloween's early hours. The knock was Mr. Chiles' message, which criticized Mr. Bush as a negative campaigner and urged recipients to turn out for Mr. MacKay. (Mr. Chiles, who was retiring as governor, died last month. Mr. Bush, meanwhile, beat Mr. MacKay handily on Election Day.)
Steve Hardigree, president of the Internet Media Group, divides e-mail messages into three types: targeted, which uses key words; mass e-mail sent to undifferentiated lists of recipients, a practice derided as "spamming"; and opt-in, a system in which the recipient asks to receive the e-mails ahead of time.
Opt-in e-mail is solicited; targeted e-mails and spam are unsolicited. What the Florida Democratic Party sent out was an unsolicited, targeted e-mail. To Mr. Hardigree, the difference between that and spam is important.
Since we "e-mail to specific demographic groups, the e-mail can serve to educate the reader about a political candidate's agenda and provide them with a link to their Web site so they may get additional information," he says. "This is a benefit to the voters, because it helps them make a more informed choice before they cast their vote."
But others argue that the important distinction isn't between targeted and untargeted, but between solicited and unsolicited.
At the national level, in fact, both Republicans and Democrats agree on what kind of political e-mail is desirable -- and disagree with Mr. Hardigree.
The Democratic National Committee's policy is to send mass e-mails "only to people who request to be on our list," says spokesman Tony Wyche. "In fact, if someone signs up to receive one of our publications that is distributed via e-mail, their e-mail address is not added to our list until the subscription is confirmed via a return e-mail."
The same goes for the Republican National Committee, which believes "it is counterproductive to send unsolicited mass e-mail; people view it as junk mail and [it] will turn off more voters than gain supporters," according to spokesman Tom Yu. "Internet users have to communicate to us that they wish to receive e-mail from the Republican National Committee."
While the national party organizations agree, their state counterparts in Florida do not.
The Republican Party of Florida sees a future for e-mailing potential voters "if they are willing recipients," says spokesman Bob Sparks, adding that the Florida Democratic Party's "mass e-mail on behalf of the MacKay campaign represents a scattershot approach that represented a lack of focus that in turn angered many of those whose votes they sought."
Tony Welch, spokesman for the Florida Democratic Party, sees it differently, saying he "didn't expect any complaints" from the mass e-mail and adding that he's received less than a dozen. (Complaining in this way, however, required a trip to the MacKay Web site. The e-mail's reply address went to the Internet Media Group; Mr. Hardigree says he received a similar number of complaints as Mr. Welch, adding that they weren't passed on to the Florida Democratic Party.)
Question of Effectiveness
Mr. Welch says the key question for the Florida Democratic Party is how effective the mass e-mail was. He says the group has made no decisions about what it will do in the future, noting that "this is the time to figure out what's going to become common practice."
But he also calls attention to the fact that unsolicited pitches aren't a brand-new phenomenon from political parties: Mass e-mail, he notes, is "a lot less intrusive than some of the things we do, such as telephone calls."
The Florida governor's race wasn't the only political e-mail controversy of 1998, however. Last summer, San Francisco political consultant Robert Barnes canceled a plan to e-mail the California Democratic slate to half a million people in the state after Democratic candidates questioned if it was a good tactic.
That's why the message from Mr. Chiles surprised Jonah Seiger, co-founder of the Washington, D.C.-based political-consulting firm mindshare Internet Campaigns LLC. Mr. Seiger says he thinks Mr. Barnes' decision not to send unsolicited e-mail was the right one, and adds that the contretemps "probably gave other potential political spammers second thoughts, and this may have resulted in less political spam this cycle than some of us anticipated."
One person who helped stir up opposition to Mr. Barnes' plan was Kim Alexander, president of the California Voter Foundation, a nonprofit organization promoting online voter education.
Ms. Alexander says she was pleased with 1998's relative lack of political spam.
"There was a lot of speculation earlier in the election year that political spam might develop into a heavily used tool for campaigning," she says. "The fact that there was actually very little political spam sent out is most likely due to a fear on the part of candidates that unsolicited e-mail could backfire and cause the sender unwanted, negative publicity."
But Ms. Alexander didn't totally escape unsolicited political e-mail: She received the message from Mr. Chiles, even though she's a registered California voter.
"Obviously the senders of this message didn't do a very careful job of targeting the recipients," she says. (Mr. Hardigree of the Internet Media Group says the company's targeted lists have "a small margin of error, typically less than one percent." Since the group sent more than 230,000 e-mail messages under Mr. Chiles' name, by this estimate Ms. Alexander is one of roughly 2,000 people who fell through the cracks.)
Despite receiving a message from Florida, Ms. Alexander isn't against politicians using e-mail. In fact, she's an advocate -- given the right situation.
"E-mail is a terrific, cost-effective way to mobilize volunteers and gain political support," she says. "The best way for a candidate to use e-mail is to build their list one name at a time, as many candidates did this year."
Ms. Alexander singles out Jesse Ventura's successful bid for the governor's mansion in Minnesota as one of the best examples of how to use political e-mail effectively. "An e-mail list of just a few hundred or a few thousand supporters can be enormously beneficial to a candidate, as we saw in Jesse Ventura's case."
They're also cheaper: Opt-in e-mail lists, such as those used by Mr. Ventura's campaign, are free, while targeted lists cost money. Internet Media Group charges 4.5 cents per name for a targeted e-mail; the client rents the list instead of buying it. By these calculations, the message from Mr. Chiles cost about $10,000 -- though Mr. Hardigree says the money was donated and didn't come from the Florida Democratic Party.
Neither Gov. Chiles' office nor Lt. Gov. MacKay's office responded to questions last month about the effectiveness of the mass e-mailing or whether they knew the tactic would be used. Mr. Welch says the Florida Democratic Party made the decision to send the mass e-mail, that Mr. MacKay "most likely did not know about it ahead of time" and that the "governor's office approved the content of the message."
Mr. Bownes doesn't really care who approved the e-mail he got for Halloween. As for the effectiveness, he compares unsolicited political e-mail to a less-ballyhooed political communication method: "the cars with the PAs on top of them driving through the neighborhood blaring political announcements."
"Don't see them anymore, do you?" he asks, adding that "this is just the modern equivalent, and equally annoying."
Write to Jamie Murphy and Stephen C. McDowell at firstname.lastname@example.org
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