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Political Email Placement or, You're Not Special

A recent piece in The Markup called Swinging the Vote? attempts to figure out how Google decides where to deliver political e-mail. They were startled to discover that only a small fraction of it was delivered into the main inbox, and a fair amount was classed as spam. They shouldn't have been.

This is an example of the fallacy We're so nice that the rules don't apply to us, which is far too common among non-profit and political mailers.

Every mail sender believes that their mail is extremely important and that the recipients urgently want it. In nearly every case, they are wrong. (In my case, the only senders in that category are my wife and my daughter.) For the rest of the mail, specifically including bulk mail I've signed up for, I don't mind getting it, and I will generally get around to reading it when I have time. This definitely includes mail from political candidates, some of which can get rather repetitive around contribution reporting time.

Gmail divides mail into tabs intended to describe the kind of mail it is, which is not the same as describing who sent it. In my experience, they do a pretty good job of sorting mail into the Updates, Promotions, Social, and Forums tab. Promotions describe its content fairly well — messages that promote something. Political campaigns object that they're not commercial, they're not selling anything. That is true, but they sure are promoting the candidate or the cause. "Promotions'' is exactly where they belong.

Some of the political mail went into the spam folder. That's not surprising, either. Political mail may not be subject to the same legal rules as commercial mail, but it's subject to the same sorting rules at every mail provider I know. The mail practices at political campaigns vary from excellent to dreadful with a lot toward the dreadful side. While it's certainly legal to take a list from one campaign and use it in an adjacent district, or for a later campaign for a different candidate, that doesn't mean anyone on the list wants the mail. The recipients will mark a lot of it as spam and mail providers will treat it accordingly.

For the first few pieces of bulk mail sent to someone, the recipient mail system has no way to tell whether it's something the recipient signed up for, or if the sender bought a spam list. Mail systems sort that mail based on how other recipients have treated it. So even if you signed up for that particular mail, if they've been sending spam to other people, it'll go into the spam folder. (What else can they do? They can't give every sender a free pass on the first mail they send someone, since spammers would instantly game it.)

I see no reason to believe that any of the widely varying mail placement that The Markup saw was due to anything other than Gmail treating mail the way their users want.

There's no great secret to getting bulk mail delivered. Send it only to people who want it, don't send it more often than they want, stop when they tell you to stop. This is no different for political mailers than for commercial ones.

So, in short, mail providers handle political bulk mail the same way they handle any other bulk mail. If you send mail that people are willing to get, it will get delivered. It probably won't show up ahead of the mail they actively want (personal mail from their friends), but that is reality. You're not special.

By John Levine, Author, Consultant & Speaker

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