As voters become increasingly inured to repeated e-mails from political parties, flirtatious subject lines have become a popular way to get more clicks—whatever the cost to our heartsby Marie Le Conte / December 9, 2019 / Leave a comment
My name is Marie Le Conte and until recently, I thought I had a problem. I am a political journalist and retain a respectful amount of distance between my personal life and the politicians I write about, but the emails they were sending me told a different story.
I could not remember doing anything untoward on the evening of the 29th of October, yet the next day, John McDonnell emailed me. “Last night you shocked me, Marie,” he wrote. What had I done? I could not face finding out.
A month earlier, it had been Jo Swinson. “You and I” was the title of the email I received from her, and I deleted it in a panic, certain that no good could come out of a message trying to discuss a relationship I had not realised was happening.
Then it was James Cleverly this week: “Does this sound like a plan, Marie?,” he asked me, and I could not recall having spoken to the Conservative party chairman recently, let alone having made plans with him. Into the bin it went.
Everything changed when I stumbled upon a tweet from someone called Taha Hassan. “One of the only good things about this election has been John McDonnell’s subject lines making me feel like we’re having a passionate affair”, he said.
Attached was a screengrab of a number of emails from Labour’s shadow chancellor: “Join me this Wednesday,” “Wow,” and, appallingly, “Last night you shocked me, Taha.”
Had John been cheating on me? My John? Admittedly I could not remember anything ever happening between us and sure, I had originally been left puzzled by his very personal emails, but I had grown to appreciate them. How dare he talk like this to others?
I had to find out more so decided to take the plunge, and finally opened one of the emails he had sent me.
With one month to go, Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage are making dirty deals endorsed by Trump to defeat Labour on 12 December.
But luckily, we’ve got a people powered strategy to defeat them – the biggest and most ambitious this country has even seen.
This Wednesday at 7pm I’m going to be hosting a video call to talk about how you can be a key part of this strategy. Will you join?”
In shock, I opened one email after the other. Requests for donations; reminders of television debates; attack lines on opponents. I had been played; by McDonnell, Corbyn, Cleverly, Swinson, Johnson; I had been played by them all.
Despondent, I had to turn to the only people a sad, single woman can rely on: former digital staffers.
“It’s been a slow creep since about 2014/15”, said someone who worked on digital campaigns for CCHQ when I asked them when the trend for such subject lines began. “As more emails went out during a campaign, fewer people opened ones with really straightforward subject lines. During the 2017 general election, we definitely sent an email with the subject line, “I just got mine, [x name].” The scoundrels
A former Labour staffer who worked on the party’s digital strategy between 2012 and 2015 agreed. “We did a major bit of transformation work—it was the first time the party did any significant fundraising or volunteer mobilisation work using email. Until then, most emails were basically press releases or speeches rewritten for email.”
“We massively increased the volume of emails coming from HQ and tried to inject some personality and charm into the content—and that starts with the subject line and sender name. A good subject line is the same as any good headline: it has to make someone click to find out more, and it has to do it quickly.”
There was some trial and error. In the early days of 2009 and 2010, people who had subscribed to Labour emails could be treated to “Tell someone it’s not true” or “Who will you tell?” from then-chancellor Alistair Darling—an era which, in retrospect, we can dub “the threatening phase.”
The Ed Miliband digital era was, perhaps unsurprisingly, a bit needy. “Quick message,” he would write. “Answers for you,” “I am ready.”
Then it changed: “Digital teams are more important and sit closer to the centre of power in campaigns now,” the former Labour staffer explained, “and frankly standards in politics have dropped so much that you have to be more extreme to get noticed.”
There has also been an arms race from the different parties as they keep working to make their emails more and more eye-catching to supporters. Oh, and it helps that it is more fun than other areas of political campaigning.
“We used to run sweepstakes when we tested subject lines,” the former CCHQ adviser said. “So, we would come up with four or five different subject lines and send them to a subset of the list to test open rates. Then people could bet on which ones they thought would be most effective. After an hour, we’d choose the subject line(s) with the highest open rate and make that the subject for the rest of the list.”
The conclusion is simple, then: political parties have been sending increasingly flirtatious emails because they are the ones more likely to grab people’s attention and get their message across.
As the former Labour staffer put it: “Ultimately with any email campaign at this stage [of an election] your goal is to get high click-to-open rates—so people opening and then donating. If your audience likes sleazy subject lines and they raise money—then keep going!”
This was perhaps not the answer I wanted to hear, but by then it was impossible to deny it: my name is Marie Le Conte, and I am the problem—and so are you.
(PS: John, call me?)