2020 Contenders Are Subjecting Us to Mile-Long Subject Lines

Democratic candidates think they’re gaming Google. But is it just getting on people's nerves?

Source Sarah Silbiger/Getty, Sean Rayford/Getty(2)

Why you should care

Because this tactic, meant to game algorithms, could wear out donors. 

Have you noticed your inbox getting not just more cluttered but also more verbose? It’s intentional. An appeal from Bernie Sanders to contribute to his self-imposed donation deadline is 46 words long. Yes, 46 — the same number of words you’ve read in this story so far.

A similar donor call from Cory Booker is 30. The missive railing against “fancy private fundraisers” from Elizabeth Warren? A relief, at a mere 21 words. 

The one-word campaign email subject line (like Barack Obama’s famous “Hey”) is a relic, replaced by paragraph-long screeds or fundraising pleas — with the goal of getting past Google’s filters, even if it means pissing off potential supporters along the way. In fact, of the 202 emails the Sanders campaign sent from March to May 2016, there was not a single one with a subject line over 20 words. However, in that same time period in 2019 …

One in six subject lines for Sanders campaign emails were longer than 20 words.*

*This was the case for my inbox. Your mileage may vary.

Digital gurus and presidential candidates alike love platitudes about building authentic relationships with voters. Yet they fill the inboxes of potential donors with spammy subject lines so long that they are impossible to read without clicking on the emails (which, as coercive as that sounds, may be the point).


Sure, campaigns do a lot of subject line testing, so they may not be the same for every subscriber. But digital marketers know the wordiness has one key effect, says Keegan Goudiss, a managing partner at left-leaning Revolution Messaging and digital advertising director for Sanders during the 2016 campaign. “The point is to get past the Promotions inbox,” he says, referring to Google’s internal Promotions tab that shifts marketing emails away from the general inbox. Get stuck there and a fundraising call is “basically the same as being labeled as spam,” Goudiss says. And with Gmail accounting for 29 percent of email client market share as of last month (more than any other client including the iPhone), that could affect a huge number of potential donors.

The mechanics of what gets something relegated to the Promotions tab are cloudy — conventional wisdom among email marketing guides tends more toward going short. But an analysis in April by search engine optimization firm Backlinko found that emails with longer subject lines have a 25 percent higher average response rate than those with short handles (although by their definition, “long” subject lines were 36 to 50 characters, not words). Meaning Sanders’ 46-word subject line — “My request is to please use the link in this email to make a contribution before the end of month fundraising deadline we’ve set for ourselves. Please help us raise the funds we need to win. That’s it. That’s our fundraiser. Pretty simple. Can you help?” — could help keep his emails in potential donors’ primary inbox. 

That’s key for the Democrats, who have more than 20 candidates vying for attention and also had to meet a 65,000-donor threshold to take part in the presidential debates on June 26 and 27. While they risk turning off some donors with gimmicky tactics, strategists are counting on the emails with long subject lines being seen by more people, offering a net positive effect for campaigns in the long run. “In this case, the longer subject lines are probably triggering more people to open them and click because they’re already interested in the email,” says Eric Wilson, a Republican political strategist who blogs about digital tactics at LearnTestOptimize.com.

Political campaigns seem to be the early adopters of the interminably long subject line, although some public relations agencies and media outlets, such as The Hill and The Washington Post, have adopted similar tactics with their e-newsletters. Opening rates were emphasized in the past, with campaigns using shorter subject lines to make supporters curious enough to open emails. Now another stat is king. “Click-through rate is one of the most important metrics Google is looking at in determining whether an email belongs in the inbox or in a Promotions tab, or worse, the spam folder,” Wilson says. And if the campaigns are doing it, that can only mean one thing: It’s working. After all, Sanders reached 525,000 donors by the end of March, with Beto O’Rourke (163,000), Pete Buttigieg (158,550), Kamala Harris (138,000) and Warren (135,000) trailing him. “A good rule of thumb with digital tactics is if you’re seeing lots of people use them, it’s probably effective,” Wilson says. 

Effective, but frustrating — even for the candidates deploying them. Ann Ravel, a former chair of the Federal Election Commission now running for the California state Senate, says she has been annoyed with her own digital people sending what she calls “stupid-ass” emails (one example: a Mother’s Day message about how she “loves mothers”). “They have no content,” she says, and she deletes most of the fundraising emails she receives. “Those are really annoying. I’m sure people are deleting mine as well.” 

Still, campaigns aren’t likely to change tack. The pressure is mounting, with Democratic presidential candidates having to hit 130,000 donors by the end of August to be included in the third and fourth debates this September and October. Only about eight candidates are on track to reach that mark in time, according to a recent FiveThirtyEight analysis. As the deadline draws nearer, expect their entreaties to get more desperate and, perhaps, longer — an experience familiar to anyone who has dealt with would-be lovers and misbegotten campaigners.

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