However, e-mail plays a different role outside election season. During elections, e-mail is almost exclusively a fundraising tool. The parties and electoral advocacy groups raise money from supporters, then funnel that money into broadcast television advertisements, which their supporters dutifully skip past with their TiVo or DVR. In between elections, advocacy organizations still use e-mail for fundraising, but they also use it for passive democratic feedback, which they use to help determine priorities.
For all the talk about Twitter, Facebook, blogs, and YouTube, e-mail is still the single most important communication tool for political campaigns and advocacy organizations. That’s primarily because e-mail is a “push” medium, while the others are all “pull” media. An advocacy organization can send an e-mail to every one of its supporters and be confident that it will appear in their inbox. Tweets and posts on social media offer no such guarantee.
The other important thing about e-mail is that organizations can use analytics to track supporter responses. Which headlines actually get supporters to read the e-mail? Which subjects actually prompt supporters to take action? Which issue areas lead them to unsubscribe from the list? By monitoring these “open rates,” “action rates,” and “unsubscribe rates,” groups can form a rapid impression of public opinion among their supporter base. Combining this passive democratic feedback monitoring with quick weekly online member surveys gives advocacy organizations an ongoing snapshot of what their members want them to do. It’s a lightweight listening technique.
In my 2012 book, “The MoveOn Effect,” I describe how these digital listening tools allow organizations like MoveOn.org to quickly gauge member opinion as they roll out campaigns to influence public policy around issues like net neutrality, war in Syria, and health care reform. It is part of a broader change in “membership regimes” among advocacy organizations and broader civil society groups. It used to be that you decided to join an organization. In 2014, if you are on an advocacy organization’s e-mail list, then (congratulations!) you are a member.
This may comes as a surprise. No one told you that, by signing that e-petition last month, you were joining Americans for Prosperity or MoveOn.org. And membership used to require a lot more than just an e-mail address. Membership in advocacy organizations is a vanishingly thin relationship today. But it’s also a nimble, active relationship. Organizations can use analytics to “listen” to their members more effectively than they could when membership was maintained through the mail.
It wasn’t always this way. The civic organizations of a bygone era built deep, thick associational ties with their members. Participating in the Rotary Club, the American Legion or the Sierra Club meant showing up to a lot of in-person meetings and events. Membership took a lot of time, and it also yielded a lot of social rewards. Members formed friendships and developed leadership skills. Civic associations served as “laboratories of democracy.” They also provided the basis for the large-scale social movements of their day. There was a lot of power in the relationships those civic associations built with their members. But they were also time-consuming and demanded a lot of resources.
The in-person membership model wasn’t replaced by the Internet; it was replaced by direct mail. Beginning around the early 1970s, many advocacy groups began defining the membership relationship around direct mail and canvassing. For Public Citizen or Greenpeace, membership is defined by the act of donating. (We used to deride these types of members as “armchair activists,” just as today we call online members “clicktivists.”) The direct mail member was a reliable source of cash, and those reliable dollars helped create an infrastructure of lobbyists, researchers, and policy experts representing their issue publics in the nation’s capital. But the direct mail member was also divorced from the day-to-day operations of their civic association. And direct mail members didn’t develop the shared identity and leadership skills that comes through interactions with fellow members. Civil society organizations and their members have been mostly out-of-touch for over 40 years.
Now, with the shift to Internet-based membership, organizations are starting to develop new ways of listening to their supporters. Communicating through the postal service is costly. Communicating through e-mail is cheap. And even though that cheap communication unleashes the unending torrent of messages into your inbox, it also puts organized advocacy groups in a position to measure supporter sentiment and take the will of their membership seriously once again.
Outside of election season, digitally-enabled advocacy organizations are launching campaigns to influence public policy and change our political culture. E-mail has replaced direct mail as the bedrock of their membership model. And they use that e-mail to listen more frequently to their members. But it is still a relationship between the organization and members, not a relationship between members and each other. The question still remains whether 21st century advocacy groups can augment these thin online interactions with the types of deep, participatory engagement that characterized membership associations from decades’ past.
So during this pause between election seasons, take a look at your inbox and think about which organizations are speaking to you. Unsubscribe from the ones you don’t care about, and respond a little more to the ones you do.
Dave Karpf is an assistant professor in the George Washington University School of Media and Public Affairs. He is the author of The MoveOn Effect: The Unexpected Transformation of American Political Advocacy (Oxford University Press, 2012).
This post is part of the Scholars Strategy Network series on civic engagement between elections.