On Friday, one of Slate’s editors received an email from someone named Rachel.
The editor assumed that someone had replied to one of his emails because the “from” line read, “Rachel, me (2).” When he opened the email, however, he discovered that “Rachel, me (2)” was actually just a phony name that the Democratic fundraising group Act Blue and Sen. Jeanne Shaheen’s campaign were using to make it seem like part of an ongoing thread. The New Hampshire senator’s campaign did not reply to Slate’s request for comment.
As our inboxes become increasingly cluttered with credit card alerts, notifications from our social media accounts, sales ads, and newsletters we never signed up for, political candidates have to get creative to make sure we actually open their campaign emails. Most 2020 campaigns aren’t trying anything as audaciously deceptive as Shaheen’s fake-reply ruse. (I’ve looked!) Yet, their strategies for standing out in our inboxes are still illuminating.
Perhaps my favorite attention-grabbing tactic so far is to craft a subject line that is so perplexing that it drives recipients to open the email out of sheer curiosity. Last week, Beto O’Rourke’s campaign sent out a fundraising email with the subject line “Banquet hall tilapia”—which is obviously a click for anyone curious what the candidate’s platform has to do with pescatarian dining options. (It turns out the phrase was taken from a line from the former congressman about how democracy “shouldn’t be about whichever candidate can invite the most lobbyists to eat banquet hall tilapia for $2,800-per-plate.”) Bernie Sanders’s campaign also sent an email last week with the subject line “This is the antichrist” (click!), which raises a million questions about the senator’s branding strategy until you read the full text and see that it’s quoting an attack from one of his moneyed critics.
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Another, safer strategy is to give your email a one-word subject line that mimics the intimacy and informality of a text message. Emails from the Obama campaign famously used to have the terse subject line “Hey,” and some 2020 candidates are following in that tradition. Amy Klobuchar and Jay Inslee’s presidential campaigns have both tried the “Hey” line, while Sanders and Kirsten Gillibrand have sent emails simply titled “bump,” a term common on message boards to draw more attention to a post. Gillibrand is also a master of subject lines that at first glance make the emails look work-related if you’re not paying attention. She sent three fundraising emails in April with titles like “quick thing for this a.m.,” “Checking on this?” and “Hey there, can you text me?”
Friendly, personal subject lines that include a reference to alcohol also come in handy for advertising meetups with the candidates. An email announcing a raffle for a chance to meet John Hickenlooper had the title “Wanna grab a beer?” (allowable, maybe, since he’s co-founded a brewery), and another from Gillibrand read, “What it’s like to have a whiskey with Kirsten” (allowable, sure, since she appears to really like whiskey). Elizabeth Warren, infamous for hosting an Instagram Live session while nursing a beer, also enticed supporters with an email entitled, “You, Elizabeth, and your favorite beverage.”
Writing a fundraising email subject line is a lot like writing a headline. Putting out something misleading and clickbait-y may get your desired clicks or opens, but it’s only going to piss off your followers in the long run. For instance, it was probably inadvisable for Klobuchar to title one of her letters “My last email,” which reads like she’s bowing out of the race, when she actually meant that this was her “last email before the first FEC deadline of this presidential campaign.” In such situations, of course you wouldn’t don’t want to just write a flat summary of your email that no one will open. In emails as in life, sometimes it’s just better to open with “hey.”