Hail to the Spammer in Chief: Where Obama Went Wrong

E-Mail Masters Stumble on Health Care but Offer Lessons for Marketers

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Regardless of where you fall on the political spectrum, one of the few things about Barack Obama's presidential campaign that was hard to criticize was its use of e-mail and database marketing. But in the past few weeks, Mr. Obama's team has gone from a digital-marketing case study to being regarded as a lowly spammer.

CORNYN: The Republican senator from Texas alleged that the administration was using the e-tip box to collect names. The White House denied the claim.
CORNYN: The Republican senator from Texas alleged that the administration was using the e-tip box to collect names. The White House denied the claim. Credit: Newscom
White House senior adviser David Axelrod sent an e-mail touting the administration's embattled health-care-reform plan to thousands of people who apparently hadn't asked to be contacted. Was it an innocent mistake on the part of the administration? A Machiavellian stunt pulled off by opponents of health-care reform? Or an act of desperation mixed with some hubris on the part of the administration in an attempt to push its plan on as many citizens as possible?

Zain Raj, CEO of Havas' Euro RSCG Discovery, said he doesn't believe it was an innocent mistake; the Obama team simply acted like many major brands do.

"The [administration] has become so arrogant about the amount of trust and credibility they have with their constituents, they think they can take advantage," he said. "They forget who they are serving, and that's what has happened with the brand Obama. When the campaign was building the brand, it was part of a movement, but now it's become part of the establishment."

Mr. Raj said part of the reason that happened is the absence of the marketing professionals who brought a tightness and focus to the campaign's messaging. "The behaviors seemed to parallel the rhetoric. Since they got into power, there has been a fundamental shift happening in their approach," he said.

Placing blame
Steve Cone, chief marketing officer at Epsilon, said there is no upside for the administration in just spamming people. "I wouldn't assume they did this intentionally," Mr. Cone said. But he said the White House could be guilty of assuming that those who subscribed to the updates signed up their friends only after asking permission to do so.

"In their ongoing e-mails, [the administration] asks that you get as many people involved as possible," Mr. Cone said. "They assume you will ask permission before signing your friends up, and that's clearly not practical. If they're guilty of something, perhaps that's what they are guilty of."

But Stuart Ingis, partner at Venable, a leading consumer-protection, marketing and advertising law firm, said he doesn't think the administration is guilty of anything; this is simply democracy at work.

"If elected officials can't communicate with the public through whatever channel to make their case on important issues, that's a real problem for our democracy," Mr. Ingis said. "The question we need to ask before we talk about whether ... people don't want to receive these [e-mails] is whether this type of communication should be frowned upon. And I believe quite to the contrary."

Mr. Ingis said the administration should be allowed to send out e-mails to citizens, but if people say they don't want to receive them, the administration should respect that.

"The law is to honor a choice when it's offered," he said. "It doesn't violate the CAN-SPAM Act, because that applies to commercial e-mail and this isn't commercial e-mail. It's not violating any laws."

Fueling flames
Whether it's breaking any laws or not, Margie Chiu, exec VP-strategic services at WPP's Wunderman, said it doesn't look good for any marketer using e-mail if the administration is seen as a spammer. "Something like this makes it more difficult for us, because there's already such a distrust of e-mail and spam," Ms. Chiu said. "And an incident like this fuels that mistrust."

She also said the White House handled the aftermath very poorly by not taking the blame.

In the wake of "Spamgate," two things happened. First, the White House issued a statement laying the blame for the snafu at the feet of "outside groups of all stripes" who may have added the disgruntled recipients to the e-mail list without their knowing, and apologized in a roundabout way, saying: "We regret any inconvenience caused by receiving an unexpected message." It also shut down its e-tip box, which was being used to collect misinformation or "fishy" allegations about the administration's health-care plan. John Cornyn, a Republican senator from Texas, alleged that Mr. Obama was using the e-tip box to collect names, a claim White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs later denied.

"It was really bad form," Ms. Chiu said. "In general, whether or not it was a third party, the fact is that they need to own up to it and be accountable for something that came from their delivery system. Blaming a third party is just not great form."

But Euro's Mr. Raj said the Obama administration, like other brands that have stumbled before it, will make the necessary adjustments. "For every big brand, there's an event that shakes them," Mr. Raj said. "The Obama brand is going through that, and my hope is they learn from that and don't continue to deflect to somebody unnamed, because that's the political way. I hope they learn, like all good brands do, that it's better to listen to our customers vs. not."

Keeping the faithful

How to maintain a direct e-mail relationship and not breach consumer trust:

Be cautious of treating your database as a homogeneous group. While they clearly have a shared interest, there are very likely strong differences as well. A database needs to be analyzed and organized to really unleash its full potential.

Protect and maintain the perception that records are being kept private at all costs, and repeatedly remind your database of the things you're doing to ensure that.

Be prepared to quickly reply to questions or comments people in your database e-mail back to you.

Convey real news or offers, and don't smother people with e-mails just because you can. Always have a real reason for contacting them. Ideally, you could do a short survey to find out how frequently they want to be contacted.

Make yourself stand out by knowing your competitors and what they're offering. Bring something different to the table. There has to be a value exchange, whether it's information-, entertainment or offer-based.

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