If a campaigner sends out a bulk e-mail with the subject line "Vote John Doe for Congress!," is that message considered spam? If spam is defined as any unsolicited communication, then perhaps. But if there's no potential commercial gain to the sender, then is it really the same as the multitude of get-rich-quick and sexual enhancement offers that the average Internet user receives every day?
Such was the topic of a spirited panel debate at the Politics Online 2002 conference hosted by George Washington University (GWU) on Monday.
A recent survey showed that 88 percent of Americans say they've been spammed, up from 79 percent just a year ago, according to Michael Cornfield, director of research with GWU's Democracy Online Project and moderator of the panel. With very little tolerance for unsolicited e-mail, Internet users may regard messages sent for noncommercial purposes, such as political e-mail, as junk and treat them accordingly -- delete the messages without even reading what's inside.
That's bad news for campaigners and political groups that continually need to reach new people in order to build coalitions, since sending e-mail is a quick and low-cost way to get a message out to many people at once. But such groups risk alienating their candidate or cause in the eyes of recipients who feel they have been spammed.
"People are learning how to ignore (commercial) spam, the same will happen with political spam," said John Aravosis, panelist and founder of Wired Strategies, a political Internet consulting firm. Worse yet, "they might end up hating the candidate."
Another panel member defended political e-mail as an effective tool, if used correctly.
"Political bulk e-mail is definitely not spam, it shouldn't be lumped in with commercial bulk e-mail (whose senders are) motivated purely by profit," said Zain Khan, co-chairman of EZMarketer, which provides technology and communications services to political groups and campaigners.
Still, Khan said, political groups should not abuse e-mail by sending out messages to completely unknown recipients. Targeted lists of email users who are likely to be interested in the sender's cause are essential, he said. However, according to other speakers at the conference, such e-mail lists can be difficult to come by.
Groups should only message recipients with pertinent information, Khan added. "Don't inundate recipients with boring, pointless messages," he said. "Political bulk e-mail works if you do it right and follow the rules."
How a recipient reacts to political e-mail can depend on their own definition of spam, said Mike McCurry, chairman and chief executive officer of Grassroots Enterprise Inc., which builds management and communications software for advocacy groups.
"One person's spam may be someone else's filet mignon," said McCurry, who served as President Clinton's press secretary in the late 1990s.
Political e-mail should be as personalized as possible, and the recipient should be able to easily recognize the sender, he said. It also helps if the e-mail suggests the recipient to take action, such as writing a letter to a congressman.