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It’s the new normal, at least at the national level: Staggering fundraising numbers from campaigns and committees where hyperbolic subject lines and email copy are often the starting point.

Debate over the potential long-term negative impact of so-called churn and burn email fundraising programs isn’t new, but the conversation does have new life as the 2020 presidential cycle gets underway. 

One 2020 prediction consultants are confident in: The Democratic presidential primary will set digital fundraising records. And for those in the digital fundraising game, there is a lot of business to be had.

Julia Rosen, who managed email fundraising for MoveOn.org, among others, said now more than ever, campaigns need to weigh a vendor's email fundraising style, not just their results, before signing a contract.  

"Campaign managers need to think hard about their priorities to determine the best fit," said Rosen, a principal at GPS Impact. "Is your digital program just an ATM where you make withdrawals by sending repetitive desperate messages, or are you treating your donors, volunteers, and activists with the respect they deserve, knowing that it will lead to just as much money raised and more people engaged?"

On the Democratic side, one firm has emerged as the most frequent target of such critiques from digital practitioners: Mothership Strategies. The upstart firm was launched by three DCCC vets—far and away the party committee that has taken the most heat from the left for its email fundraising practices over the past two campaign cycles.

Mothership has quickly grown into one of the largest digital shops in the industry, and following a lengthy profile in the Washington Post, the firm was subject to a fresh round of online criticism from some progressive digital strategists.  

Mothership’s retort: Results matter in online fundraising and clients are more likely to find success with them than with other firms.

“The results are clear: This cycle alone, we raised $150 million for Democratic campaigns and organizations—all from grassroots donations,” Jake Lipsett, a founding partner of Mothership, told C&E.

One particular focus for critics following the WaPo piece is the 15 percent commission the firm charges on money raised for clients online. Such a commission arrangement is not standard practice on the Democratic side of the industry, counter other digital fundraisers. Mothership notes that it has a "variety of contract models."

Still, the firm’s rivals argue that a 15-percent rate deprives a client of far too much of its own resources.

“We believe we're providing more service per dollar than any other firm,” said Lipsett, whose shop also does media buying and advertising for clients. “We average about three staffers for every client—that ratio is atypical and sets Mothership apart. As clients scale up, we continue to invest even more staff time and resources.”

Another long-term concern for some practitioners about current email practice more generally is the crossover between email recipients, volunteers, and campaign event attendees. In fact, many of the activists on donor email lists are the same ones volunteering and attending rallies. The thinking goes that blasting this collective group with screaming, world-ending subject lines and email copy can dampen their enthusiasm—or worse.

Lipsett argued email donor fatigue was unlikely to spill over to other parts of a campaign, at least for their clients, because of the firm’s list management and targeting. “If readers aren't engaging with the content, they're going to get fewer emails or none at all,” he said.

Going forward, these are more than just questions over best practice. There are ethical considerations, too. Given the money involved, digital fundraisers must now grapple with the ethics of even the most successful tactics in an environment increasingly hostile to traditional norms.  

"As fundraisers, we have a responsibility to our clients to raise as much money as possible—and often, hyperbole works," said Ian Patrick Hines, a GOP email fundraiser. "I used to criticize high-octane email copywriting, but the truth is that it is effective. The challenge for fundraisers is to maintain engagement and create urgency while also maintaining trust. It can be done."

Hines isn’t the only practitioner who now shrugs off subject lines like: “Trump is INCHES away from firing Robert Mueller.”

Brett Schenker, an email expert at EveryAction and NGP VAN, said that statistically, the difference between misleading emails and non-misleading emails, when it comes to complaint rates and open rates, “is minimal.”

“Usually tenths of a percent,” he said. “The results are pretty similar. It's important for consultants and campaigns to look at their stats, which every one will be unique, and follow the results.”  

Like Julia Rosen, Schenker believes campaigns have a responsibility to chart their own path. “I don't think one thing works for every campaign and what will work in won't in another,” he said.

The challenge for consultants is that’s not how most candidates look at it. 

Elizabeth Spiers, a journalist-turned progressive digital consultant tweeted Jan. 9: “Unfortunately, this is also the strategy a lot of candidates *want* deployed because their baseline for what works is what other candidates have done. So if they see spammy email from another candidate generating real numbers, they want that, too.”

For Lipsett, meanwhile, it’s the flashy subject lines that get recipients to open fundraising mail, all the more important, he argued to engage new potential donors. Lipsett pointed out that in 2018 on ActBlue, some two-thirds of donors were first-timers. “All evidence points to that growth continuing in 2020 and beyond,” he said.

The reality of the moment in email fundraising is that results do trump style, which even critics of Mothership readily acknowledge. In a tweet, DSPolitical’s Steve Olson called the Mothership model one that “seems likely to backfire in the long term,” but noted the firm’s unquestioned record of success.

“It’s on us to prove an alternative,” Olson tweeted.