Monday, August 09, 2010

Lobbying vs Spam

When I hear a politician saying that "lobby groups are becoming a nuisance" I have to say my first instinct is to think "Good! That's their job." A campaign group that is comfortable and uncritical with the great and the good is not helping shape the political agenda.

However, the awful truth is that Conservative MP Dominic Raab has a point. Spamming politicians is extremely ineffective.

The campaigning website 38 degrees has generated a bit of news for itself when Raab asked to be removed from their automated emailing system - a request that has been widely misreported as an attempt to prevent constituents from emailing him, which is clearly false.

Having seen the results of these automated systems from the receiving end (not me, people I was supporting) it's clear that dozens, or hundreds, of identical emails all coming from the same website do not influence candidates in the least. You will at most receive a standard cut and pasted response to your standardised cut and pasted email, and I'm not sure you deserve any more than that anyway.

During the election I saw automated emails on such unanswerable questions as whether the candidate opposes cancer, is in support of children or believes in road safety. Each and everyone of these emails were far more about the organisation sending the emails attempting to feel important than they were about influencing policy.

The emails that do get taken seriously are the ones that are written from scratch addressing a question shaped by the constituent not a lobby group. This correspondence gets read and responded to properly in a way that the junk organisations like 38 degrees sends out cannot dream of.

If organisations want to influence MPs they need to understand that spam is not simply a very weak form of communication, it's likely to actively bring you into disrepute because of the massively pointless inconvenience it creates for the receiver. I don't want public money going on the salaries of people sitting laboriously replying to emails that the sender couldn't even be bothered to write - it's hardly a sign that the sender cares about the issue that they let a robot do their thinking for them.

Email spam is different from demonstrations, petitions and other forms of mass communication with your MP because spam takes no effort, it is no longer a meaningful form of communication. More-over as time goes on and more people are able to programme their site to send out this stuff it becomes even *less* effective because politicians get in the habit of ditching automated emails straight to junk.

Improved web technology has also spawned the habit of constituents sending emails to every elected person they can think of, so they'll fire off emails to their London Assembly member, both their Mayors, all their councillors and their MP on issues that sometimes aren't even the responsibility of any of them, let alone just the one.

Effective lobbying needs to targeted, meaningful and specific. Asking someone if they oppose cancer is pointless (and there were at least three organisations sending these out), asking them if they support a new cancer ward in their local hospital is not.

If an MP receives three written letters on a particular subject they outweigh three hundred identical emails any day of the week. Just because you can programme your site to do something does not mean that the human being at the other end is going to be anything other than annoyed at your stupid organisation.


Peter said...


I'm not sure the current Secretary of State for Transport believes in road safety.

Seriously, though, you do have a point.

The problem with sites like 38 Degrees is that their real aim is to build up huge email lists. This requires them to get emails somehow. The mass email and petition are therefore their weapon of choice - however ineffective.

The real problem comes when they refuse to allow the organisations whose campaigns they're freeriding on to have the email addresses.


Mark said...

As 38 Degrees have pointed out, his 'spam' is 2 emails per day. Hardly much.

Tom Chance said...

I quite agree with you!

I think it's just lazy campaigning that's bound to be ineffective, a bit like organisations who spend all their time getting signatures on the back of postcards. Maybe it's useful to grow your profile, give activists something easy to do, announce your presence with the target politician.

But in 38 Degree's case, what looked like a promising web site turned out to be a glorified spam service for inveterate petitioners who aren't content with having someone else deliver a consilidated list of supporters.

A week is a long time said...

Jim - do you not think this sudden furore is more to do with the last 38 degrees campaign - which was against Rupert Murdoch? Why no outburst before when they ran their campaign for PR?

Jim Jepps said...

A week: No I don't think that. This is a story generated by 38 degrees itself in order to get publicity for itself. It's their press releases that have defined the press response - it's only when the MP gets to reply that the press takes a step back and reassesses what the story is.

The media didn't raise this to attack 38 degrees, generally it's been to attack the Tory MP in question - the problem is the case against him is paper thin.

Mark: so they aren't just spammers, they're rubbish spammers. Even less effective.

Peter: thanks for this - your comment has really helped crystalise in my mind what they are actually doing.

I think the fact that they are channeling people into thinking they've done something when in reality all they've done is send an automated email to someone's spam folder is a bit of a problem.

A week is a long time said...

Jim - Actually - I did have a problem with emailing everyone in the Lib Dem Party including the teaboy about PR after the election - they aren't perfect. The teaboy could be important in the equation though.

A week

Kevin said...


I think the problem with sites like 38 Degrees is that they basically fail to deliver what they set out to achieve - in the of case of 38 Degrees, "making it easy for people to influence the institutions, like the government, who make decisions that affect us all".

The key word is 'influence'. Groups like in the United States, on which 38 Degrees would like to model itself, go far beyond simple sending messages to politicians or powerful interests and encourage people to organise in their own community. It also provides links and resources so that its members can articulate arguments for themselves, not just send out standard, automated e-mails that are ignored.

There are big problems with MoveOn - it has become little more than a Democratic Party lobby group - but its ambitions have always been much greater than its inferior UK imitators.

Cathryn said...

Jim - Apparently Dominic Raab has only been getting a couple a day, so I think he's a snotty git as well. Their campaigns seem to be attracting small numbers of 10s of thousands, which suggests that each MP might be getting 50-100 emails from each campaign - not too huge. I suspect that 38degrees is less of a problem than larger campaigning organisations.

Having said that, it does strike me as a lazy way to campaign. Judging by the number of MPs who've responsed to their BBC campaign (and I am going to have to have words with Mr Dobson, speaking of snotty gits) it may not be as ineffective as it sounds.

@Peter. What do you think they are planning to do with this huge list that they're gathering? They have one of the clearest privacy policies I've seen. If they were to pass the emails on to other campaigning organisations, they'd be in breach of the Data Protection Act - not a good idea for a web-based service like this.

Jim Jepps said...

To be fair to him though Cathryn he was actually asking *all* organisations that were spamming him to desist - and the two emails a day is just from 38 degrees, if you believe them.

Peter said...


They could change the agreement for each campaign to allow the real campaign organisation to keep the addresses.

The aim of the huge email address list is to fundraise once they lose their start-up funding.

I think the aim of an organisation like 38 degrees should be to raise the game of existing organisations in new media campaigning. At present they are further crowding an already over-populated field.

It's a pity, really.


David_Babbs said...

Hi Jim and friends,

I feel a bit sad about the tone of this piece. We'd probably not agree about everything, but in lots of ways we probably are more or less part of the same ecosystem. We surely should be able to find more common ground than with each other than with Iain Dale.

So, I really would like to understand why you think 38 Degrees is a “stupid organisation”, “rubbish spammers” etc – if you want to take that conversation off the web I'd welcome an email – davidb at

To come back on a few specific points:

“Conservative MP Dominic Raab has a point. Spamming politicians is extremely ineffective.”

Dominic Raab MP did not accuse 38 Degrees of "spamming", and nor did he make a comment about our effectiveness. The emails he gets via the 38 Degrees web site are individual emails sent by individual constituents – that simply is not spam.

Raab was complaining that he gets too many “cloned” emails – and that dealing with them is “a nuisance” and we should stop enabling+encouraging constituents to easily send him emails.

38 Degrees does offer suggested templates to make it easier for people, many of whom may never have emailed their MP before. That does mean some identical emails get sent. But most people (85%) customise these templates. We encourage this precisely because it increases the impact. However many 38 Degrees members have pointed out that it's a bit elitist to say you're only allowed to contact your elected representative if you do so in original prose.

“a request that has been widely misreported as an attempt to prevent constituents from emailing him, which is clearly false. “

He definitely asked us to remove his email address from our web site to prevent constituents emailing him. At the same time he also removed his email address from the parliament web site and his own blog, and got to remove it from their system.

“This is a story generated by 38 degrees itself in order to get publicity for itself. It's their press releases that have defined the press response “

We didn't send a press release. We sent an email to our members in the Esher and Walton constituency, asking them what they'd like us to do. We put a blog post up, with the email thread in, so we could link to it from the email. We'd also emailed a few allies about it asking them for advice.

So somehow or other it got to the press, for whom it made a good story. And yes it probably was good publicity for 38 Degrees. I guess we could have actively avoided getting press coverage by not telling our members about it. But it's core to 38degrees to be driven by what our members want us to do and involve them in decisions.


David_Babbs said...

I do agree that there are more and less effective ways of conducting e-lobbying campaigns, just as there are more and less effective ways of handing in petitions, launching judicial reviews, organising public meetings, funding ad campaigns, etc. And that there are times when 38 Degrees has got it wrong (A Week mentions the “email a senior Lib Dem” action we did during the coalition negotiations – we probably did get that a bit wrong and wouldn't it in the same way again).

I also agree that MoveOn in the US, and GetUp in Australia, have done a far wider and more exciting range of campaigns and actions than 38 Degrees has so far. But 38 Degrees has only existed for just over a year, MoveOn launched in the late nineties. In just a year, we've engaged over 160,000 in a range of campaigns, some of which have been very successful. We've taken action in a variety of ways – petitions, emails to Mps, phone calls to MPs, Q&As with ministers, consultation responses, letters to the editor, donations to fund newspaper ads and bill boards, flashmobs. Thousands of our members have helped decide what we do by participating in polls, surveys and discussions.

I want us to do much more, particularly offline – but building a movement takes time. As we expand the ways we take action, we need to engage our members in conversation about what they want to do, and in many cases support people in taking action in ways they haven't before – it's worth taking our time to get that right. I'd welcome ideas and suggestions on what how we do this.

One of the reasons MoveOn has been able to make this inspiring range of stuff happen is because over 1% of US citizens are members of MoveOn. That means you've got a critical mass of people to make stuff happen across the country. 38 Degrees involves something more like 0.25% at the moment- the more people we involve and are able to ask to get involved via email, the more quickly we reach critical mass for a bigger range of tactics and actions. We do also ask our members to donate, as Peter points out - but isn't receiving donations from thousands of members of the community we serve the most legitimate and sustainable way for 38 Degrees to be funded?

Anyway, I'm writing this because I'm interested in your views and don't want us to be enemies. I'd be interested to read your responses though I'm meant to be on holiday right now so won't necessarily be at a computer to come back at stuff instantly.

David, 38 Degrees