Top Five Branding Principles for Email Advocacy

MoveOn was the original, the big dog and role model — until it laid off a bunch of its staff and changed direction late last year. Proving that the pressures on MoveOn weren’t a fluke, DFA also made big changes a few months later.

In a more mature, more competitive market for online political advocacy, candidates and organizations must think strategically about how they brand their email lists. Here are the top five branding principles to keep in mind when managing an advocacy email list — including what I believe is the key to MoveOn’s fall, the failure to meet members’ self-expression needs:

  1. Trust
  2. Consistency
  3. Differentiation
  4. Value proposition
  5. Self-expression needs


Trust is “the one true hallmark that confers value to a brand.” In corporate branding, trust is knowing that your next can of Coke will taste just like the one you had last year, knowing that the $600 ski jacket you buy from Patagonia will be just as high quality as the $50 shorts you already own, or knowing that anytime you get behind the wheel of a BMW, it will feel like the ultimate driving machine.

Always trust people like big butts. They cannot lie.
It’s not always easy to know whom to trust in this world. There’s value in showing list members that it’s you.

For your advocacy email list, trust may be knowing that the petition I’m signing will have the impact you claim, that my donation will go to the effort you identify, that my action means as much to you as it does to me, and that you will remember what I’ve done in the past.

I did a study with a client showing that we could increase email open rates by omitting any identifying information in an email’s From line (such as the client’s homepage URL), but (1) the benefit wore off over time, as list members became less surprised to see our senders’ names in their inboxes and (2) unsubscribe rates and spam complaint rates were higher when list members opened a message they didn’t realize was from us. Unsubscribes mean you can’t get the benefits of a supporter’s participation anymore; spam complaints mean email providers (e.g. Gmail) will deliver more messages to your supporters’ bulk folders than inbox folders, costing you even with supporters who don’t complain.

Lesson: Don’t sacrifice your organization’s trust for short-term gain — or to cite a specific example, don’t trick supporters into thinking your message will be about unicorns only to find out it’s about global warming.


If you want to build trust, that means being consistent and creating reliable expectations. There’s always room for innovation, but an inconsistent approach can risk hurting efforts to define your organization — or even undermining trust altogether.

When testing for innovations, I recommend being careful not to over-rely on every positive test result and not chasing every testing fad that your peers might. You can tell a testing result with long-term promise from one you shouldn’t chase by whether there’s a credible psychological hypothesis to support it. For example, I’ve found in previous testing that including a single, specific dollar amount in donation asks improves response rate and total revenue. I can explain this result with my hypothesis that including an amount makes it look like the signer of my message knows very specifically what s/he needs from the reader, which is good — if you don’t even know what you need, why should I give it to you? Putting yellow highlighting around text probably just draws the eye and has less of a chance of succeeding in the long term as readers get used to it.


There are two basic ways to differentiate your company or your advocacy email list from your competitors: do something different, or at least do the same differently. As I’ve discussed before, many advocacy email lists limit their ability to differentiate themselves by focusing on what they do, which is easier to copy than how they do it.

There’s no point asking someone to choose you if you don’t offer a choice.
There are lots of good examples out there of groups that do the same thing (like animal rights) but differentiate themselves through personality — PETA fills the self-expression needs of activists who like to be in-your-face, while ASPCA fills the self-expression needs of those who feel nurturant. But there are also lots of examples of different organizations sending emails with essentially the same ask on a particular issue, such as Syria; when that happens, what’s the value proposition to YOUR list?

Value Proposition

By and large, your email list’s value proposition is your ability to meet your members’ self expression needs (see below). After all, they’re not going to be able to taste your email list’s soda, ski in your email list’s jacket, or get from A to B in your email list’s car.

But there are some other important ways your list can provide value to members. For example, if your organization or political candidate is well known, make sure to send your list a message about any breaking news related to you — getting the story directly from you is part of the value your list offers. If your organization or candidate isn’t well known, then you can add value by sending news and information list members might not otherwise see.

Self-Expression Needs

Someone expresses themselves through your email list by donating or signing a petition, and they should feel better because of that expression. MoveOn provides an excellent case study.

When MoveOn launched, somewhat accidentally, during the Clinton impeachment in the 1990’s, there was a huge amount of pent-up liberal frustration with the sideshow in Washington. MoveOn allowed liberals to express something they felt wasn’t getting expressed by national Democrats, wasn’t getting expressed by talking heads on TV, etc. Then when the United States invaded Iraq, national Democrats and Washington journalists again largely failed to provide a liberal response to the dominant conservative narrative, but MoveOn was there to help frustrated liberals express themselves.

Some people just want to express themselves.
But two factors eventually cut into MoveOn’s ability to provide a path for liberal self-expression. One was the advent of various copycat organizations, including Democracy for America, that provided essentially the same expression opportunities. I’d also put the development of more liberal news sources (the Daily Show, MSNBC, more liberal bloggers at the Washington Post, etc.) in this category.

But the second was MoveOn’s decision to support Barack Obama in the 2008 election and afterward. To be fair, that’s what most MoveOn members claimed to want, and as a self-professed member-driven organization, it was MoveOn’s duty to follow. But that meant no longer providing a differentiated opportunity for liberal self-expression — people who supported the president could express themselves better through the president and his organization than through a third party, and people who wanted to express opposition were now by and large left out.

So ask yourself: What is your email list helping people feel? When they wear a Patagonia jacket, they feel brave, high-tech, and protected. When they drive a BMW, they feel upscale and discerning. When they read your email, do they feel you’re giving them an opportunity to express something unique? Are you tackling issues in a way other people can’t? Or are you simply tackling the same issues in a voice they identify with more?