There’s one way this summer to know that the end of the month is coming – and that is by the inundation of fundraising e-mails that storm inboxes from all five major mayoral candidates appealing for financial help with personal stories, outrages of the day or simply pushing the narrative that time is running out to meet important goals.
One e-mail address from this newspaper that has the attention of all five major mayoral candidates got approximately 35 e-mails in two days from the candidates’ digital fundraising operations at the end of last month – each using the addressee’s first name and seemingly knowing some details about the owner of that address. While such operations have been common on the federal and state level for some time, this is the first open-seat mayoral race with numerous candidates since 2013, and so it’s also the first time that new technology like e-mail digital fundraising operations have trickled down to a major municipal election in Boston. Experts say it’s likely a trend that will only expand and go further down the political office chain.
It can be a little creepy, and they are prolific, but according to political science experts – they are efficient and successful.
“There has been a huge expansion of digital fundraising, especially since the mid- to late- 2000s when it was utilized so successfully by the Obama campaign,” said Northeastern Professor Costas Panagopoulos, chair of the Political Science Department, who noted it was actually Republican John McCain that first used the technology. “The Obama fundraising success is what put him on the map in 2008. One of the main reasons for it was so many small donors giving in small amounts. Those small donations add up to very large sums. Campaigns have been leaning on digital fundraising technology ever since in presidential races.
“Local campaigns now are as professional as higher level campaigns and this technology can be used in even very small races,” he continued. “It’s so scalable. It exists and it’s right there to take advantage of whether it’s for a presidential campaign or for dog catcher.”
Suffolk University Political Science Professor Ken Cosgrove said it’s more than just e-mails in the inbox, but it’s a serious digital operation that targets voters in different neighborhoods with different stories and pleas. He said one person in one part of the city may get a different e-mail than another person – and sometimes two people in the same home can get different, tailored pleas for fundraising.
“This is one of the things that Trump brought back to Republicans that they were good at in the 1980s,” he said. “You can raise a lot of money three dollars at a time and several times over. Barack Obama also did a great job expanding on that idea. People think it’s only $3 and only one Starbucks coffee a week. It doesn’t sound like much…You have to talk about these candidates now as consumer products and this is an offshoot of it. They are selling you something – policies and stories…The fundraising e-mails are important for that because they tell you stories that will make you feel good and then give them money, or will make you so mad you’ll give them even more money…With all this technology and databases from Google and Facebook, they even know who you are. This technology is very efficient because it’s easy and you can raise more money. I’m not surprised it’s being used this way in the mayoral election this time.”
Cosgrove added that the companies used by the candidates for digital fundraising use databases and information from places like Facebook Audiences and Google to find voters by neighborhood, by race, by profession and even by religion. He said they have learned to make tailored appeals to like-audiences using a number of different criteria.
So, when those e-mails asking for donations and talking about a warm and fuzzy story, or a contentious policy argument, hit one’s inbox – it comes after a great deal of digital research on each person.
Councilor Andrea Campbell’s campaign utilizes the technology with great success so far, using the national company known as MissionWired – which has done similar work for campaigns like President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris in 2020. In June, Campbell’s mayoral campaign spent $27,000 on services from MissionWired companies and has shown strong fund-raising numbers most every month as a result.
Her campaign said they didn’t want to directly comment on their strategies for fundraising, but did comment that roughly 50 percent of their donations have been raised online.
Councilor Michelle Wu’s campaign has also utilized the e-mail fundraising to a great degree, spending $5,000 in June with Authentic Campaigns – another major player in the digital space. The campaign said they have been successful using the new tool to reach people where they’re at and allow more people to participate in the fundraising aspect of the campaign.
“We’re proud to have the greatest number of grassroots donors and volunteers in this race,” read a statement from the campaign. “Reaching out by email has helped us meet people where they’re at to power our campaign—whether by pitching in a few dollars or giving their time.”
Acting Mayor Kim Janey’s team has also utilized such technology and spent $4,500 with Battleaxe Digital in June for digital fundraising. Campaign manager Kirby Chandler said it is one tool of many they are using to build grass-roots support and buy-in.
“We use a number of tools to activate our grassroots supporters and contributors whether via email, texts or social media,” said Chandler. “While fundraising is a part of that outreach, it is also meant to keep supporters up to date on the campaign and the Mayor’s work on behalf of the residents of Boston.”
Councilor Annissa Essaibi George’s campaign spent $16,000 with Liberty Square Group and LB Strategies in June for digital work, including e-mails that they said have been successful in reaching donors at critical times and to inform campaign supporters of work that’s going on.
“We use fundraising emails at the end of the month to boost our numbers and make that last minute push with a sense of urgency,” read a statement from the campaign. “Sometimes we choose to send short ‘reminder’ emails such as the one (the paper) is using as an example, and sometimes we provide more of a fun campaign update. We also use these fundraising emails to boost engagement amongst our list and make sure we are regularly using it to our advantage.”
John Barros’s campaign also uses the e-mails, but to a much lesser extent and at a much lower cost. In June, that campaign paid $340 to MailChimp for sending out fundraising e-mails and other communications.
They did not respond with a comment for this story on their digital activities.
Panagopoulos said don’t expect such fundraising practices locally to fade out with the pandemic, as they were around prior to the pandemic and will continue to expand their reach afterwards. He said it is a cheap, user-friendly way for campaigns to raise money fast from a lot of people, while also keeping them connected to the campaign. It has also come at a time when people have grown more comfortable making online purchases using their credit card, and so they aren’t as wary to contribute online using that same credit card – and reporting contributions to state agencies is made far easier than it was when people sent checks and gave cash.
“It makes it so much easier and it’s a relatively easy way to go about fundraising these days,” he said. “It’s also useful for larger contributions too. People don’t have to go out and find the campaign to give them a check. Even without a pandemic, this kind of fundraising is way easier in contemporary campaigns.”
All Aboard for the ‘Merch Store’ Express
Another aspect of the digital campaign fundraising arm is what has now become known as a ‘Merch Store,’ or an online campaign merchandise store.
For some candidates, gone are the days of handing out combs, fingernail files and bumper stickers with their logos for free to supporters and potential voters. Instead, some candidates choose to open a merchandising operation, said Suffolk University Professor Ken Cosgrove. That action goes hand-in-hand with the digital fundraising e-mails. He said when people give their money, and are encouraged with a tailored story, they will often want to buy something to support that action afterward.
Therein lies the magic fundraising capabilities of the ‘Merch Store.’
“It’s smart because you turn people into your mobilized ad force and they pay you to do it,” he said. “That’s something that Trump brought to politics with his red hats. It took a professional marketer and salesman like him to bring that to politics, but it’s here. It’s no different than the Bruins or Red Sox gear people wear around. It doesn’t cost much to make this stuff and you can make a good chunk of change selling it. In a race with this many candidates, building brand recognition matters.”
To this point, Councilor Wu has opened a Merch Store, using the familiar purple colors with ‘Wu!’ emblazoned on the materials for sale.
Acting Mayor Janey has one of the more robust Merch Stores, with her purple and dark yellow colors on T-Shirts, hats, stickers and more. She has even premiered a T-Shirt in her colors that says, ‘Madame Mayor.’