Politics plus email equals spam?

New Zealand political parties gearing up for this year's election might want to take note of a discussion in the US this week on political spam.

          New Zealand political parties gearing up for this year's election might want to take note of a discussion in the US this week on political spam.

          A spirited panel debate at the Politics Online 2002 conference in Washington at the George Washington University (GWU) discussed questions such as: when a campaigner sends out a bulk email 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?

          A recent survey showed that 88% of Americans say they've been spammed, up from 79% 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 email, internet users may regard messages sent for noncommercial purposes, such as political email, 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 email 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," says 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 email as an effective tool, if used correctly.

          "Political bulk email is definitely not spam, it shouldn't be lumped in with commercial bulk email [whose senders are] motivated purely by profit," says Zain Khan, co-chairman of EZMarketer, which provides technology and communications services to political groups and campaigners.

          Still, Khan says, political groups should not abuse email 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 says. However, according to other speakers at the conference, such email lists can be difficult to come by.

          Groups should only message recipients with pertinent information, Khan adds. "Don't inundate recipients with boring, pointless messages," he said. "Political bulk email works if you do it right and follow the rules."

          How a recipient reacts to political email can depend on their own definition of spam, says Mike McCurry, chairman and chief executive officer of Grassroots Enterprise, which builds management and communications software for advocacy groups.

          "One person's spam may be someone else's filet mignon," says McCurry, who served as President Clinton's press secretary in the late 1990s.

          Political email should be as personalised as possible, and the recipient should be able to easily recognise the sender, he says. It also helps if the email suggests the recipient to take action, such as writing a letter to a congressman.

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