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Magazines > Marketing Library Services > May/June 2024

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MLS - Marketing Library Services
Vol. 38 No. 3 — May/June 2024
Building Political Power With Email Lists
by Patrick “PC” Sweeney
Hand on keyboard
One of the most important things your library can do to ensure success at the ballot box is to build an active email list and use it to communicate with the public about the value, role, and relevance of the library in the community. Email lists let you create connections with supporters and update them on your campaign. They’re also incredibly helpful for tracking who your supporters are.

Unfortunately, what I see from most libraries that I work with as political director of EveryLibrary is a small email list comprising almost exclusively library patrons and users. While this is nice, there’s no reason to limit communications to the users. In fact, if your list is users-only, then your library is missing a huge opportunity to build political power and influence.

This is because there is absolutely no correlation between library users and library supporters. There are many people in the community who support the library but have no need or desire to use it. There are also many people who use the library but don’t believe that taxes should pay for it or don’t trust government organizations in general. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve talked to users, while they’re in a library, who say they won’t vote for it because taxes are too high or because they believe that libraries should be philanthropically funded.

Yes, Libraries Are Political

Like it or not, libraries are political organizations. First and foremost, libraries stand for issues. There is a body of professional values such as information access, First Amendment rights, privacy, etc., that have political implications.

But beyond that, around 98% of library funding is political. According to the IMLS Public Libraries Survey data, approximately 90% of funding comes from the will of local voters and politicians. Another 3%–5% comes from the state legislators, and the final 3%–5% comes from federal funding—both of which require voter and legislator support.

With only a handful of exceptions, if any, when a library in the U.S. wants funding, it has to ask either voters or legislators. What this means is that if we want to see libraries funded into the future, we need the support of voters and legislators, and we can get it only through building political power and influence. Cultivating a local email list is one of the quickest and easiest ways to ensure that we begin to build that power.

Two Types of Political Power

Political power only comes from two places: people and money. If you have one of those on your side, then you have the power to influence politics. While it would be nice if legislators supported things because they are good for America, in reality, they support things that are good for legislators.

There are also dozens of causes that are supported by legislators that are not good for the American people but are good for the special interest groups (SIGs) that support those causes. The reason they get supported by legislators is because those groups have political power and influence. In some cases, those SIGs have more political power than libraries, and their agendas run counter to the agenda of libraries. When that happens, library funding is in danger because we don’t have political power.

People Power: People have the ability to drive politics, and whoever has the most strategic access to American voters has the power to influence the outcomes of politics. For example, the reason we can’t have a discussion about Second Amendment rights in the U.S. is because the NRA can immediately send an email to a million voters in a legislator’s district, spurring those voters to action. That creates a system of reward and consequence for legislators. There is an incentive for that legislator to support the NRA’s agenda and a disincentive for them to speak against it.

One of the scariest aspects of people power is that a movement for change does not require that a majority of people are in favor of the change. In fact, research by Erica Chenoweth found that no movement has ever failed that activated just 3.5% of the community (https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20190513-it-only-takes-35-of-people-to-change-the-world). So, if the individuals who are seeking to regulate Americans’ access to books are able to engage with just 3.5% of the public in a meaningful way, they will have the political power. They often conduct this engagement through email campaigns.

Financial Power: Of course, the other way of building political power is through money. For example, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) is a group that lobbies on behalf of corporate interests. Since a large portion of its agenda would not be palatable to the American public, and because it has access to a vast network of corporate money, ALEC uses that avenue to push its agenda. The group uses its money to make candidate contributions and partisan donations, along with other legal ways to move money to individuals in positions of government power. These monetary incentives give ALEC more opportunities to persuade legislators to make decisions that favor its agenda.

Unfortunately, there are not any organizations within the library space that have the financial resources to create and wield political power through the use of money. In fact, EveryLibrary is one of the only organizations in the industry that has the legal structure, as a 501(c)(4), to spend money in such a way that it can be used to influence politics. But EveryLibrary would need tens of millions of dollars annually to be effective.

So, building people power through an email list remains one of the simplest and quickest ways to generate the support you need in your community to increase funding and support the issues that libraries care about.

Tips for Building Your Email List

A great email list can help increase your number of supporters, but more importantly, it lets you communicate with your supporters directly. Here are seven tips to help you build your political email list.

  1. Make it easy to sign up. If you make it a hassle to sign up for your email list, even your most enthusiastic supporters are unlikely to do so. Instead, make it easy for them to sign up. On your website, have an easily identifiable spot for supporters to join your email list. In fact, make it a primary feature on every page. On your social media accounts, have a sign-up link in your bios. Depending on the platform, you can include a reminder and link to join your email list, either in every post or every few posts. And remember that people who attend events are more likely to be enthusiastic supporters and will want to maintain communica tion with your campaign. Make it easy for them by having a sign-up sheet ready to go.
  2. Focus on engagement. A lot of campaigns make the mistake of focusing too much on the number of people on their email lists rather than on the level of engagement. Don’t waste your time and effort sending emails to people who will never open them. Make sure that your email list contains supporters who are actively engaging with your campaign.
  3. Start small and build up. Begin with the people who are already dedicated to the library. Then, do some political mapping, and target leaders in your community. Ask them to share the message with their supporters. You want people on the list to care, and a great way to get people to care about something is to have them hear about it from the people they trust.
  4. Swap lists with other organizations. List swapping is common among political organizations, but you want to be careful. Make sure that you are only working with reputable organizations and that you protect your supporters’ privacy.
  5. Share petition campaigns. Petition campaigns are an efficient way to unite potential supporters over a shared concern. While libraries, as government agencies, can’t typically support or oppose petitions, their Friends can. When sending petitions, be sure to ask the recipients to get the people they know to sign and share the petition too.
  6. Offer free merch or swag. Everybody loves free stuff. Offer giveaways like bumper stickers or magnets to supporters who sign up for your email list. You could also offer a discount for other merch you might be selling, like T-shirts or bags.
  7. Host a contest. Contests are a classic way to engage with an audience. Get people to join your email list in exchange for being entered into a raffle. Offer prizes that are enticing but don’t stretch your budget. The danger of contests is that you risk having a lot of people sign up who don’t care about your campaign. Mitigate this risk by offering prizes you know your supporters would be interested in.

Writing Your Email Messages

A well-written email is vivid, clear, gripping, and concise. It avoids jargon and isn’t overly formal or confusing. A good email can be personal and usually doesn’t use large words with a lot of syllables. It also doesn’t assume that your readers know details that they might not know. This is your chance to tell your story, and a good story takes the reader with it. Here are some professional tips for writing effective emails:

Fourth-grade level: Good emails are written at the fourth-grade reading level because people receive hundreds of emails every day, and most emails are just skimmed, not read deeply. In fact, if readers have to deeply read an email to understand it, they are far less likely to read the whole email. Make it as simple as possible.

White space: The difference between an email that gets read and one that doesn’t is often just that one has more white space and is broken into more manageable parts.

What that means is that a large block of text, such as those in this article, would not be effective in an email.

Instead, while grammatically incorrect, break up your paragraphs and put each sentence on a new line.

People are more likely to read smaller blocks of text than larger ones.

That alone makes it easier for people to read even though the total amount of text is the same.

Subject lines: You want to know why political emails use clickbait subject lines? I’ll tell you. It’s because they work. Political campaigns spend tens of millions of dollars a year building data to understand how to effectively communicate with the electorate. They have more data on effective messaging than libraries ever will. They have proof that clickbait subject lines work.

Honestly, an effective subject line is whatever makes people read your email. I have seen effective one-word subject lines that intrigue the reader, and I have seen effective titles that are longer than I would ever consider using myself. You shouldn’t be afraid to put something personal or controversial in the subject line to catch readers’ attention.

To write an engaging subject line, try to use words that encourage action or that give the reader a sense of what they will get if they open the email. These are called “value words.” Ask yourself what would make the reader care enough to open the email and what they would get from opening it. Then build your subject line from the answer to those questions.

Sending Multiple Emails Every Week

You want to know why political campaigns send multiple emails a week? Again, because it works. So, for the love of all things holy, please don’t let your community only hear from you through a once-a-month newsletter that includes everything the library offers to everyone on the email list. These are the least effective email campaigns.

I am continuously told by librarians that they want to respect their supporters’ inboxes and don’t want to send too many emails. But an effective email campaign sends at least three to five emails per week. We have to remember that we are competing with causes that continuously keep their supporters engaged. Those campaigns will always win because they are keeping their cause at the top of followers’ minds, and they are building a lasting narrative.

The way to send multiple emails a week without overwhelming people is to segment your email lists. Find out what people care about and what they want to hear about, and email them about those things. So, while you might send out five emails a week, most people will only receive two or three of those emails, and every one will be about the things that matter to them.

The reason this is so important is because people only consider an email to be spam if it’s about something they don’t care about. So, if someone on your list cares about entrepreneurship and you keep sending them emails about children’s programs, they are not going to stick around very long.

Using Your Email List to Build Power

Ultimately, your goal with your email list is not to create more users or to get more people to use your library more often. Instead, your goal is to get more people to support your library. Your goal is about getting more people to want to see your library well-funded.

What’s interesting about using an email list as a communication tool for support instead of usage is that people who have the propensity or need to use the library will use it on their way to becoming supporters. People who don’t have the propensity or the need won’t use it, but they will vote for it or fight to ensure its funding. And, if we want to be able to continue to serve the community, maintaining funding through political support is necessary.

Patrick “PC” Sweeney is the political director at EveryLibrary, the first and only political action committee for libraries in the U.S. He holds an M.L.I.S. from San Jose State University in California. Sweeney was named a Library Journal “Mover and Shaker” in 2015 for his advocacy work. He is co-author of Winning Elections and Influencing Politicians for Library Funding as well as Before the Ballot: Building Support for Library Funding. He teaches courses on politics and libraries at the San Jose State University Information School. His email address is patrick@pcsweeney.com.
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