What potential tech biases mean for political email senders
Big tech companies like Alphabet, Microsoft and Yahoo have created highly sophisticated Spam Filtering Algorithms (SFA) to analyze incoming emails and deliver their email clients the emails they want, removing emails they don’t want.
It’s not an easy job. As the founder of an ESP that serves both political and non-political customers, the email admins at these companies have told us personally that managing incoming email well is probably the biggest technical challenge for companies. offering free mailboxes.
Add to that the fact that internet users around the world send around 300 billion emails to each other every day and you can see that this is no small task.
Speaking with clients over many years in various political campaign seasons, we often heard a common complaint: “Gmail, Hotmail, Yahoo, etc. just don’t like my type of email policy. They treat my emails unfairly! »
Are they right? Is there any truth in that? Are some places more friendly than others for certain types of political email?
According to a 10-page study from March 2022 published by four students from the computer science department at North Carolina State University, the simple answer is: “Yes”.
Looking at the summary data in graph form, it is evident that Gmail has the most unfair treatment, and therefore the highest bias. Outlook has the most aggressive handling and moves almost all political emails (left and right) to spam. Yahoo classifies an average of 32% of political email as spam and is the least restrictive of the three mailbox providers.
Before examining in detail the findings of the student, we first want to discuss his methodology. Overall, we feel they have done a very good job of trying to be neutral and free from bias in their process. They designed their study carefully, knowing that it is almost impossible not to have flaws in the processes of collecting and interpreting their data. This was quite a large study and the students implemented many best practices to help provide statistically accurate data collection.
Here’s a quick rundown of their methodology: The researchers created 34 accounts through each of the three major free email providers (Gmail, Outlook, and Yahoo). Each account had different characteristics in order to “accurately estimate political bias and mitigate the potential effects of demographic factors such as ethnicity and age.”
The researchers write:[W]We assigned a different name to each email account that we randomly selected from a database of common names associated with White, African American, Hispanic, Asian, and South Asian ethnicities. For age, we assigned each email account to one of three age groups of 18-40, 40-65, and 65+. Finally, we randomly assigned male and female genders to email accounts. »
The study covered the 2020 cycle from July 1 to November 1. 30, 2020 and reviewed emails sent by two presidential candidate mailing lists, 78 in the Senate and 156 in the House.
The team responded to 24,072 automated email newsletter sign-up requests. During the five-month study, they collected 318,108 emails from the three mailbox providers.
The students performed a baseline experiment as the first part of their study where there was no user action. The second part of the study was an interaction experiment, which aimed to determine whether, by interacting with email, a user could “train” the SFA about their preferences. Mailbox providers claimed that users can train the service to know what types of emails users prefer to receive and what types of emails users don’t.
Findings from the North Carolina State University team: All SFAs exhibited political bias in the months leading up to the 2020 election. In fact, the study found that the sender’s political affiliation plays a role in whether an email is flagged as spam.
In terms of patronage, Gmail leaned to the left while Outlook and Yahoo leaned to the right. The percentage of emails marked by Gmail as spam from right-wing candidates rose steadily as the date of the election approached.
Although user interactions – such as moving an email from the spam folder to the inbox or marking a message as spam – have seen some adaptation and service learning (Gmail was the better “learner”), this adaptation does not necessarily eliminate political bias.
Demographic factors, including age, ethnicity and gender (of the email user) did not influence AFS political bias.
Arguably, it’s also possible that email service SFAs learned from the choices of other subscribers on the network, marking some campaign emails as spam, and then marking similar campaign emails as spam for other subscribers.
While we have no reason to believe that there were any deliberate attempts by these messaging services to create these biases in order to influence voters, the fact remains that their SFAs learned mark more emails from one political affiliation as spam than the other.
These biases can have an impact on the outcome of an election that we cannot ignore, especially with the ability to influence undecided voters.
What political senders can do
While an email sender might interpret these biases and challenges as an excuse to think things are simply against them, that simply isn’t true. In fact, mailers of all kinds can find success and deliver well to major mailbox providers.
The path to success involves a defined plan and a checklist of best practices. Some of them are technical, others are more process oriented. Additionally, take a strategic approach to your messaging content by being careful about your mix of content and calls to action.
Some common mistakes we have seen include working with dirty mailing lists, old lists, compiled lists, voter registration lists, friend lists, partner lists, and other bad quality. Infrequent and occasional shipments are also problematic. Consistent emailing (daily, weekly, etc.) and regular email volumes are important for best results.
Generally speaking, what matters most with a mailing list is the level of permission granted to you by the subscriber. In other words, did they ask to receive your email? Will they be surprised if they receive your email?
We’ve seen political senders assume that as long as the mailing list is on the same liberal or conservative side, it’s okay to send to them. Unfortunately, this is simply not the case. Again, it all depends on the permission level.
Much can be accomplished by maximizing subscribers who actively interact with your email by opening, clicking and forwarding it. Since these mailbox providers host your email on their servers, they can and do track how each reader interacts with your email. That tells them a lot.
An important metric used by all mailbox providers is engagement level. Simply put, highly engaged emails get preferential treatment because they are deemed much more interesting to readers by filters. That’s why savvy senders deploy tactics that encourage engagement (clicks, forwards, shares, and “learn more” links).
Most free mailbox providers analyze and measure hundreds of data points from incoming emails to determine where to place emails (inbox, promotions, bulk sender, spam folder). Here are some simple things every email marketer can check: Make sure your mailfrom address is coming from your domain name (not a Gmail, Hotmail, Yahoo address). Make sure the domain name you use in your email message has been around for at least a year, hopefully several years.
Make sure your syntax, HTML, spelling, and links are perfect and not malformed. Make sure your email is sent in responsive format (easily readable on all devices) and send it in multipart format (html and text format).
This is just the beginning. There are many, many more checks and processes that can be done. Five main areas to work on include the quality of your subscriber list, audience segmentation, your messaging content, your engagement/CTA, and your sending reputation. Start with the fruits at hand first, then move on to more strategic and technical solutions. The improvements we’ve seen after the changes can be dramatic.
Andrew Lutts is Founder and CEO of Net Atlantic, Inc. Since 1995, Net Atlantic, Inc. has helped businesses, organizations, political parties, special interest groups, and candidates create, send, distribute, and track campaigns by email.