The humble email. We marketers sometimes forget how powerful this common tool can be. Take the Bernie Sanders email blasts, for example.

Whatever your political preferences might be (and this article is in no way an endorsement), there are some valuable marketing and communications lessons to be learned from the masterful way the Bernie Sanders campaign has used email to raise funds and market their candidate.

In March 2016, Clare Foran at The Atlantic  wrote that the Sanders campaign “has upended conventional wisdom about money in politics.” Reporting on April 5, 2016, the New York Times stated the Sanders campaign had raised close to 140 million dollars (second only to Hillary Clinton’s campaign, with 222 million dollars). In a single day in February, the Sanders campaign raised a staggering eight million dollars, all in small contributions averaging $34 each.

Behind all of this stunning success, behind the upending of money in politics, is — you guessed it — email marketing. Really, really good email marketing.

Again, let me state that this is not an endorsement of any candidate or platform. I’ve tracked the campaign’s emails for about two months now, and have come to greatly admire the creative and marketing expertise behind these carefully crafted strategic communications. The Sanders email campaign is a textbook example of how to use email marketing effectively.

1. High stakes and short copy

If you can, in your own marketing campaigns, manage to get high stakes using brief copy, you will create marketing magic.

Few people will read a long marketing email. Although politicians are notoriously long-winded, the Sanders emails are surprisingly brief. At somewhere between 100 and 150 words, you can read them in about a minute. But while the copy is lean and trimmed to the bone, the ideas and stakes of the communications are vast.

Yes, the emails ask for donations, but they also offer a continuing, consistent flow of big ideas. This ratio of short copy to big idea creates value — making the communication worth the minute it takes to read it (at least, to Sanders’ coalition). 

photo of Seth Godin

Seth Godin, master of short copy, big value

Another master of the short copy, big value style (and perhaps a model) is the marketing teacher Seth Godin’s blog, which I get every day in my email  — the articles are always short and they always have value. (I do endorse Seth’s blog and recommend you subscribe, if you haven’t already).

Here is a typical email from the Sanders campaign. It is personalized to me. As Dale Carnegie once said, the most important and beautiful words any person hears is their own name. Note the length: short. Note the idea/value: huge.

Bernie Sanders marketing by Paul Tumey 1

2. Frequency, frequency, frequency

Not every email gets opened and read. Not every email that is read convinces someone to take action. But, if you keep shooting the basketball, eventually it will go through the hoop.

When I was buying print advertising in the 1990s in Boston, I learned that it was a much wiser use of my dollar to buy several small ads that ran throughout the week, than to take out an expensive full or half page ad that I could only afford to run once. I read that a reader needed to see the ad nine times before it would begin to take root in their field of awareness.

I get an email from Bernie Sanders at least once a day, sometimes twice. Is it annoying? Not really, because I know they will always be short, and the stakes are big. (Also, I guess I am hooked from a marketer’s perspective, to see what they will do next). Funny enough, here’s one that arrived as I was writing this blog! Frequency!

email marketing Bernie Sanders

3. A consistent, identifiable look-and-feel

Visually, the Sanders emails are beautifully consistent. This supports the idea of a leader who will not waver. It also helps build a brand identity that can be eventually be recognized at a glance. Every email has the Sanders logo centered at the top, in the exact same dimensions. Every email uses the exact same font, line spacing, and margins. The donation buttons are always the same size and shape. Consistent, bold use of the “Bernie blue” color (RGB HTML #287BBF, RGB values 40, 123, 191) is particularly effective.

illustration showing the visual consistency bernie sanders email marketing

4. Savvy graphics

Check out this clean, stylish donation “temperature bar” that arrived embedded in an email on March 31. If you open the email after that date, the graphic displays up-to-date information (this illustration was taken from an April 16th viewing). In addition to looking good, the graphic has a perfectly functioning back end. That’s savvy.

infographic bernie sanders fundraising campaign

Similarly, clicking the donation buttons results in a fast, easy and clear payment process that is as clean as a Google search. A transaction, whether it is buying or donating, is a promise. By expertly fulfilling this basic promise of an easy transaction, the Sanders campaign is building relationships with millions of Americans.

Many have observed that Shepard Fairey’s color-diverse “Hope” poster was instrumental in Barak Obama’s successful 2008 campaign. On March 25th, a charming spontaneous incident involving a bird happened at a Bernie Sanders rally in Portland, Oregon:


When that happened, I thought to myself: “If it was me, I’d create a poster of the event and market the heck out of it.” Within days, the savvy, and obviously brilliant (because they think like me) Sanders marketing team produced a refreshingly lighthearted “Birdie Sanders” cartoon sticker and leveraged it to secure more donations. It’s no Obama “Hope” poster, but this graphic added a much-needed two-day note of fun to the otherwise almost too sober campaign.

art of Birdie Sanders

5. Call to urgency

As they did with the bird incident, the Sanders email marketing team connects most of the emails to the urgent topic of the minute. A classic example is the “act now — supplies are limited” message that came with the “Birdie Sanders” email just one day after the sticker was offered.

marketing Bernie Sanders

Each email plainly states a call to action coupled with a sense of urgency. Before each primary, there is a push to raise more funds. Most recently, the Sanders emails have begun to introduce and endorse other political candidates currently running for various positions, positioning Sanders as a leader and adding value to the communications in the form of new information (if you like me, then here’s someone else you might like) while also making a call to urgency.

6. Closing the Loop

Despite Bernie Sanders’ woes with supplying tax returns for public scrutiny, his emails are very good about holding their campaigns accountable by reporting results. Each flash fundraiser email is followed up with a report on how much money was raised. Closing the loop is vitally important to building a relationship with your customer. If you ask them participate in anything, you miss a huge opportunity to create connection if you don’t communicate the subsequent results to them. With the Sanders email campaign, the loops are closed over and over — creating a perception is that one is part of a large and growing movement that is winning, winning, winning (even when his opponent, Hillary Clinton, is far ahead of him).

Watch and Learn

Somewhat like the FDR fireside chats, the Sanders emails speak directly to Americans in a frank, straightforward manner. Each day, millions of Americans receive emails crafted by Bernie Sanders, campaign manager Jeff Weaver and the Sanders email marketing team. Here’s a series of emails that have helped to raise millions of dollars and make a large social impact. Regardless of whether you hate Bernie Sanders or love him, his email marketing offers some textbook lessons in how to use email to build relationships and raise funds.

– Copyright 2016 Paul Tumey