ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Before, during and after the debate, campaigns will send out a ton of fundraising emails. And as the year draws to a close, there will be even more. NPR's Scott Detrow reports on the massive amount of cash going from inboxes to campaign accounts.
SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: November was a flattering time if you happen to be on former secretary of state Hillary Clinton's email fundraising list because over and over and over again, one of the most famous women on the planet kept inviting you out to dinner.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Dinner.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Dinner.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: RE - dinner.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: Join me for dinner.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Dinner with Bill.
DETROW: Those are just a handful of the nearly 50 different subject lines the Clinton campaign used in emails urging supporters to donate money and win a dinner with either Clinton or her husband, former president Bill Clinton.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: Grab dinner with Bill.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #5: Bill wants to meet you.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #6: I know you'll be glad you met Bill.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #7: I think we should meet.
DETROW: All that data comes from a company called Return Path, which analyzes email marketing trends. The approach worked. Of the five top most-read emails the Clinton campaign sent out in November, four of them had a subject line of dinner. That doesn't surprise Toby Fallsgraff, who ran email fundraising for President Obama's 2012 reelection campaign.
TOBY FALLSGRAFF: Emails that are effective - that we've seen to be really effective - are the ones that feel human. They feel like a real human interaction.
DETROW: But when a campaign is send emails that are supposedly from a high-profile candidate, there's such a thing as too human.
MARK ENGLISH: So the subject line says, please reach out to Mark - so it's very personal - and say, Mark, are you OK? And then it just says, Rand asked me to reach out to you.
DETROW: Mark English is a White Plains, N.Y., libertarian who has given money to Kentucky senator Rand Paul. But he says this email from a Paul staffer felt contrived and dishonest, especially since it was framed as a follow-up to an email that Paul supposedly wrote to the staffer.
ENGLISH: Alexander, please do me a quick favor and contact Mark English. I've emailed Mark multiple times this past week.
DETROW: Occasional misfires aside, most campaigns test out different subjects and messages to see what works best. That's because the stakes are high. Campaigns raise a whole lot of money from email. Take the 2012 Obama campaign. They raised about $500 million from email pitches. Social media dominates more and more of our online habits these days, but when it comes to raising money, old-fashioned email is still king. Fallsgraff says it works because of how people approach their email inbox.
FALLSGRAFF: When you go to check your email, you're already prepared to make those action-based decisions in a way that really isn't true when you're strolling through your timeline. Something you've received might cause you to pull out your credit card.
DETROW: And they're cheap, says Jordan Cohen, the chief marketing officer at the online marketing company Fluent.
JORDAN COHEN: It's literally a fraction of what a marketer would spend on things like television, radio, print.
DETROW: It's also faster to shoot a fundraising note out to a large list than it is to create and air new ads. That means emails are often campaigns' first wave of attack when a major news story happens or when an opposing candidate says or does something that gets into the headlines. But just like all requests for money or favors, these messages can get annoying. Fallsgraff says the Obama campaign was always mindful, never wanting to harass supporters to the point they hit unsubscribe.
FALLSGRAFF: The subscribers on your email list are not nameless, faceless ATMs. They are real human beings who, like - they just care about this campaign. They care about the election, and they want to be part of it.
DETROW: And the Obama campaign's approach clearly worked. In addition to raising all that money, it kept tens of millions of people on its email list. That's why no matter how much all the Republican candidates disagree with Obama himself, nearly every presidential campaign this time around is trying to take a page from the president's fundraising playbook. Scott Detrow, NPR News.