Obama Email Team Gets Age-Old Lessons in DM
By Ken Magill
You know those Obama emails so many people—including Jon Stewart—made fun of? They worked.
They were ugly. Some seemed a little too familiar. But they worked.
[Editor’s note: Before anyone gets in a froth, this isn’t about politics. It’s about marketing.]
Bloomberg BusinessWeek last week offered a glimpse inside the Obama camp’s email efforts. What the story revealed should come as no surprise to anyone with a direct-marketing background but should serve as a reminder for all of us of some DM basics:
The appeals were the product of rigorous experimentation by a large team of analysts. “We did extensive A-B testing not just on the subject lines and the amount of money we would ask people for,” says Amelia Showalter, director of digital analytics, “but on the messages themselves and even the formatting.” The campaign would test multiple drafts and subject lines—often as many as 18 variations—before picking a winner to blast out to tens of millions of subscribers. “When we saw something that really moved the dial, we would adopt it,” says Toby Fallsgraff, the campaign’s e-mail director, who oversaw a staff of 20 writers.
It quickly became clear that a casual tone was usually most effective. “The subject lines that worked best were things you might see in your in-box from other people,” Fallsgraff says. “ ‘Hey’ was probably the best one we had over the duration.” Another blockbuster in June simply read, “I will be outspent.” According to testing data shared with Bloomberg Businessweek, that outperformed 17 other variants and raised more than $2.6 million.
Writers, analysts, and managers routinely bet on which lines would perform best and worst. “We were so bad at predicting what would win that it only reinforced the need to constantly keep testing,” says Showalter. “Every time something really ugly won, it would shock me: giant-size fonts for links, plain-text links vs. pretty ‘Donate’ buttons. Eventually we got to thinking, ‘How could we make things even less attractive?’ That’s how we arrived at the ugly yellow highlighting on the sections we wanted to draw people’s eye to.”
If only we could all afford 20 copywriters for one campaign.
Obama’s emails are a case study in why so many designers hate creating direct-marketing collateral. More often than not, pretty doesn’t sell as well as ugly does.
They were also a case study in focus. Email marketers are often tempted to throw in a bunch of offers simply because they can. But there is a DM tenet that says: “Give them a choice and they’ll do nothing.”
Obama’s emails were aimed at one thing and one thing only: fundraising. Nothing in those messages distracted from the main goal.
They were simple, ugly, and apparently effective.
Thirdly, they were a case study on the importance of testing—even with email. No one can predict with any kind of accuracy what will work in direct marketing. Translation: If you think you can pick a winner just by eyeing it up, you’re wrong.
I shudder to think of all the money being left on the table out there.