Marketing’s Weekly Dose of the Truth

Ken Magill

About Us

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.


Show: Newest | Oldest

Post a Comment
Your Name:
Please type the letters in the image above

Terms: Feel free to be as big a jerk as you want, but don't attack anyone other than me personally. And don't criticize people or companies other than me anonymously. Got something crappy to say? Say it under your real name. Anonymous potshots and personal attacks aimed at me, however, are fine.

Posted by: Dela Quist
Date: 2012-12-08 16:03:38
Subject: Obama Email Team Gets Age-Old Lessons in DM. Really Ken? Really?

Hi Ken Let me start by saying there is no doubt this election was won by email. Here is a direct quote from the article; “Most of the $690 million Obama raised online came from fundraising e-mails”. And BTW $690 million represents nearly 75% of the $934 million raised in what ended up being the most expensive Presidential election in US history. This makes email, by far and away the No1 non-political contributor to the drubbing of Mitt Romney. Sop why has there been so little said about this incredible achievement by email marketing pundits, ESP’s or their PR machines! When you look at the fuss made over the ‘08 campaign - allegedly won by social media the silence from the email industry has been deafening. When anyone (like you) does mention it, there has been a tendency to attribute the success of Obama’s email fundraising activities to anything other than errrr… email? You close your article with the line “I shudder to think of all the money being left on the table out there”, which I take to mean that without the “age old lessons [and presumably wisdom]” passed down from wise old DM to rather awkward gauche and somewhat unattractive email marketing the story would have been very different. Nothing could be further from the truth. Here is what really happened. Obama won because he sent more email to more people more often than Romney period! According to numbers put out by eDataSource and Return Path, Obama mailed a staggering 40+MM subscribers compared with Romney’s 4MM, on some days they sent 350MM compared with 26MM from Romney. So while relevance, engagement, creative – ugly or otherwise, Subject Line testing etc. did play some part in his success, they pale into insignificance compared to the impact reach and frequency had in his success. What many here might find surprising (I see this as further proof of the fact that frequency drives engagement) is that the Obama database was more engaged and less likely to view the emails they received as spam. The figures below which I extrapolated from their numbers illustrate this clearly. Obama Read 15.85% Total 6,340,000 Romney Read 7.94% Total 317,600 Obama Delete Unread 9.01% Total 3,604,000 Romney Delete Unread 5.11% Total 204,400 Obama ISP Spam % 17.95 Total 7,180,000 Romney ISP Spam 52.51% Total 2,100,400 Obama User-Marked Spam 0.02% Total 800,000 Romney User-Marked Spam 0.03% Total 120,000 The Obama campaign raised an average of $17.25 per subscriber, if you assume Romney was able to do the same, he would have generated $69MM from email compared to Obama’s $690MM. So if you were Romney what would you have learned from this, A) Segment and test your way to $172.50 per subscriber or B) Send email to a lot more people more often? Email delivers something DM cannot. Broadcast reach at near zero marginal cost. If you don’t want to leverage that, stop sending email! I have read lots of peoples’ take on the article and what they found most interesting and would like to share mine – something Bloomberg Business Week chose to call a counterintuitive. I don’t and I think it is an awesome admission “Most people have a nearly limitless capacity for e-mail and won’t unsubscribe no matter how many they’re sent”. Now read the comments made by the very people who made the campaign successful Note how few said they enjoyed the blitz yet on average they donated $17.25 each. Now that’s an insight! I know for certain that they are not the first people to have worked this out, but they are the first significant entity to come right out and say it. Let’s give credit where credit is due in the 2012 presidential election, DM techniques were the tail email was the DOG!