Behind Obama’s Email Fundraising Success: Strategic Profanity and a Lot of Testing

[Note: speaking Obama’s email list, there’s current chatter about whether — and how — he should use it upcoming legislative battles. More on that here soon.]

Writing in Bloomberg Businessweek yesterday, Joshua Green has a great overview of the 2012 Obama campaign’s approach to email fundraising. One aspect won’t come as a surprise: just as their 2008 counterparts did, the 2012 email team focused on testing:

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.

A related point: campaign staff’s bets on which subject lines would perform best were often wrong: “‘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.'” Interestingly, a little cussin’ was good, of the “hell yeah I support the President” variety, perhaps both because it felt “real” and because it reflected supporters’ own desire to be fired up. Check out the full article — it’s worth your time. After the break, I’ve reprinted a graphic showing the HUGE range in possible returns from a single message…different subject lines could yield a four- or five-fold difference in the amount raised. Thanks to David Almacy and Jim McBride for sending the article around.


Written by
Colin Delany
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