What we can learn from Obama’s $690 million online victory

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bloomberg business obamaIt’s no secret that one reason Barack Obama won the 2012 election against extremely well-funded competition is his campaign team had mastered the art of email and social media marketing. Strategic online marketing allowed the campaign to raise most of its $690 million — and the carefully targeted strategy also enabled Obama organizers to bring out the vote in the districts where it counted most for the essential Electoral College vote count.

Whether or not we politically agree with Obama, we can certainly learn from his campaign marketing as reported in this Bloomberg BusinessWeek article: The Science Behind Those Obama Campaign E-Mails.

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,” (Toby) Fallsgraff  (the campaign’s e-mail director), 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 (Amelia) Showalter (director of digital analytics). “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.”

Another unexpected hit: profanity. Dropping in mild curse words such as “Hell yeah, I like Obamacare” got big clicks. But these triumphs were fleeting. There was no such thing as the perfect e-mail; every breakthrough had a shelf life. “Eventually the novelty wore off, and we had to go back and retest,” says Showalter.

These results were achieved by massive and intensive A-B testing. Everything that the campaign used was tested against an option. With a mailing list this size, small differences and nuances can have powerful results, indeed. And, as Showalter indicated above, things change.

Is there a limit to the amount of email marketing you can do?  Well, not if you are running a presidential campaign for the incumbent president:

Fortunately for Obama and all political campaigns that will follow, the tests did yield one major counter-intuitive insight: Most people have a nearly limitless capacity for e-mail and won’t unsubscribe no matter how many they’re sent. “At the end, we had 18 or 20 writers going at this stuff for as many hours a day as they could stay awake,” says Fallsgraff. “The data didn’t show any negative consequences to sending more.”

However, I’m not sure if we can extrapolate Obama’s email brand success to our own business, or worse, spammers.  But, “Hey, I’ll produce a damn nasty email with really horrible graphics and giant ‘buy now’ buttons,” and I’ll test these things against more sedate options.  There’s nothing wrong, after all, in learning from success in defining our test questions.

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