Political Animal


November 29, 2012 3:07 PM Hey! Those Emails Worked! Hells Yes!

By Ed Kilgore

Anyone living in the large universe of the Obama campaign’s email lists during the last year or so undoubtedly noticed the extraordinary volume, and sometimes the unusually casual tone, of requests for money or some volunteer activity. As Joshua Green reports at Businessweek, there was nothing casual about the design of these messages:

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. “‚ÄČ‘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.

It seems the tests didn’t always accord with what Obama’s wizards expected:

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.
Fortunately for Obama and all political campaigns that will follow, the tests did yield one major counterintuitive 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.”

That’s bad news, since we’ll eventually have to experience the limits of our “nearly limitless capacity for email.”

Green’s account focuses on fundraising missives. But some of the other variety were interesting as well. Mid-afternoon on Election Day, I got one asking me (and I don’t know why I was getting one, since I’ve never donated to the Obama campaign nor answered any requests for help) to go to a particular location in downtown Monterery to make phone calls to battleground states (presumably to Nevada in the Pacific Time Zone).

In any event, since Obama won, we’ll see a lot more of this in the next cycle from both parties and all sorts of candidates. Let’s just hope the testing continues and we don’t all become prisoners of this year’s email fashions.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • biggerbox on November 29, 2012 3:20 PM:

    Hmm. Data analysis, extensive a/b testing, multiple campaigns, continual reassessment and testing of results, why, it's almost the sort of thing you'd expect from someone who knew how to run a business. It shows just how silly Romney's "I know how to run a business" theme was - they spent all their time on big-ticket unproven technology instead of, you know, actually getting things organized and accomplishing things.

  • Lucia on November 29, 2012 3:35 PM:

    I never unsubscribed because very early I set up a rule to route the emails out of my inbox and into another folder, so I never saw a lot of them. We did contribute, but not on the basis of email. I suspect a lot of people are in the same boat.

  • c u n d gulag on November 29, 2012 3:50 PM:

    Yeah, who knew targeted e-mail marketing would get better results than Billionaires sending millions and millions of dollars to Karl Rove and the C of C to run TV ads?
    And then, who knew that early-buying of TV ad-time, could save a campaign tens, if not more, of millions of dollars?

    How did that wily, evil, IslamofascistKenyanSocialistCommunistMuslim Usurper, and his team of patchouli-oil smelling DFH's ever manage to out maneuver one of the great business minds of our time?

    That's who! Er, uhm... HOW!

  • KK on November 29, 2012 4:01 PM:

    My lovely wife donated and hated them. Hated them passionately. She'd donate, have a tracking number assigned and still get an email a day later. She found it obnoxious. And almost stopped giving. I think their are limits for many people. I suspect like my wife, most just liked Obama and hated Romney.

  • sick-n-effin-tired on November 29, 2012 4:08 PM:

    Didn't bother me . And they made it so simple retaining the info - one click. Every time I got pissed I clicked $11.00 ....$11.00 ....$11.00 to around $250 NO REGRETS!

  • David in NY on November 29, 2012 4:21 PM:

    I'm with Lucia above. Spam folders catch most of my political solicitations, so I don't mind getting them, because I don't see them. I bet that's true of lots of people.

  • Greg Goss on November 29, 2012 5:48 PM:

    Are they measuring disenchantment with email blasts correctly? "People won't unsubscribe ..."

    I've been living with spam for two decades now. Unsubscribing never works. If something gets on my nerves, I just build another killfile rule to bury it before I see it. And the sender never knows that they're buried.

  • Mimikatz on November 29, 2012 6:02 PM:

    I have an e-mail account that I use when making political donations, signing petitions and writing public officials. I never looked at it, not once, all campaign. But I did get tired of phone calls from Obama and the DSCC. It isn't that hard to deal with.

  • exlibra on November 29, 2012 8:24 PM:

    I remember the "I'll be outspent" one. Didn't work for me, because my immediate response was "given all the PACs, you'll be outspent no matter what *I* do" and did nothing.

    I never unsubscribed, or even relegated the messages to the spam box, because I'm incurably curious, and wanted to know what they were gonna come up with next. But I didn't respond to the e-mails, either; I trashed them, once I got the gist. I did donate online, but whenever I was good and ready and sufficiently pissed off with the opposition. That's when I went to their website and donated (small amounts). But it was always I who originated the donation, not they.

    Regarding your getting a message, despite not contributing... Possibly, someone else "volunteered" you; there was always a box making it easy to "share" your reasons for donating, frustrations/excitement with your friends. I never availed myself of it, but someone else might have.

    "believe yALead" Craptcha always knows :)

  • Marc on November 30, 2012 6:57 PM:

    18-20 writers? WTF?! I thought all those emails I was getting were from Barack, Michele, and Joe!