A WOW Re-election Story: Email Marketing Essential to Politcal Campaigns

It's darn inspiring.  Toby Fallsgraff, email director for the Obama-Biden 2012 campaign, made it clear that email marketing was not just a key channel for the President's reelection campaign, but was a central, essential and integral factor in the success of the campaign.  Wow - lowly email marketing re-electing a President?  That's something to mention next time someone responds with languor when you say what you do for a living!

One of the coolest things that Toby shared is around the challenges of using email marketing to do the hard work of a campaign:  Defining a competitor, and establishing a candidate position.  Email marketing done well, and with high frequency, can actually shape the conversation, not just reflect the brand. "We created a way for ordinary Americans to be involved and actually move the needle on the campaign success," Toby said. 

The numbers are crazy.  One mailing could generate up to 2 million dollars in donations.  So the stakes - and rewards - were high.  No wonder the team worked crazy hours and gave up so much personal time for the success of the program.  There were 4.5 million donors over email, donating on average a $53 gift (many people gave more than once) generating more than a half a billion dollars online. 

No question:  Email marketing has changed how political campaigns are funded.

One key to success is focus and clarity of vision.  There were four email objectives: Messaging, Mobilization, Money & Metrics, Toby said.

Some of the secrets of their success include the kinds of best practices that we talk about all the time, and especially here at the Email Marketing Summit.

  • Treat subscribers like people, not data. Assumption that anyone who was on the list, was supportive. Messaging addressed supporters as knowledgeable insiders.  "We know you know about Obamacare, but your friends may not."  A series called, "You should forward this" is a great example of enabling social sharing.
  • The subject lines were a huge buzz factor in the campaign.  Some positive and negative social activity helped raise awareness of the program and entice people to actually open some of those multiple messages they received every day.   Subject lines like, "Listen,"  "Hey" and "Say you're with me" were incredibly successful.  Continual testing was key to subject line success.
  • Use a field localization approach for mobilization.  The Campaign relied on the States to know what worked best in their area.  Enablement of those programs helped improve the response to local activity.
  • Lots of testing in the strategy.  They found that staff was terrible at predicting what would work or not work - just like every marketing team I've ever seen. "We had to test and test and never be satisfied," Toby said.  "Innovation and metrics became an objective in itself."
  • Reliance on segmentation.  For example, on Oct 17, 166 individual email segments were sent something unique, and 84 of them were tests. 
  • Staffed for success.  "Some people had to sleep, which I don't buy,"  Toby said.  Still, of the 30-member Outbound messaging team, 22 people worked on email, 14 of them worked with the state programs.  There were four people working on social.  "We couldn't hire people fast enough. So we hired smart people who were good writers," Toby says.  It led to a very collaborative culture with cross functional teamwork, as well bubbling up of many new ideas.  "It's incredibly important to have a team that can rally around a vision, and be empowered to achieve it," he says.
  • The program was very mobile friendly and responsive from the beginning.
  • Continual honing of the test groups. For example, just taking out non-donors and west coasters (who were not awake when the tests went out in the morning) improved testing results and is attributed with millions in additional donations.  Testing elements also had to be changed frequently. "Novelty is highly effective but can also be highly fleeting," Toby says.

Segmentation based on demographics was not nearly as effective as past behavior.  What mattered was what you donated and when.  "We were not being creepy, people liked that we knew they had recently donated or recently signed the President's birthday card."  Toward the end of the campaign, "we put that strategy on steroids."  What happened is that the program achieved what many of us strive to do: To be personal.  The email marketing was in a voice that was authentic and honest.  Plus, it recognized the donor and celebrated and enabled them.  That is a great lesson for all of us.  Big data is not always creepy data. Consumers are okay with marketers using information that we should know - and use responsibly. 

A great validation of the success of this personal connection, is the emotional and heartfelt reactions from subscribers when the campaign sent out, "Goodbye inbox" messages at the end of the campaign.  Subscribers would truly miss hearing from the campaign "personas."

Toby described what we all want to have, and often don't for many reasons: Knowledge, resources, time, technology, lack of vision.  Theirs was a very data driven program.  "We tested and tested because we had to, we used A/B testing as our bread and butter,"  he says. Routinely this meant dozens of segments and 3-4 subject lines to test.  When you are projecting several million dollars in return from an email mailing, a few points can make a huge difference.

Thank you, Toby.  For doing great email marketing, and for your generous sharing of the campaign approach and success with us this morning!  Readers, watch the video if you can!  So many great lessons for all of us who want to be smarter about email marketing.

1 comment about "A WOW Re-election Story: Email Marketing Essential to Politcal Campaigns".
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  1. Leon McKinney from McKinney Associates, December 14, 2012 at 7:10 a.m.

    Ummmm, Stephanie, I'm an engineer, not a marketing professional, but somehow I have this suspicion that annoying part of your target audience or rubbing salt in their wounds is noooooot exactly a great strategy. In this case, I would guess about half your target audience is still at least a wee bit unhappy about the election (unless you're all leftists) - me, for example - and we're not particularly interested in hearing about Obamarama election success stories. Just a thought.

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