Obama Campaign Email Efforts Marked By Continual Testing

A hallmark of the Obama campaign’s email program was its non-stop emphasis on testing. What lengths did it go to? Take Oct. 17, it sent out messages to 166 segments that day and 84 were A/B tests, whether with subject lines, time of day, messaging, etc.

Toby Fallsgraff, the email director for Obama’s 2012 reelection effort, said the pursuit of innovation continued to avoid stale tactics. “Novelty can be highly effective, it can also be highly fleeting and so our mantra was test and re-test,” he said.

What data convinced the campaign that it wasn’t alienating people with all those emails asking for money? It wasn’t much more than the money kept coming in despite the frequency. (Over $500 million was raised online via 4.5 million donors averaging $53 a donation.)

“The way I like to think about is we let our supporters design the program we were running,” Fallsgraff said in a keynote address at the MediaPost Email Insider Summit on Tuesday. “So, when anybody complain(ed) about how much email they got or why are you asking us for this money, you guys said this was fine with you. That was our whole approach. We optimized everything. The program was designed around what people told us they wanted.”

Speaking of those much-discussed subject lines that at first may have felt out of place in a presidential campaign, Fallsgraff said they “mattered a ton to us.”

One from President Obama saying “I will be outspent” performed well enough that an email with the same message, but different subject line, raised half as much money.

But one subject line seemed to always be a star performer. “Our go-to champion subject line was ‘hey’ -- especially from the president,” Fallsgraff said. “It was a very casual approach. We figured that I send emails with the subject line ‘hey’ three or four times a week, why can’t the president?”

Fallsgraff said “light swearing” also worked well such as “Hell yea, I like Obamacare” that came from David Axelrod, a campaign strategist. The campaign sent emails out from a range of people stretching from the president to campaign manager Jim Messina to finance director Rufus Gifford.

“At the end of the day after all the testing, the best conclusion we came to was that there is no formula for the perfect email,” Fallsgraff said. “The one guiding light was being different and standing out. And that’s why we didn’t want our emails to sound like any other political campaigns out there. And we wanted people to if they got an email from our campaign manager, we wanted it to be plausible that he sat down, hit the compose email button and pounded out an email, an update.”

Fallsgraff said as the email staff got going it figured the people on its email list – which continued to be used after the 2008 campaign – were Obama supporters. So, it sent them messages with talking points to lobby friends and others to help reelect the president, looking to make them feel as if they were part of the team.

“We treated them as if they were on basically equal footing with us -- (that) they were in the know,” Fallsgraff said.

That concept was ramped up as Election Day neared. Messages to list members were not trying to convince them to go out and vote, but get friends and family to the polls.

On fundraising, a particularly effective tactic for Obama for America was building a segment tabbed “quick donors,” where the campaign stored payment information for people, who could give more with a simple click from an email.

“Of all of the things we did on the campaign in 2012, this was the game changer fundraising-wise,” Fallsgraff said.

(Another memorable tactic was the chance to enter "Dinner with Barack" contests.)

Email segmentation testing led the campaign to the maybe counter-intuitive realization that donors didn’t mind that the campaign was highly attuned to their past contributions and acting upon them.

“Instead of assuming we were being creepy,” Fallsgraff said, “people liked that we knew their past activity, they liked that we were reporting back to them. So, thanking folks for a recent donation, thanking people for signing the president’s birthday card, that made people more likely to give again.”

The email team was housed within the campaign’s digital department, where there were 200 staffers. The email group was within the subset digital outbound team responsible for all the digital copy that emerged from the Chicago office, whether distributed via email, online platforms, SMS, social media, blogs or the official Obama campaign site.

About 18 to 22 people were dedicated to email eventually. Four worked fully on social media.

The campaign’s digital analytics team played a key role in “probably the most data-driven program in political history,” Fallsgraff said.

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