Obama Campaign Email Efforts Marked By Continual Testing

PARK CITY, Utah -- A hallmark of the Obama campaign’s email program was its non-stop emphasis on testing. On 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.

The efforts worked. More than $500 million was raised online via 4.5 million donors averaging $53 a donation.

“We let our supporters design the program we were running,” Fallsgraff said in a keynote address at the MediaPost Email Insider Summit. “So, when anybody complained 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.”

Fallsgraf added that the subject lines, which may have felt out of place in a presidential campaign, were enormously important.

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 remained 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,” which 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.

“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,” he said. “We wanted emails to be plausible.”

Fallsgraff said the reelection campaign used the 2008 email list of Obama supporters. It sent them messages with talking points to lobby friends and others to help reelect the president. The goal was to make them feel part of the team 

That concept was ramped up as Election Day neared. Messages to list members were focused on getting friends and family to the polls.

A particularly effective fund-raising tactic was building a segment tabbed “quick donors,” where the campaign stored payment information for people, who could give more with a simple email click. Fallsgraff calls this technique a fund-raising “game-changer.”

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

Email segmentation testing confirmed that donors did not mind that the campaign acted on past contribution information. “People liked that we knew their past activity. Thanking folks for a recent donation or for signing the president’s birthday card, that made people more likely to give again,” Fallsgraf noted.


The email team was housed within the campaign’s digital department, of 200 staffers. The email group was responsible for all 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 what Fallsgraff calls “ the most data-driven program in political history.”


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