One fascination in a presidential race mostly bereft of intrigue was the strange, incessant and weirdly overfamiliar e-mails emanating from the Obama campaign.
Anyone who shared an address with the campaign soon started receiving messages from President Barack Obama with subject lines such as “Join me for dinner?” “It’s officially over,” “It doesn’t have to be this way,” or just “Wow.” Jon Stewart mocked them on his “Daily Show” television program. The Hairpin women’s website likened them to notes from a stalker.
Still, they worked. Most of the $690 million that Obama raised online came from fundraising e-mails. During the campaign, Obama’s staffers wouldn’t answer questions about them or the alchemy that made them so successful. Now that the president has won re-election, they’re opening the black box, Bloomberg Businessweek reports in its Dec. 3 issue.
The appeals were the product of rigorous experimentation by a large team of analysts, said Amelia Showalter, the campaign’s director of digital analytics.
“We did extensive A-B testing not just on the subject lines and the amount of money we would ask people for, but on the messages themselves and even the formatting,” Showalter said.
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,” said 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 said. “‘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 message 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,” Showalter said. “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 expletives 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,” Showalter said.
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,” Fallsgraff said. “The data didn’t show any negative consequences to sending more.”
After a pause, he offered a qualification: “We do know that getting all those e-mails in your in-box is at least mildly irritating to some people. Even my father would point that out to me.”
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