What one word worked best when it came to the Obama campaign’s attempts to use email as a fundraising machine during the just-completed US Presidential Elections? Here’s a clue: It wasn’t “Romney,” “Mitt,” “Republican” or any of the others that are probably coming to mind in response to that question. It was, apparently, a simple “Hey.”
The use – overuse, some may argue – of email by the Obama campaign in its fight against Mitt Romney for control of the White House was the topic of much discussion, and almost as much late night television comedy, over the last few weeks, with Obama supporters receiving a surprisingly high number of messages from Barack Obama (or, really, someone far lower down the political food chain who was using his name as they entered in details in MailChimp, Constant Contact or a similar service) over the course of the race. But there was, of course, thinking behind the email blitz, and a new piece in Bloomberg Businessweek looks at the science that went into choosing subject lines and wording of each of the messages.
According to the campaign’s director of digital analytics, Amelia Showalter, “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.” Emails would go through as many as eighteen drafts before being approved for mailing, with messaging being continually adjusted based upon the performance of messages that had previously gone out. Toby Fallsgraff, the campaign’s email director, explained that “When we saw something that really moved the dial, we would adopt it,” adding that “Subject lines that worked best were things you might see in your inbox from other people. ‘Hey’ was probably the best one we had over the duration.”
If that seems surprising to you – I admit, if I saw something like that in my inbox from a celebrity, I’d be more likely to assume it was spam and delete it than think it was a real email – then you’re not alone. “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?’”
The testing was also, in part, responsible for the amount of email that Obama supporters received. “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, explaining that – of course – the testing was the reason why. “The data didn’t show any negative consequences to sending more [emails].” Well, aside from the amount of material it provided for Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, of course. But then – any publicity is good publicity, right…?