Lessons Learned from Obama’s Fundraising Emails

Email marketing campaigns live or die based on their ability to lure recipients into reading beyond the subject line—instead of hitting the delete key. In the wake of the election, President Obama’s digital analytics and email fundraising teams have revealed the tactics they used to convince fatigued campaign supporters not only to open emails, but to donate a record-setting US$690 million online. Their ideas offer some thoughtful lessons for all marketers, as we outline below.

(In the interest of fairness, we did try to gather some intelligence about the Romney campaign’s specific email strategies for fundraising, but came up empty. No surprise, since the winners get the bragging rights and the vanquished hope that no one asks questions.)

Testing, testing: On a campaign team that placed high value on using analysis and technology to hone their approach, the email team was no exception. “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,” Amelia Showalter, the Obama campaign’s director of digital analytics, told Bloomberg Businessweek. Only when they found an email that drove response did they blast it out to millions of supporters.

Keeping it real: Conversational subject lines helped boost open rates. “The subject lines that worked best were things you might see in your inbox from other people,” said Toby Fallsgraff, the Obama campaign’s email director. In fact, the disarmingly simple subject line “Hey” was used for at least five emails and pulled in some of the biggest takes of the campaign. And the casual subject lines “Would love to meet you” and “Do this for Michelle” also did very well.

In another conversational vein, Obama’s email experts reported that mild profanity won attention—for instance, an email from Obama strategist David Axelrod titled, “Hell yeah, I like Obamacare.” (However, using even a mild epithet like “hell” might not come across well in your corporate marketing campaigns.)

The fear angle: Mild scare tactics can encourage people to read emails, as the Obama campaign discovered—what the Atlantic Monthly called “guilt-trippers.” The subject line “I will be outspent,” gathered one of the largest donation hauls of the campaign in June, as did “Some scary numbers”—both relating to sobering fundraising or poll numbers from the Romney side.

The email team pointed out to Bloomberg Businessweek that even when they scored big on an email, there was no rest for the weary. Said Showalter, “Eventually the novelty wore off, and we had to go back and retest.” That’s true for marketers as well—you’ve got keep rustling up new approaches to keep those open rates moving upward.

By Chris Kent