Obama’s E-Mail List

The Obama campaign raised a fortune with email solicitations, and now that the election is over they are willing to reveal secrets such as that a casual tone and an unattractive format was most effective:

One fascination in a presidential race mostly bereft of intrigue was the strange, incessant, and weirdly overfamiliar e-mails that emanated from the Obama campaign. Anyone who shared an address with the campaign soon started receiving messages from 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 the Daily Show. The women’s website the Hairpin likened them to notes from a stalker.

But they worked. Most of the $690 million Obama raised online came from fundraising e-mails. During the campaign, Obama’s staff wouldn’t answer questions about them or the alchemy that made them so successful. Now, with the election over, they’re opening the black box.

The appeals were the product of rigorous experimentation by a large team of analysts. “We did extensive A-B testing not just on the subject lines and the amount of money we would ask people for,” says Amelia Showalter, director of digital analytics, “but on the messages themselves and even the formatting.” 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,” says 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 says. “ ‘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 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,” says Showalter. “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 curse words 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,” says Showalter.

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,” says Fallsgraff. “The data didn’t show any negative consequences to sending more.”

BuzzFeed points out that Obama is not using his e-mail list to try to put pressure on Congress to support his economic policies before we go over the fiscal cliff. Republicans and Democrats have theories as to why this is not being used:

Republicans involved in “fiscal cliff” talks, meanwhile, simply downplay the list’s power. The group that gathered to support Obama, they argue, didn’t sign up for four years of inside battles.

“If there’s one thing we’ve learned over the past four years, it’s that his list is very effective when it comes to voter turnout, but a complete dud when it comes to firing up the masses on policy debates,” said one senior Republican official.

Progressives on Obama’s left flank make a different argument: Obama’s agenda is simply further to the center than many of his most devoted supporters want or imagine, and his moderate goals are hard to organize around. Obama demoralized liberals and labor unions (the most organized element of the Democratic base) by preemptively dropping his demand for a public option for health care in the 2009 negotiations on that subject.

“They’re going to have the same problem they did in ’09 when they started leaving ‘public option’ out of their health care e-mails. What they’re pushing is at odds with what their base wants,” said Jane Hamsher, the founder of the combative liberal blog Firedoglake, whose present view is that Democrats are “dying to knife their base.”

“Obama wants a ‘grand bargain’ with ‘entitlement reform,'” she said. “The base does not want to cut Social Security, Medicare, or Medicaid.”

Part of the problem is that there was complete agreement among Obama supporters in backing Obama’s reelection but that his supporters hold a variety of viewpoints on specific issues. Some are to the left of Obama as mentioned above, while the Democratic coalition also contains a fair number of more conservative individuals who are to the right of Obama. Opposition to the entire Republican agenda was also a far greater motivating factor than any specific issue.