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What the Obama Campaign’s Email Marketing Taught Us – And What It Didn’t

Have you ever received an email with “Hey” as the subject line? I’m sure you have. From a close friend, right? Or maybe your partner, wondering if you can stop at the grocery store and pick up a few things on the way home.

But have you ever gotten an email with “Hey” as the subject line from an official company, organization, or public figure? Say, perhaps, the president of the United States?

Say what, now?

That’s exactly what people who signed up for emails from Obama’s Presidential Campaign received in the months leading up to last November’s Election. Four emails titled “Hey,” to be exact, and one “Hey again.” It’s not surprising they used the same line over and over: “Hey” resulted in the Campaign’s highest open rates; why not capitalize on success?

A few more of the shockingly casual subject lines:

  • My best friend
  • I’m saving you a seat
  • Let’s meet
  • Not going to happen
  • Dinner?
  • Frustrated
  • Wow
  • So

Not quite something you’d expect from a presidential figure, right? Turns out that the marketing team behind these emails didn’t quite expect any of this, either. These subject lines — and all of their content — were the result of months and months of ongoing, rigorous A-B testing. The team would assemble multiple drafts (as many as 18 variations!) with different formatting, messages, and even donation amounts before sending out so subscribers. Then they’d pore over the results. They immediately ran with any tactic that performed well, regardless of how many “rules” it broke.

A key quote from Amelia Showalter, the Campaign’s director of digital analytics:

“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.”

Again: Say what, now?

This flies in the face of much of what we know about email marketing. But before you rush to the saved draft of your next email blast to make the text hot pink and change the subject line to something like “Yep,” let’s step back and take in some context.

Your mileage may vary.

The Obama Campaign was marketing to a highly specific group of people — people who were not only aware of who the candidate is, but in many cases felt extremely loyal to him. In other words, you’re unlikely to get the same results.

It’s important to point out, too, that the Campaign’s unusual methods didn’t necessarily set some new gold marketing standard. What worked for them once or a handful of times didn’t always stick. “Eventually the novelty wore off, and we had to go back and retest,” Showalter noted.

So these tactics won’t work for everyone. Still, there are a few key lessons to be gleaned from this example.

Test, test, test. Then test some more.

Now, it’s unlikely that you have a 20-person team to write and test your emails, and it’s also unlikely that you have the huge numbers of subscribers for which this heavy level of testing would yield insights. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t experiment with ways to improve clicks, signups, and conversions.

Don’t copy what someone else did just because it worked for them. Hone, evolve, and adapt.

Know your demographic.

The Obama Campaign centered everything they did around what they knew about their audience. Every audience is different, and it’s your job to know yours. Talk to them when you can, reach out to them via social media and the occasional survey. The more you know, the better you can target.

As with almost anything in life, there is no one hard and fast rule. That’s both the beauty and the peril of marketing: it’s flexible and ever-changing.

What methods have you found that work for you?

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