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After the 2008 US Presidential elections, Barack Obama became the 44th president of the United States as a result of the tireless efforts of millions of individuals and organizations. One often overlooked aspect of his campaign strategy was the extremely successful application of email marketing tactics. By the time President Obama won the presidency in 2008, he had successfully collected approximately 13.5 million email addresses1 – a number unprecedented for any other presidential campaign ever, especially given this was the first time email marketing strategy was used as an instrumental tool during an election.
By using email marketing, and digital media as a whole, President Obama mobilized the largest grassroots campaign in US history. Digital marketing was at the center of his entire campaign: from generating website traffic, to enlisting volunteers, to collecting financial contributions (in 2012, over 90% of small contributions came from email2), and most importantly, motivating voters to get out and vote. So how did he do it? How did Barack Obama, a fairly new Senator from the great state of Illinois, use the internet to win himself a presidential election? Let’s find out.
In 2007, Chris Hughes, one of the four founders of Facebook, left his position at Facebook to work in Chicago on Senator Obama’s new-media campaign. After two months, he was able to dig into Senator Obama’s website, and begin gathering subscriber data. By the time primaries and caucuses began rolling around, Senator Obama’s tech team had gathered emails on a state-by-state basis to ensure they were focusing on the correct voters, at the right times (ie, right before they were to vote in a primary or a caucus).
As the Obama voter database grew, so did the strategy: As Hughes put it, “The point was not to have a million people signed up…[but]…to be able to chop up that million-person list into manageable chunks and organize them.”3 In some primary and caucus states, volunteers used digital media streams – Facebook, blogs, websites, and more importantly, email – to start organizing campaigns weeks, even months, before the campaign staff arrived.
Along with data collection, came the need to start testing and learning more about the new subscribers the Obama campaign had acquired. According to Marketing Sherpa, during the 2008 campaign, a team of about 20 copywriters, as well as analysts and creative directors, tested subject lines, copy, and different targeting, almost every single day of the campaign4. They did extensive A/B testing, not just on subject lines and creative, but also on formatting. While time consuming, and all around exhausting, the Obama email team saw a revenue lift of anywhere between 5% or 10% per email5. The results provided insight into purchase behavior, demographics, and even propensity to donate. In addition, the Obama team learned some interesting information about their subscriber preferences. For example, the subject lines that worked best were greetings you might see in your inbox from friends and family, such as ‘hey.’ In addition, the uglier the email, the more attention it got from users, so much so that the team eventually got to thinking on how could they make things even less attractive. That’s how they arrived at the ugly yellow highlighting on the sections they wanted to draw people’s eye to6.
Another unexpected discovery was profanity. Using mild profanity such as the phrase ‘hell yeah’ got big clicks. So, what was the team’s best-performing subject line (and coincidentally best-performing email)? "I will be outspent," which raised more than $2.6 million.
As data mining and testing became more popular within the Obama campaign, the team began noticing a significant uptick in engagement when personalization was used: not just across subject lines, but across copy, creative, and even landing pages.
Being able to provide good, personalized content was becoming increasingly important. Teddy Goff, Obama’s Digital Director, said “The more important the ordinary supporter becomes -- and of course the ordinary supporter is becoming more and more important as social tools become more powerful and people spend more of their lives talking to more people online -- the more critical it is for campaigns to take seriously the task of keeping people interested, engaged, and inspired through good content."6 And thus began campaign personalization.
President Obama and his campaign team were at the forefront of this new practice. In addition to first name personalization, being able to auto-populate key subscriber information, such as state and city of residence, made a big impact during the sign-up process. According to Goff7, "Almost all web content today is personalized to at least some degree…[and]…[the Obama campaign] consistently found that people wanted to get a sense …[that]…the campaign…knew who they were and what they'd done for us in the past. Something as simple as dropping in a line like, 'You've volunteered before; thank you. Now take the next step and become a donor,' into a fundraising email to non-donor volunteers, had a huge impact on results." The main goal for the Obama campaign was to build relationships with supporters, and by using personalization, they most certainly did.
As we can see from the success of Obama’s two Presidential campaigns, digital marketing and specifically email marketing have greatly contributed to his victories. Email marketing has allowed him to collect data from his users, find out their preferences, and determine which subject lines and content worked. Many of the tactics and techniques the Obama campaign utilized can be used, with much success in most email marketing strategies. Learning about your database, testing various email components, and using personalization to draw in users is a perfect 3-step strategy to grow an email marketing program and maintain subscriber engagement.
More importantly, the Obama team demonstrated the value of data and technology as part of a winning election strategy in the 21st century. And, in case anyone doubts it, the Obama campaigns provide further evidence that email is still King.