What does the Obama campaign teach us about email marketing?

There’s a select group of individuals who find marketing fascinating. I’m sorry to say—and this especially applies to anyone unfortunate enough to talk to me at a cocktail party—that I am a member of that group.

One of my favorite films of all time is Barcelona, a mid-1990s romantic comedy about a couple Americans living abroad. The main character was a salesman, and talked at length about how interesting sales is, quoted notable authors on the subject, and readily exposed himself as a bore at social functions.

I totally would have been excited to run into that guy over tapas—no question.

So I was pretty thrilled to stumble on an article talking about the Obama campaign’s email marketing strategy, which brought in hundreds of millions of dollars in contributions, not to mention filled the campaign’s rolodex with millions of names that can be contacted for future fundraising or special events. But, most importantly, this integrated, online communications program was massively successful—and therefore worthy of consideration and analysis.

Right now, the president of the United States has one of the most impressive lists of “doers” any non-profit or activist marketer could hope to have. And because one of the first lessons the campaign learned was that they could send pretty much as many emails as they wanted and recipients would almost never unsubscribe (good for the campaign: bad for your inbox/patience), that list will be good for years and years to come.

But the most fascinating thing about the article I read was the attention to email subject lines and how the campaign dialed in (read: optimization) what works.

The campaign did exhaustive testing and came away with a veritable best-practice approach to subject lines that not only were directly tied to open rates, but real dollars.

Here are a few of those best practices (You will see a theme start to emerge):

1. ABT: ALWAYS BE TESTING. No surprise, we wouldn’t even be having this conversation (which is not technically a conversation, per se) had the campaign not tested everything. So test, test, test, and then optimize. That’s how the campaign dialed it in to such great success. They found what worked and then did a ton of that one thing until it stopped working—which brings us to our next best practice.

2. DON’T STOP. Once something has been proven to work, don’t stop monitoring—regularly. A subject line that killed the week before might flat line without any warning. In fact, you should probably just accept that any effective subject line, email, or piece of content will eventually stop working. It’s just a matter of when. If you can replace it the moment it stops working, then you can mitigate and control the amount of leakage before anything serious happens—like a client or boss replacing you.

3. PREPARE TO BE SURPRISED. Finally, don’t think, even for a second, that you can forecast the results of a particular message. Humility doesn’t automatically equal inexperience. While email marketing has been around for some years, the jury is still out on what absolutely works. Most marketers have a pretty good idea of what doesn’t work, but even those ideas might be flawed or based on the old notions of traditional B2C advertising. And some of those best practices no longer apply in today’s world—considering the different delivery methods, demographics, and the wealth of information we can collect on prospects.

Notice I didn’t go into the types of messages that worked, the tone that delivered the most click-throughs, etc. That’s because the methods the campaign used to succeed are really only useful if you plan to start an almost identical campaign with an almost identical candidate with the same background. If the variables are different, so are the results.

There’s no point to dance around the subject. The most important thing to any campaign is testing to see what messages work with the particular target audience in the current climate, optimizing based on those results, and then doing it all over again.

There’s no magic bullet, ever.

This concept is why our particular brand of demand generation marketing gets results. We don’t simply make pretty-but-ineffectual stuff for companies to use during sporting events; we find what works, what has a direct effect on our clients’ revenue and lead flow, and then test the crap out of it.

We, like many companies, know best practices from experience and research. But we also know that those “best practices” have only been shown to work in the past under certain circumstances—it’s no guarantee. You can draw some foundational insight from best practices, but they are not can’t-fail recipes.  Any company who’s saying it can guarantee a particular outcome is selling snake oil.

No one comes to the table with all the answers. The ones that tend to deliver disappointing results pretend they have all the answers; the ones that succeed know better.

Just take it from the director of digital analytics for the most state-of-the-art campaign team we’ve seen in our lifetime, Amelia Showalter: “We were so bad at predicting what would win that it only reinforced the need to constantly keep testing.”

That’s someone who saw tremendous success exercising a bit of humility. Get things into market and test often. Read the whole article here.

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