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The secrets of Obama's email marketing success: Q&A with Toby Fallsgraff

Can emails help win presidential elections? Toby Fallsgraff, the email director for Obama's re-election, thinks so. Fallsgraff and his team of 18 email writers on a team of 200 other digital savants, worked tirelessly to master the art and science of successful email marketing. They learned that the most effective messages are personal -- "I want to meet you," read one subject line -- or even urgent -- "I will be outspent."

Here, Fallsgraff divulges tips that any company, big or small, can use to reach inbox nirvana.

Q: How were you able to make such a massive target audience feel special through email?

A: We were constantly trying to engage people and bring new people into the fold. Part of it is maintaining that one-on-one connection. Some people know this is a mass email list, but you don’t need to remind them of that. Our writers always had somebody in mind who we were writing to – for me, it was my mom or a supporter I had just met. I think that accomplishes a lot of the personal touch. Actually personalizing things -- say, including first names or hometowns -- would get us some mileage, but that only goes so far.

We found that reminding people about what they had done was fairly effective. When you think about it, it’s kind of neat to receive an e-mail coming from Michelle Obama that says "Hey, thanks for donating last week." Sure, the donor probably knows that she didn't actually sit down and write a personal message. But the idea that Michelle Obama might know that a donor gave money to the campaign is pretty meaningful. Those are nice touches, and we have data to show that this worked.

Of course, there are also ways to personalize messages that are totally false and gross -- that really rubs people the wrong way. You don’t want to be a behemoth organization or campaign that’s like a robot. The successful corporations on social media are the ones that figure out human-to-human interaction and make it feel personal and authentic.

Q: You also held contests in which winning supporters got to share an intimate dinner with Obama.

A: Those were huge. The President of the United States took an hour and a half of his time to sit down with six people who were just supporters of his campaign. What we were able to do is personally connect the president and those supporters, and also allow those folks to tell their stories, their motivation for getting involved. Maybe some of these people were working every weekend, or taking a shift every Tuesday night after work -- everybody had their own stories. And the campaign was pretty hands-off at these dinners: We didn't interrupt the conversation to get a better angle with the camera and it was off the record. They could ask the president anything they wanted.

Dinner with Barack

It was really effective for fundraising, and a lot of people asked: "Isn't this really gimmicky? How many contests are we going to do?" At the end of the day, contests might be somewhat gimmicky, but the prize itself was a really authentic thing. I doubt any of the winners would tell you it was too much of a gimmick.

Those dinners with the president are probably the coolest thing I’ve ever witnessed in the all of time I’ve worked in politics.

Q: You were -- and still are -- a big proponent of A/B testing when it comes to email marketing. Why?

A: We knew it worked, sometimes with dramatic effect. But even without dramatic effect, it was worth our time. Let's say you're testing a new web page and you see a 2 percent increase in conversions. Two percent adds up to a lot of money over time -- in our case, to millions and millions of dollars. So we saw the benefit of testing day-to-day as well. We tested things we could use over and over again.

We also tested things that we knew would only work once. We spent a lot of time on email tests and, in particular, subject lines. On June 26 last year, for example, we tested six different messages from the president -- each with three subject lines. We found a winner from that group and it was a runaway success. If we had sent any other message, we would have left hundreds of thousands of dollars on the table. If we had sent the worst-performing message, we would have left more than $2 million on the table. That kind of optimization is a make-or-break part of your program.

Q: Establishing a unified voice for the president and his campaign can't be easy. How did you manage it?

A: We did a lot of training on what kind of tone and voice we wanted to achieve. Much of it was, "Just be authentic -- just be real." We would try to stay within the confines of the story we were telling while pushing the envelope. We did a lot of crazy things, but we also had to build trust with our communications shop, our press shop and our senior staff. We had a lot of people supporting what we did and who allowed us to be creative and to not just stick to the talking points.

If we would have just sent talking points to our supporters, we would have lost a lot of that trust. So when we had a message to get across, we were straightforward about it, saying "Hey, when you’re out there talking to your friends about health care, here are some things that you can say." We weren’t using talking points to talk at our people. Instead, we were giving them the resources they needed to tell the story themselves.

Q: How did you respond to voters who weren't engaging?

A: It's always a small percentage that you are actually able to move. We started with the assumption that these people were with us, that they were supporters. If they hadn’t given or hadn’t taken action, we tried different approaches. Different messages would resonate with more folks on any given week, converting some into action-takers or donors.

The biggest drivers of getting people to move were actual big moments in the campaign. That part gets left out a lot: there are real moments when even the most cynical or least-engaged people are moved to act. Whether that was the debates or the conventions or just something the other guy said, there were moments where people rallied around the cause. That drove a lot of people to take the first step in supporting the president in 2012. And we took it from there.

Q: What else can companies do to maximize their email marketing?

A: Obviously, I think it’s very important to invest in digital. I also know that a lot of budgets are tight, and that you can’t recreate the Obama campaign everywhere. But you probably won’t get what you want out of your program if you are asking one person to do everything. You need to invest in a team.

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