Why We Should Stop Making Fun of Obama's Emails

During the presidential campaign, the Obama Administration was criticized for sending emails some called "creepy" and "desperate." Well, laugh no more! According to Bloomberg Businessweek, "Most of the $690 million Obama raised online came from fundraising emails."

With subject lines such as "Wow," "Hey," and "Join me for dinner?" the emails were crafted by a team of analysts experimenting with different approaches to see what garnered the most financial support. During the campaign, Obama's staff was secretive about the email strategy, but now we learn that 20 writers would draft as many as 18 variations of emails to test responses before sending out the winning version.

  Obama email result

Amelia Showalter, the director of digital analytics, explains how the campaign changed emails based on results:

"We were so bad at predicting what would win that it only reinforced the need to constantly keep testing. 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."

What can business writers learn from the analysis? Here are a few key points that may be adapted for work email:

  • The most effective subject lines were similar "to what you might see in your in-box from other people," according to email director.
  • Light profanity (e.g., "hell") got a strong reaction.
  • Although the emails may have been "mildly irritating" to some, people did not unsubscribe, showing a lot of tolerance for a lot of messages.

Discussion Starters:

  • Based on the previous criticism, are you surprised at the results of the email campaign? Why or why not?
  • I'm not sure that business writers should use profanity in their email, but how could you interpret this finding and write subject lines for a professional work environment?
  • Review a few of your own emails sent for business purposes. Given this analysis, what, if anything, would you change?