Some data on the most successful of President Obama’s fundraising letters is really destroying what I thought I knew about constructing emails. It turns out, the most informal subject lines garnered the biggest donations. His campaign would do extensive testing on dozens of variations in the formatting, amount requested, tone, etc before discovering a winner they would send to the millions.
According to the campaign, the less professional the email looked, the better. They were a little incredulous at how good a response the most ugly emails received (my emphasis)
It quickly became clear that a casual tone was usually most effective. “The subject lines that worked best were things you might see in your in-box from other people,” Fallsgraff says. “ ‘Hey’ was probably the best one we had over the duration.” Another blockbuster in June simply read, “I will be outspent.” According to testing data shared with Bloomberg Businessweek, that outperformed 17 other variants and raised more than $2.6 million.
Writers, analysts, and managers routinely bet on which lines would perform best and worst. “We were so bad at predicting what would win that it only reinforced the need to constantly keep testing,” says Showalter. “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.”
Another unexpected hit: profanity. Dropping in mild curse words such as “Hell yeah, I like Obamacare” got big clicks. But these triumphs were fleeting. There was no such thing as the perfect e-mail; every breakthrough had a shelf life.
In light of this, I am starting to wonder if perhaps I am working too hard on the monthly newsletters we send out with information about upcoming shows.
Actually, the real lesson here isn’t that the pared down approach works but rather than you will never really be able to predict what will connect with people and you need to be constantly testing.
With as many people sending out as many emails as the Obama campaign had, none of them seemed to be able to accurately predict what approach would work best and even then, the appeal quickly waned. Which I am sure can be partially attributed to the sheer number of emails that people were receiving each day. I suspect a performing arts groups could probably experience success with the same approach over the course of a few emails.
One question I had given that my email list does not measure in the tens of millions was how large a sample size do you need to accurately measure the effectiveness of an approach? Has anyone worked with A-B testing enough to know?
By the way, the title of this entry is stolen directly from Obama’s list of effective subject lines. I will be interested to see what the response rate is.