What Obama Emails Teach Us About Email Marketing

Having previously found that the Obama campaign ended 1 in 6 of their email subject lines in colons, I decided to dive into the last 30 days of election emails (available online thanks to ProPublica) to see what they might tell me about Americans and how we respond to email more broadly.

From free car magnets to exactly which friends we should tell to vote, I realized that the emails we get are about to radically change as political campaigns and businesses get even more sophisticated at poking our psychological triggers and leveraging our social networks.

Do vs. Believe

I decided to create two word clouds out of the subject line to see how the language of each campaign differed.  For each campaign, I took all of the email subject lines, took out the candidate names and extremely common words / combined words with the same meaning, and then sized each word based on how many times it was used.

Take a look at the word cloud at the top.  Which campaign do you think it’s from? Now, look at this next word cloud:

The top cloud is President Obama, and the bottom is Mitt Romney.  The most common words in Obama’s emails were share (or forward, like an email), calls and free – compared to America, help and love in Romney’s emails.  Many of Romney’s email subjects wouldn’t have been out of place on motivational posters, while Obama’s would fit better as the names on Facebook buttons.

1. Jump on Facebook, 2. Make some Calls

Diving deeper, this change seemed to be reflected in the purposes of the emails sent.  Nearly half (46%) of Obama’s emails explicitly asked the recipient to do something in the email subject line – whether that was to make phone calls, forward a message to friends, or sign-up for something – compared to 28% of emails.

Romney’s emails tended to focus on ideas:

  • “A Strong America”
  • “This is a time for greatness”
  • “We Will Recover”

While Obama’s focused on taking action:

  • “Three Things you can do right now”
  • “Forward this:”
  • “RIGHT NOW: President Obama Needs you to make some calls”

These emails represent strategic choices and differences in voter base certainly, but given the deep sophistication of the Obama campaign covered elsewhere, it’s very likely that giving people you email a direct next step in the subject is actually just more effective in many cases.

Tell Jason, Jim and Leah to Vote

One of the most interesting emails from Obama came on election day and had a personal list of your friends in swing states you should encourage to vote – all mined from your Facebook account if you’d given the campaign permission to access it.  Based on other accounts, the Obama campaign knew who the voters on the line were in swing states – and based on these emails, it looks like they also knew which of their friends could encourage them to vote for Obama. 

FREE Shipping (and $5 off!)

At varying points in the campaign, Obama was offering free t-shirts, free car magnets, free tickets to see James Taylor and Dave Matthews, free shipping – all to get people to donate.  While the idea of free stuff to get people to do things isn’t new, the prevalence of these offers in the campaigns may mean that it’s poised to take over all the marketing emails we get.

3 Key Trends in the Future of Email Marketing

  1. More and more marketing will come through people we know. By getting people to engage their friends, marketers are able to increase their reach and give a personal touch to an otherwise impersonal ad or email. From mining Facebook data to tracking your demographics and actions around the web, marketers will know who you are, who you know, and what message will be most likely to resonate with you and your friends.
  2. Direct and clear next steps will become more pervasive. As social psychologists and marketers have long known, giving people an explicit action to take significantly increases the likelihood of them doing it.  The Obama campaign emails suggests more and more advertising might include a direct call to action that is tailored explicitly to you.
  3. Marketing will become better – and harder to resist. As marketers become more sophisticated and metrics-driven, they’ll be able to stop sending you marketing that doesn’t have an impact.  If I show that I like celebrities and contests, more of my emails may include free contests to hang out with celebrities.

If the 2008 election was the first election where donations of the masses played a bigger impact than the donations of the rich, then the 2012 election might be remembered as the election where email meant that even the concept of the masses has ceased to exist. We’re entering an age when political campaigns (and business) will send us personalized emails based on who we are and what we like – and they’ll ask us to bring our friends along with us.

Follow Klaviyo on Twitter for more analyses like this on the changing role of email marketing.

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  • Great idea! Thanks for the suggestion. I’ll be updating the post text and be sure to include it up there, thanks.

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