A-B Split Testing, Dynamic Content, Email marketing, Personalization, Segmentation, Subject Lines

The Emailing of a President

Obama and Romney

The 2012 presidential election demonstrated better than any previous election just how important good email tactics are to a successful campaign. Some people have gone so far as to avow that it was email that won the presidency for Obama. Whether that is true or not, one incontestable fact that emerges from the campaign is that Obama’s team spent a lot more time and effort taking advantage of the most important aspects of any successful large-scale email campaign—testing and metrics.

The Obama campaign is a testament to the power of split testing and report analysis. They tested nearly every aspect of each email, from the subject line to the content, and even the formatting. In some cases, they tested as many as 18 variations before choosing one to send out to their subscribers. “When we saw something that really moved the dial, we would adopt it,” said the campaign’s email director, Toby Fallsgraff.[1]

They tested everything from mild profanity (“Hell yeah, I like Obamacare”) to extremely terse subject lines (“Hey,” “Wow,” “High five!” “Me again”), to the downright weird (”Sometime soon can we meet for dinner?” “It doesn’t need to be this way,” “You must be at least a little curious”). They even tried “No subject,” which yielded strong results the first time they used it, but was largely ignored after that. Out of all of these, “Hey” yielded the best open rates. Perhaps ironically, or perhaps not, the subject line, “I will be out spent” was the most successful at generating donations, pulling in almost three million dollars.

Obama’s director of digital analytics, Amelia Showalter, was often amazed by which emails yielded the best results. The crew in the marketing department eventually started to bet on which ones would perform well and which would flop. Most of the time they were wrong. It became apparent to Ms. Showalter that trying to run a campaign without split testing would have been a study in futility.

When something worked, they would use it for a while, but usually the novelty wore off quickly and the crew would have to go back to testing to find the next winning Subject Line. The proof of the effectiveness of this technique shows up in the open rate results. The Obama emails had more than twice the open rate Romney’s emails.

The biggest complaint from nearly every quarter was the astounding amount of email sent by the Obama campaign, sometimes as many as ten emails per day. It shouldn’t surprise anyone, then, that more of the Obama campaign’s email got marked as spam—5% compared to Romney’s .08%.[2] It undoubtedly helped Obama that most people recognized that this onslaught of email was a temporary thing, guaranteed to end after November 6th. A retail store trying the same tactic would certainly face a much higher complaint rate. Nonetheless, Toby Fallsgraff paid close attention to the metrics throughout the campaign, making sure that deliverability wasn’t affected. This was no “spray and pray” operation.

Another unexpected hit was 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. “Eventually the novelty wore off, and we had to go back and retest,” Amelia Showalter said.[1]

Most of the news article focused on the Obama Team’s use of the A/B split testing of subject lines, but that was only part of the story. They were also using segmentation and dynamic content to make the emails more personal. “There were lots of interesting behavioral and personal markers that we used to make the content more dynamic and relevant for our supporters,” Ms. Showalter said. “[We added] language thanking people for previous volunteer service when putting out a wide call for future volunteer service, for instance. And there was a lot of personalization in the fund-raising emails, of course.”

When it comes to email marketing, Ms. Showalter acknowledged, it is best to leave no stone unturned. “We pretty much tested everything!” She said.


1. The Science Behind Those Obama Campaign E-Mails, by Joshua Green. Bloomberg Businessweek, 11/29/2012

2. The Race for the Inbox, Return Path infographic

Design, Email marketing

Using Text to Deliver Your Message

Email design isn't web design.Email design has its own rules and requirements. In this article we look at ways to improve the effectiveness of your email messaging with the smart use of text.

An important aspect of email is, of course, design. Graphic artists spend a lot of time adjusting images and page layouts to make their work look as perfect as possible. To the lay person, who is not accustomed to the ways of a designer, their endless fussing over which of three nearly identical colors they should use might seem like overkill, but graphic artists understand that good design is important to sales. A company’s website, brochures, business cards and everything else need to reflect their brand and they need to look good.

When the Internet came along, it threw a bit of a curve ball to many graphic artists. They had to learn new skills to get around the limitations of HTML. These are the same skills they need to make good looking email, but the number one mistake made by many graphic artists is to treat email design the same as web design. Email brings with it a host of unique design issues that are completely different from web design. The biggest difference comes in the way email handles images and text, and this is where many designers fall down.

A common technique for controlling the appearance of text on a website is to place the text in a graphic. In this way, the choice of fonts, placement, and other characteristics can be maintained even if the viewer does not have those fonts installed. But using this technique on email is not a good idea, for two reasons.

No Image = No Text

The default setting for most email clients is to block images. Among smart phones, only the iPhone displays images as a default. Of course, some people turn on the images, but most people tend to leave things with the default settings; it’s human nature.

Good Alt Tags will go a long ways toward helping people understand what they are missing, but even here, not all email browsers display the alt tags, and Microsoft Outlook 2007 goes one step further, adding its own security messages to the empty image boxes. Put another way, if you are using graphics-based messages, over half of your recipients are receiving it in the blandest form possible, and some aren’t seeing it at all.

If you really want to make sure that your message is reaching your public, you’ll need to offer some text to the recipients beyond what might or might not appear in your alt tags.

Text-to-Image Ratio

ISPs cannot read the text in images. Spammers know this and sometimes use images to get around filters that might shuttle their content automatically to the bulk folder. As a consequence, many ISPs now look at the text-to-image ratio to identify possible spam. When a marketer puts all the focus on images, the deliverability metrics suffer (as do open and clickthrough rates). Remember that the ISPs are ultimately the ones in control in this process, and a beautifully crafted image with the best marketing message in the world means nothing if the user never sees it.

A Tale of Two Emails

For purposes of this article, I am going restrict my conversation to two emails I recently received. One is from Macy’s and the other is from J. Crew. One is done with a good understanding of email and how it works; the other is designed using the traditional text as image approach and is less effective. I’ve used a few different email browsers here to show how different browsers treat missing images. First, here’s the Macy’s ad with images (only the top is shown here—there are more images below):

Macy's ad with images

Now, here’s the same ad with the images turned off (in Gmail):

Macy's ad with no images

As you can see, almost no information is lost. The ad still gets the point across and aside from the Macy’s logo and some other small formatted items, all the information you need is visible and visually interesting.

Now let’s look at J. Crew. Here is the ad with the images displayed:

J. Crew ad with images

It looks fine, but here’s how it looked when it arrived in my inbox (in Live Mail):

J. Crew ad with no images

Not so interesting anymore. What does this tell me besides the fact that it came from J. Crew? Even a few reasonably commented alt tags would have helped here, but all we get is “JCrew.com.” What makes this email so frustrating is that the problem could have easily been avoided with some care and forethought. Let’s look at the hero image. Here’s the original:

Example from J crew

The first thing you’ll notice is that the text is separate from the image. This makes it a perfect choice for using actual text instead of a graphic. By dividing the image into sections and placing these sections in a table, we can achieve the following:

alternate version of j crew hero image

Aside from a font change, this version delivers the same message, but more importantly, here is this version of the message when the images are blocked (in YahooMail):

J crew alternate without image

Now the message of the email is still rendered and readable to all recipients, regardless of their email browser settings. Graphic designers probably won’t find this solution particularly satisfying, but the visual dynamics created here by the text make it far more likely that recipients will respond to the email.

Everyone wants the best looking email possible. Of course, you want your images to display, and, of course, good design is paramount to better email response rates, but if it’s a choice between looking good and selling your products and services, then the choice becomes obvious. Images are great for making email visually appealing, but remember that text in email, like text on your website, is always more effective when it is left as text and not converted into an image. Plan accordingly.