May 07, 2013
Case Study

Email Testing: How the Obama campaign generated approximately $500 million in donations from email marketing

SUMMARY: The 2012 U.S. presidential election is over and MarketingSherpa has pulled insights from Obama for America’s email strategy to help your marketing in 2013.

We sat down with the campaign’s email director to see how his team raised hundreds of millions of dollars in a matter of months. Inside, we show the best segments the team uncovered, and how one tactic increased conversions 300%.
by Adam Sutton, Senior Reporter

U.S. presidential campaigns are nonprofit juggernauts. They use every marketing channel to raise a massive amount of donations in a matter of months. Throughout that time, hundreds of millions of dollars are pumped into two gigantic marketing machines.

Toby Fallsgraff, Director of Email, Obama for America, helped engineer President Obama’s email fundraising in 2012. His team earned the majority of the campaign’s online donations, which totaled about $690 million. More than 4.5 million people donated, and the average gift was $53.

"You can do the math and figure out a lot of people gave more than once," Fallsgraff says.

Encouraging repeat donors was central to the campaign's strategy. However, that wasn’t the only tactic. He and a team of 20 writers, as well as analysts and other staff, tested subject lines, copy and segments almost every day of the campaign.

Here are three of the best tactics they discovered:

Tactic #1. Send 'quick donate' links

At first, it seemed counterintuitive. Why would someone make another donation after being reminded that they already made one? All logic aside, Fallsgraff says his team earned a slight lift by thanking people for their earlier donations and requesting another.

"We were thanking them before we tested because it was the right thing to do," he says. "Then we realized it made a small increase in performance. Merely acknowledging a donation and thanking them made people more likely to give again."

Speed the donation

The campaign wanted to make it easier for repeat donors to give again. Early on, the development team partnered with an agency to create "quick donate" links for the emails. The links allowed previous donors to give again with a single click, eliminating the need to visit a landing page or fill out a form.

"Even if it only takes two minutes to complete the form, there’s a significant drop off when we ask people to complete it," Fallsgraff says.

Only previous donors who had agreed to save their payment information during checkout received these links. Clicking one made an instant contribution without any further action by the donor. Making this work was a significant technical undertaking, Fallsgraff says.

The team often listed several of these links in emails to previous donors. Each suggested a different contribution level, such as $3, $35, $50, $100, and $250. With one click, the donor could give the indicated amount.

Massive lift in conversions

Conversion rates increased about 300% on average when using the links, says Fallsgraff. Since this applied to previous donors, the team wondered if this result merely reflected the group’s predetermined willingness to give, rather than an increase caused by the new links.

Therefore, the team tested the links. One group of previous donors received quick donation links in an email. Another group of previous donors received regular donation links. The result: the 300% lift stayed true. The links had worked.

The team encouraged every donor to save his or her payment information. The campaign even started offering incentives, such as a free bumper sticker, to everyone who donated.

"I wouldn’t be surprised if we start seeing more and more email campaigns using these kinds of links after the election cycle," says Fallsgraff.

Explain how they work

With millions of subscribers, it’s not difficult to imagine how one or two people could misunderstand the links and make an accidental donation. The team wanted to avoid this, so it included copy such as "your donation will go through immediately."

Here’s an example from one message:

"You’re one of the campaign’s most committed supporters. Because you’ve saved your payment information, your donation will go through immediately. It matters more today than it will later."

Tactic #2. Segment with behavioral data

Members of the press speculated on Obama for America’s email segmentation after the campaign, Fallsgraff says.

"There’s a lot of misinformation out there with people trying to reverse engineer our segmentation strategy. It’s not entirely accurate. It’s pretty far off, actually."

Obama for America’s email team tested the viability of many segments. The data clearly showed that tailoring messages to a person’s previous actions (i.e., behavioral data) earned the best results.

Here are the four segments the team consistently used. Each received targeted copy in the emails:
  • Previous donors — The team sent unique messages to people who donated previously in the 2012 election.

  • Quick donors — This was a sub-group of the previous donors. These people saved their payment information and received quick-donation links in their emails.

  • Non-donors — A large chunk of the audience received the campaign’s emails but they had never donated.

  • Lapsed donors — The team also tailored messages to people who had donated to Obama for America in 2008 but who had not yet donated in 2012.

Tactic #3. Test every day

The team sometimes emailed subscribers who lived near a campaign-related event. There were other one-off messages, but the team mainly focused on national fundraising emails.

Obama for America tested and sent a national email almost every day. This increased to multiple times a day as Election Day drew nearer. There was a massive demand for copy, but the team kept testing because it worked, says Fallsgraff.

"Sometimes we’d see a lift of anywhere between 5% or 10%. But 5% or 10% on an email that’s projected to raise a million dollars is a lot of money. It’s totally worth our while, so that’s why we had 20 writers and 20 email staffers working at all hours of the night — to make sure these tests were ready."

Here’s the testing process the team used:

Step 1. Write a bunch of emails

The nearly two dozen writers at Obama for America wrote almost constantly to fuel the email program’s ravenous demands. They were also responsible for helping to code the messages and resolve other back-end details.

"Everybody was a utility player, so we never had somebody just writing and somebody just producing," Fallsgraff said.

Step 2. Choose four to six and brainstorm

For each send, the team whittled the drafts down to a selection of four to six. It then brainstormed subject lines until it had three for each message (12 to 18 subject lines in total).

Step 3. Tailor the copy

The team tailored the copy of the chosen emails to each segment of the audience. For example, quick-donate links were added to emails that reached donors who had saved their payment information. Non-donors might be encouraged, "don’t wait until the last minute!"

Step 4. Test the message, then the subject line

The team randomly selected a group from each segment to receive test emails. A winner was determined for each segment, and the team then tested its three subject lines. The combination of best message and best subject line was then sent to the remainder of the group to complete the campaign.

Step 5. Start over

The team did this nearly every day for months, sometimes multiple times a day. It paid off handsomely, however. The team’s best-performing subject line, "I will be outspent," and best-performing email raised more than $2.6 million.

Toby Fallsgraff and Amelia Showalter, Director of Digital Analytics, Obama for America, are the keynote speakers at MarketingSherpa and MarketingExperiments Optimization Summit 2013 in Boston, May 20-23, in a presentation entitled "Email Optimization: How A/B testing generated $500 million in donations."

Creative Samples

  1. Previous donor email

  2. "I will be outspent" email


Obama for America

Related Resources

Online Marketing: Nonprofit enrolls 3,350 new subscribers with integrated digital efforts

Email Marketing: Four short emails boost year-end revenue 50% for nonprofit organization

How the Presidential Race Impacts Holiday Advertising

Random Apps of Kindness: Using mobile for nonprofit and cause-based marketing

Nonprofit Marketing: What you can learn from B2B and consumer marketing

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