What makes people give money online is a mysterious question. I think the Obama campaign only really cracked the nut toward the very end of the campaign. Not that many people know this but online fundraising was actually pretty slow until August or September of 2012. There were months where we missed our number sometimes by a lot. And then fortunately toward the very end of the campaign we not only made our number but surpassed it by a lot.
We tried to be as philosophical and scientific as we could about what made people give but we were also constantly surprised. We actually used to have a betting pool where we would test 18 versions of emails against each other. So for those of you who aren’t email marketers by trade, what you do is you create version after version after version. You slice up your email list. You send small groups in your email list each of these versions. They compete against each other for an hour. We have real time analytics so we see which version is doing the best and the winning version is what gets sent out to everybody else with minor adjustments based on a person’s past giving history and things like that.
So we used to have a betting pool where we would guess which was going to do the best and which was going to do the worst. And no one was ever right. Sometimes the consensus worst email was the thing that did the best. The other thing we always found was that minute differences can have major, major effects on results. My favorite example of this is the word “should.” We tested all kinds of ways just of phrasing the ask itself: Please donate. Will you donate? Please contribute. Will you please contribute? You should contribute. And this word “should” outperformed all the other versions – dozens and dozens of versions, every way we could possibly think of to ask for money.
And “should” outperformed the others consistently over and over and over again. If you go back and search your Barack Obama emails you’ll see it. For months we would say you should give, you should give. That was our line. And we raised millions of dollars incrementally off of this. And so it was always fascinating to me how there were big picture things that we had to discover about what was our overall tone and there were really minute things we had to discover like a button color or all these other things that have a major effect.
I think the most consistent thing that we found is there’s only a handful of things that I think people really want. I think you see this when it comes to fundraising but I also think you see this when it comes to why people do and don’t want certain kinds of videos or share certain kinds of content. People aren’t that complicated. They want to be respected. They want to have friends. They don’t want to have their time wasted. They want to see stuff that’s funny. They want to be informed. So these are a handful of basic human attributes. And we always felt like if we were honoring those basic human attribute swe were probably doing a pretty good job.
So it wasn’t always that difficult to understand why certain things did well and certain things didn’t. For example, we would always hear from friends or parents that we should talk more about super PACs. You know, Sheldon Adelson’s given a hundred million dollars to Mitt Romney, that’s why you’ve got to give. We tested it time and time again and it never worked.
I’m convinced it never worked because people don’t want to be afraid. They want to feel inspired. And so then we’d talk about how many people on the Obama side are giving. We’d talk about how many people in your town are giving. We’d tell stories of people who gave. There was one great email that did that that was very touching but also very effective. It told a story of a woman whose family has pizza night every Tuesday. She forwent pizza night and spent that 15 dollars on the campaign because she was so inspired.
That was the kind of stuff that worked best for us. And whenever we tried to sort of fear monger about Governor Romney – he started making sort of some birther jokes toward the end of the campaign – we tried to raise money off of that. That stuff didn’t work as well. And it makes sense. These are basic human attributes. People want to feel respected. They want to feel part of a community. They want to have connections. And almost all of our really successful programs sort of arose off of that.
People also want to have a connection to the candidate. People used to be sort of mock these emails from President Obama where the subject line was “I just got off the stage at the convention. Just wanted to drop you a note.” There’s a reason we did that. Those worked. And people understand that it’s a contrivance. They don’t think that President Obama is on his iPhone backstage typing out an email. But they do think that the email sounds like him and feels like him and they do have that little thrill when all of a sudden the words Barack Obama pops up in their inbox.
In Their Own Words is recorded in Big Think’s studio.
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