10 more things you can learn from Obama

Published by Erik van Dorp on

For many years I have been a big fan of e-mail. It is convenient, it’s fast, it’s cheap and, if used well, can raise funds for your charity. And, what you probably didn’t know it can also create involvement with your target audience, as I will show you in this blog.

But in my time as a marketer, for some undefined reason, I always had to fight on behalf of e-mail with programs people (it is too shallow to tell what we have to say), communications people (TV is better) and sometimes even the board (my wife doesn’t like it if you send her e-mails). What’s worse, I see many fundraisers still not using it as well as they could (or not at all!).

It’s the e-mails, stupid! So, to give more backing to my statement that e-mail rules, let’s take a look at Obama’s campaign. Yes, I know it has been almost three years, but apparently some of you missed some parts of the good news. It could be because everybody was so full of  new “new media” (Social). But let me tell you the secret right now: it was good old e-mail that acted as the engine under the hood for Obama’s splashing success as a fundraiser and campaigner!

Anyway, it is never to late to learn the real key to success in Obama’s campaign: his brilliant e-mail marketing program.

How it all got started I signed up for Obama’s newsletter back in September 2008 because as many of you, I sensed something big was about to happen. After many hundreds of e-mails I received from the campaign team it feels like I know Barack, Michelle, Joe, David, Julienne personally. And, three years after the election, I still receive regular updates about what’s going on.

Please find my personal top 10 learnings from Obama’s e-mail marketing program below. I included a few “translations to fundraising” just to get you started thinking about how to implement these learnings in your (e-mail)marketing program.

1. Make it Personal (I mean really personal). It’s not just that Obama’s e-mails all start with my first name (where McCain talks about “Dear supporter”) he talks about how important I am. He talks about we, as in him and me, not we as an organization.

Here’s an example from just one week before the 2008 election. “Dear Erik, This is it. The future of our country — and our children — depends on what we do right now. You can help bring the change we need.” The keyword here is YOU (he’s talking to me). It’s all about my role and my hard work and my chance to make change happen (I thought he was running for president!). This is just one example of the many times he talked to me about me, not about himself.

2. Keep it Relevant (for the receiver, that is). Relevance is the key to a successful program (be that e-mail, social media or other media). Right after the last debate, just before the election, Obama sends me a personal message (at least that’s the way it feels).

The e-mail says: “I just finished the last debate, Now the outcome of this campaign is up to you. I need your help to get our message out. I wouldn’t ask for your support if this campaign didn’t urgently need it”

Just think of what an impact it could have if you send your donors a personal e-mail from the chairman of the board saying something like this (just thinking out loud here) “Dear Erik, I just finished one of the hardest meetings in my time as chairman of the board of charity Y. We want to save so many children in Afrika, but we have only limited budget. …. Here’s one project that just did not make it this time, because we lack the funds to finance it, yet. It needs to wait until next year. We’re just 100K short. So, I am asking you….”. And then ask for a donation.

3. Be Specific (one message only). Every e-mail you send needs to have one clear message. Especially if it concerns fundraising. Here’s one e-mail I particularly like. Obama asks his base to give money to get a TV spot on the air.

“Erik — We put together an ad today that captures Barack’s victory in last night’s debate in 30 seconds. Take a look and make a donation of $5 or more to get it on the air for those who may have missed it ”

Why I like it? Because it has a specific ask for a donation, but it also triggers your desire to check out the video. So, why not try to do the same with you own TV commercial? Everybody is curious to watch a video, especially if it is an exclusive preview.


4. and 5. Be a frequent guest & Make it urgent. Obama made sure you got a feeling of urgency. Not just in the content, but also in the frequency of e-mails. In the week and especially 48 hours before an important debate the number of e-mails increased. The subject lines became more pressing and the content more dramatic.

Here are the subject lines of some e-mails just prior to the last debate. It demonstrates the sense of urgency: October 23rd: Deadline: This is it. October 24th: Deadline: hours away, October 25th: Last call: this weekend. See how it builds up the pressure?

In your case, it might be a Telethon a (sports) charity event or even a Direct Mail drop date. Just try to think in a tactical way how to increase the sense of urgency, not just by a one shot, but by a smart (and relevant) trail of e-mails. And trust me, it works, Amazon and Bol.com(Dutch) act the same way, so it works.

6. Be informative. On May 28th 2011, I received an e-mail from Mitch Stewart, Baracks campaign manager for the 2012 election. Subjectline: Our plan this summer. The e-mail contained a video and a summary of the campaign briefing showing how, where and when the campaign was happening. For me it is a great way to involve the reader (I feel involved when I receive this e-mail). It shows that the sender takes the reader seriously. And it shows the truth behind the fancy marketing. It feels like a true commitment to making the base committed, not like marketing shallowness.

I particularly like the PS in this e-mail “PS. If you do not have time to watch the video, here’s a quick rundown of where we stand”. After reading the PS, I watched the video (of course).


7. Don’t be afraid to ask. Just to make things clear: EVERY E-MAIL HAD AN ASK FOR MONEY! Yes, programs people, all of them! And if the ask was not directly related to the topic in the e-mail (see point 3) it was done all the way down, as a footer.

One example of a nice footer: “This campaign isn’t funded by lobbyists or corporate interests. We rely on donations from people like you. Please donate $5 today.” In a way, within the context of Obama’s campaign, a footer like this is still relevant because it contains the message that Obama wants to stay away from Lobbyists and big companies.

8. Mix your message (in separate e-mails of course). In all e-mails there was a request to donate to the campaign, but not always in a prominent way.  Some e-mails where reflective and talked about the process (see point 6), some e-mails felt like a personal message to keep the good spirit alive (time is tough, but with you on board we will make it) and some where specific asks for support (including free T-shirts or car magnets with your gift). The good thing was, that there was this mix of subjects, so I never got bored or annoyed even though the frequency was pretty high sometimes.

But, this does mean that you have to design a storyline for your e-mail program covering more than one or two e-mails. For each campaign you need to make a timeline that includes topic, subject line, timing and call to action. Try it, you will love it.

9. Use more than one sender. Predictability is good in a way, but can kill your e-mail marketing program in another. What’s smart in Obama’s campaign is the different people sending the e-mails, all from a different angle (but all pointing in the same direction).  Your organization could do the same. Just think of the following roles.

  • Your director (or president of the board) could take the roll like Obama’s: telling the big plans and the personal considerations behind the top line decisions.
  • Your volunteer manager could be like David Plouffe (the campaign manager): telling what is going to happen, where and when, and how people can get involved.
  • Your programs manager: to talk about detailed plans in the field, the hardships, the successes and the choices that have been or will be made.
  • One of your board members (one that longstanding experience within the organization and who is well known), just like Joe Biden: to talk about the things that have changed in all those years. This of course should have a clear message: the choices the programs people and management are making, are the right ones.

10. Always stay positive. One of the bigger differences between McCain and Obama has been the tone of voice.  A tragic example of the difference is an e-mail I received recently (May 25th 2011) from one of the republicans telling me amongst other smear that “Obamacare is bringing socialism to our doorstep”. Come on! If you want to take your reader seriously, do not send this blunt and unintelligent e-mails. Always be positive, even when you want to tell bad things.

How Obama’s team did it (responding to another attack by McCain), check out the e-mail sent by David “Erik — This week, a confidential fundraising memo from the Republican National Committee leaked to the press, detailing a new, desperate effort to manipulate voters and crush health reform.

The plan calls for “an aggressive campaign capitalizing on ‘fear’ of President Barack Obama and a promise to ‘save the country from trending toward socialism.'” What’s worse, the presentation included offensive caricatures of Democratic leaders, including President Obama as the Joker from Batman.

So while President Obama was organizing a bipartisan meeting to discuss real solutions, and incorporating the best ideas into his proposal, right-wing political operatives and their special interest allies were preparing a campaign of fear and falsehoods to personally attack the President and deny Americans the care we need.

Enough. We cannot let the lowest form of politics derail the progress we’ve made for the American people. To counter their attacks, we’ll need to take our message to the air and to doorsteps across the country — and with a final vote on health reform expected in a matter of weeks, there’s no time to lose.

Please donate $5 or more today to help us defeat the attacks and pass reform.”

Funny, right, that Obama turns an attack into a relevant ask for donation :-)

With this cleverly designed and well executed e-mail marketing program, Obama won the election and raised a huge amount of money.

That should get you started! And should you need any example of Obama’s e-mails sent over the past 3 years, please drop me a line, I stored (almost) all of them, for future reference.

Erik van Dorp

Over ten years experience in marketing management, marketing strategy and direct marketing, with a special interest in fundraising in the Netherlands and abroad. First as a fundraiser for WWF Netherlands and international, now as a Strategy Consultant building business plans and campaigns for numerous clients. Check out www.cervinomarketing.nl or www.cervinosocial.com


Lee Rosenblum · June 19, 2011 at 23:56

Great comments and a good way to develop an email marketing plan. I find the problem is capturing the email addresses. I know that some orgnanizations/companies do this with special give-aways. Are there other methods?

Erik van Dorp · June 20, 2011 at 09:40

Dear Lee, thanks for commenting on this blog. Here’s a short list of what I would do.

1) Start gathering the e-mailaddresses by integrating this in all the existing marketing programs towards your current donors Telemarketing upgrades, Direct response coupons, product sales, and especially your inbound calls (train your customer service to ask for e-mails when people call).
2) Do the same with all your other recruitment programs (F2F, TV, online), make it a high priority to get the e-mails from your new donors.
3) Ask for e-mail (newsletter subscription) on your homepage (use a box people can fill in and do not ask too many variables).

Doing this can easily double your e-mailbase within six month.

If you want to do new campaigns, consider the following.
4) Start a petition (only if it is relevant)
5) Make a “donate your e-mailaddress” campaign
6) Create a sweepstake
7) Come up with a viral.

4,5, 6 and 7 are getting a little bit worn out (more and more organizations are doing it) and you may get volume, but this isn’t the same as quality.

Whats more important is to make very solid e-mailprogram that is really relevant for the donor. This way, your donors will be more willing to enter their address and all your stakeholders (see point 1, 2, 3) will be more willing to ask for the e-mailaddress (since they know you will not spam their precious customers).

And oh, make sure you follow up a new e-mailaddress very quickly and in a relevant way! 24 hours is a very long time in e-mail time! This way your new e-mail-contact will know that you mean business.

Hope this helps!

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