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Colin Delany 12 min read

Learning from Obama's Financial Juggernaut: How to Raise Money via Email

[This article is adapted from excerpts from the new e-book, "Learning from Obama: Lessons for Online Communicators in 2009 and Beyond," by Colin Delaney, Editor of Epolitics.com.

In his run for the presidency, Barack Obama raised more money than any candidate -- ever.

Regardless of any other advantages he possessed in the 2008 election season, Obama’s ability to raise as much money as his campaign could reasonably absorb, in part by returning to the small donors who stuck with him again and again through the worst, was decisive ­ it elevated him to the first tier of candidates in 2007, it saw him through rough times in the Democratic primaries and it provided the means for him to absolutely overwhelm John McCain in the general election.

The main tool his campaign used to solicit money? Email ­- it’s not hip, it’s not sexy, but it absolutely worked. Of course, every communications tool from direct mail to Facebook no doubt played a role, but Obama's fundraising workhorse was a combination of email and a website ­ some two-thirds of the money he raised online was directly attributable to an email solicitation to a member of his supporter list.

Basic Principles Behind Obama’s Email Fundraising Success

The Obama campaign’s email strategy, like so much else the campaign did online, built on the experience of previous political campaigns and nonprofit advocacy groups, relying on incremental improvements over past practice.

  • A key idea: the three Ms of political email are messaging, mobilization and money.
  • Emails should perpetuate core messages of the campaign.
  • Emails must also do no harm ­ list managers must take great care not to alienate people on the list.
  • Email activism is really relationship-management, since people’s propensity to vote, volunteer and donate is based on the feelings they have toward a candidate or cause.
  • The more personal, informal and direct a message is, the better ­ usually.
  • Targeting helps get the most out of a list ­ in Obama’s case, supporters might receive messages with different content based on their state or congressional district, their interests, their demographics or their past pattern of actions on behalf of the campaign.
  • The campaign tried to develop relationships between the people “sending” the email and the people opening the email. A given message could have many apparent senders, with list members receiving emails “from” a campaign staff member they might actually have a chance to meet, for instance a regional volunteer coordinator.
  • The email initiation sequence was critical to starting the process, with new list members receiving a pre-set series of messages after they signed up. The sequence steadily “scaled the ask,” encouraging newbies to step deeper and deeper into the Obama waters ­ first they might show up to phone-bank, and a few weeks later they found themselves devoting 30 hours per week to managing a volunteer team.
  • Besides scaling the ask, Obama fundraisers also “tailored the ask,” for instance soliciting different amounts based on a person’s donation history ­ a $10 donor might be asked to donate $20 the next time around, but someone who’d donated $150 was safe to hit up for $200.
  • The campaign also “varied the ask” ­ as we’ve discussed, not every communication from the candidate or his surrogates begged for money. Some delivered talking points, others provided strategy or context, while many were straightforwardly inspirational. Obama did not treat his supporters as ATMs!
  • When possible, staff mapped out email narrative arcs in advance. For best effect, each message had to stand alone but also be a part of the stream.
  • The emphasis on narrative arcs didn’t preclude seizing on emotion and the moment, however. Sarah Palin’s Republican National Committee speech provides a great example, since by mocking community organizers she had functionally lashed out at everyone on the Obama list who’d embraced the campaign’s organizing model. Obama staff quickly sent out a message that gave them something to do about it, and they responded: Palin’s speech was followed by the biggest day of political fundraising ever ­ for Obama.
  • Once again, content integration was key:
      Including compelling and heart-tugging videos in emails and on donation landing pages gave visitors an added push to take that next step and donate. One notable example was an email and video appeal from Ted Kennedy following his endorsement of Obama. The campaign used this message and video to make the most of an emotion-filled moment, given Senator Kennedy’s illness and his historic endorsement.

      “What Worked for Obama Can Work for YOUR Organization,” Andrea Wood, M+R Strategic Services, January 2009

  • The Obama campaign also understand the importance of the “value proposition of fundraising.” They were careful to portray donations as doing more than just providing abstract support for the campaign ­ they made it very clear where money was going, and they often raised funds for a particular stated task such as running TV ads or supporting grassroots organizing in a given state.
  • Despite the best targeting, different emails activated different people at different times. No one message had to connect with every supporter or every voter ­ if you miss ‘em this week, you might get ‘em next week.

How Much is Too Much?

One billion individual emails arrived in supporters’ inboxes over the course of the Obama campaign. Why didn’t the recipients flee his list in droves? Besides all the list-nurturing methods described above, Obama could also rely on the fact that his supporters understood WHY they were getting so many messages:

…If your list members perceive a specific situation or campaign to be urgent, you can bend the rules by sending far more fundraising appeals than your list members would normally tolerate.
For example, in the 60 days leading up to Election Day, the Obama campaign sent over 80 email messages to my email inbox. On October 30th, alone, I received a total of six messages from the campaign. That’s an average of more than one email a day. Yet I did not unsubscribe because I understood why they were messaging me so heavily.
“What Worked for Obama Can Work for YOUR Organization,” Andrea Wood, M+R Strategic Services, January 2009.

Again, testing is vital, and smart campaigns watch the rate at which supporters drop off very closely ­ unsubscribers are voting with their feet, or in this case with their fingers.

As for the end result of all of that supporter enthusiasm and all those emails, we already know the story: online fundraising allowed Barack Obama to opt out of the public campaign financing system and outspend John McCain by hundreds of millions of dollars in the general election. Online donations also helped pay for an internet-driven organizing machine that put millions of Obama supporters to work on their own streets in the days before the vote. Swamped by an ocean of money and an army of activists, Republicans were exiled from the White House and cast into the limbo of defeat. Nice job, email: not too shabby for a tool whose imminent death has been proclaimed more times than I can count.

Read more from the Learning from Obama: Lessons for Online Communicators in 2009 and Beyond e-book.