The Wacky Obama Campaign E-mails That Didn't Work

The subject line "Hey" brought in millions for the campaign, while 'I'm Not Mitt' failed.

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President Barack Obama gestures as he speaks in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building in Washington on Nov. 28, 2012.

In the rapidly shifting digital terrain of presidential campaigns, sometimes wacky works.

No one knows this better than the Obama campaign's E-mail team, which pestered supporters with dozens of off-beat fundraising E-mails—many with enormous successs. The campaign told Bloomberg-Businessweek last week that most of the $690 million raised online came from those fundraising E-mails. Notes with the subject line "Hey" were the biggest driver of those donations.

Naturally, not all the experiments went over so well. Some E-mails tested to a sample audience never went out to the wider supporter list. Others went out to the list once, but flopped.

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Toby Fallsgraff, who led the campaign's E-mail effort and a staff of 20 E-mail writers, shares some of the zany messages that didn't quite pan out.

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1. Doppelgangers.

The campaign's finance director Rufus Gifford bears a slight resemblance to Mitt Romney (very slight) and was apparently stopped several times on the street and asked if he was the GOP nominee. So the campaign devised an email from Gifford with the subject line: "I'm not Mitt Romney." The email contained a photo of Gifford next to Romney, along with a list of snarky reasons the two men were different. Among them: Gifford said he had never had a Swiss bank account, and that he was pretty certain London was ready to host the Olympics. Gifford also noted he was younger. The E-mail failed to garner many donations.

(Other E-mails from Gifford—often with similarly over-the-top subject lines—did bring in some dough. One successful E-mail from Gifford with the excitable subject line: "Holy moly!!!" warned supporters that it was "THE. LAST. FUNDRAISING. QUARTER. EVER. (!!!)" Fallsgraff says mentions of the FEC deadline always seemed to compel supporters to donate).

2. "No subject."

An E-mail from the president to supporters with the subject line "No subject" did well when the team first tried it, at the end of June. But the line turned out to be a one-hit wonder, failing to ever work again. The campaign staff's strategy behind the E-mail was that it's a subject line people often see in their inbox and so might be more likely to open. Fallsgraff believes the novelty factor may have simply worn off.

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3. Leap second.

Another E-mail that didn't get very far used the subject "ONE EXTRA SECOND!" and reminded supporters that a "leap second" had been added to the atomic clock. "That means you have an additional second tonight to get in a last donation," the E-mail warned. "So go go go." It was never sent out to the wide list of supporters.

The campaign experimented with more than just subject lines, of course, testing different formats, font sizes—even the size of the donate button. A tactic that failed in these experiments was asking supporters who saved their payment information with the campaign if they wanted to add their name to a birthday card or a "stand with the president" campaign. While saved payment information brought in quite a bit of cash, the sign up campaigns never produced great results.

The team also micro-targeted supporters who had entered campaign-related contests, such as a contest to win dinner with the president, by sending them more messages about new contests. But they soon found those people preferred the general fundraiser emails over those messages.

The E-mail team's mantra by the end of the campaign: "Constantly be testing."

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  • Elizabeth Flock is a staff writer for U.S. News & World Report. You can follow her on Twitter or Facebook or reach her at eflock@usnews.com.