What Obama can teach you about list building

What Obama can teach you about list building

In the wake of the 2008 presidential elections in the US, much was written about Barack Obama’s money making prowess. Obama, it seemed, had turned the web into a giant fundraising machine, raking in an unprecedented 500 million dollars (!) to fuel his campaign. How did he pull this off? The Washington Post, in 2008, attributed much of Obama’s success to the so called ‘Triple O’, a group of thirty or so nerds in the campaign headquarters who tirelessly sent out e-mails and social media updates over Facebook, Twitter, and even Obama’s own social network MyBarackObama.com.

But a recently published book on the 2008 campaign suggests that Obama’s success can be traced back even further - to 2006. It was then that the Obama campaign laid the foundation of what would become an unprecented list of 13 million e-mail addresses.

Obama was in hot demand during the 2006 congressional election campaigns, as Democratic candidates across the US asked him to help out with their fundraising and campaigning efforts. The idea Anita Dunn (communications manager of Obama’s campaign) came up with, was simple enough: Obama would help the candidates out - for a price:

“The scheme Anita Dunn hatched on Obama’s behalf revolved around a simple transaction. Every time Obama did an event for a candidate, [Obama] would require the beneficiary to set up a registration system and then turn over the attendees’ email addresses to the [Obama campaign]. This was no small thing. As 2006 rolled on, the requests poured in – urgent, desperate pleas from Democratic candidates fervent in the view that a visit from Obama would be their fiscal and policital salvation. That added up to a lot of chits, and a lot of email addresses.” (source: ‘Race of a Lifetime’, John Heileman & Mark Halperin, p. 32)

What are the lessons marketeers can extract from this?

1. Obama understood the importance of list building

A list with prospects and existing customers is the blood supply of every organization or enterprise. In this day and age, that means a list of e-mail addresses. The Obama campaign ended up sending more than 7000 e-mails over the course of the 2 year campaign. In total, more than 1 billion e-mails ended up in inboxes.

The success of the mailing campaign can be gauged by the amount of money Obama extracted from his donors:

“3 million donors made a total of 6.5 million donations online adding up to more than $500 million. Of those 6.5 million donations, 6 million were in increments of $100 or less. The average online donation was $80, and the average Obama donor gave more than once.” (source: The Washington Post)

Obama’s opponent, John McCain, relied heavily on lobbyists and big time donors for his fundraising, and was late to start online marketing efforts. McCain ended up with a campaigning budget of (‘only’) 84 $ million.

What Obama (or Anita Dunn) understood in 2006 was that it’s excellent to go out and speak to millions of people on the road. It’s even better to be able to contact those people afterwards.

The Obama campaign realised early on that marketing success has everyting to do with conversion. You have to convert one time encounters to lasting business contacts (and ultimately, paying customers). When you go to real life networking opportunities, you come home with business cards. You follow up with an e-mail or a letter. Everybody understands this instinctively. And yet most businesses fail to understand that a website should do exactly the same thing.

It is such a simple thing to ask a website visitor his e-mail address, and yet the overwhelming majority of business websites doesn’t even try to convert visitors. This is the equivalent of going out to give speaches for entire football stadiums, and not go home with a single e-mail address of the audience.

Every online marketing effort should start from this simple question: how can we obtain the e-mail addresses of our visitors? What kind of content will convince website visitors to give us their address, to want to hear from us in the future?

2. Obama understood the importance of segmentation

To achieve maximum impact, your mailing list should be segmented. The Obama campaign list was segmented to reflect donation levels – you just don’t send the same messages to a 10 $ donor and a $ 1000 dollar donor.

Segmenting your mailing list may sound like a chore – a decent mailing list will quickly run in the hundreds or even thousands of prospects. But segmenting is easy with modern mailing list software such as CampaignMonitor, MailChimp, and even open source alternatives like PHPList. You can ask people to segment themselves when they subscribe to your mailings. Or you can simply make different subscriptions on different pages. For instance, if you blog about environmental law, you can add a subscription to an “environment” list. On a blog page about health law, the subscription form points to a “health” list.

Why should you segment? Because your online welcome will wear out quickly when you send irrelevant messages: people will simply not read your messages any more, or (worse) unsubscribe, or (worse still) mark them as spam. According to research, 46 % of the people who unsubscribe from mailing lists do so because they deem the messages “irrelevant”.

On the other hand, there is evidence that people don’t mind receiving a lot of messages from you, as long as they’re relevant to their business. Better segmentation allows you to send only relevant messages to your prospects, and allows you contact prospects more frequently.

So: if you segment right, you can send more mail and increase your online marketing success. If you segment wrongly or not at all, you might lose prospects or even existing customers.

3. Obama understood the power of e-mail

Obama’s own social media network MyBarackObama.com racked up 2 million profiles. In total, 5 million people would befriend or follow the Obama campaign online (Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, Blackplanet). 1 million people subscribed to Obama’s text messaging service.

All those numbers, while respectable and indeed impressive, are dwarfed by the 13 million e-mail addresses that Obama gathered in the course of his campaign.

Social media get all the attention in the media – ‘Obama wins election thanks to Facebook’ is a catchy headline – but e-mail is still a very strong medium for online marketing, especially if you do it right.

Further reading:

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09 mei |1 Comment

Kristien Thanks for this blog


Thanks for this blog post. I really liked your way of bringing it all down to list building and planning.

By planning, Obama's team had enough time to build a list that was large enough to make a difference.

But in addition, Obama was also successful in using social networks like Facebook and Twitter to reach out to his followers.

The problem is, of course, that few of our followers want to listen to what we have to say, unless we can make it interesting for them (e.g., targeted content, value, etc.)

Thanks for sharing.


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