December 2, 2012

The 2012 Spam Juggernaut

My inbox used to be stuffed with unwanted emails, all promising me prosperity in return for a small amount of cash upfront, from people with names like Ngowa Mbube, Prince Goodluck Obasanjo, and Barack Obama. 

But then my spam filters started to delete these automatically, so, I completely missed out on the Great Presidential Email Offensive of 2012. From Bloomberg News on the Science behind it:
The appeals were the product of rigorous experimentation by a large team of analysts. “We did extensive A-B testing not just on the subject lines and the amount of money we would ask people for,” says Amelia Showalter, director of digital analytics, “but on the messages themselves and even the formatting.” 
The campaign would test multiple drafts and subject lines—often as many as 18 variations—before picking a winner to blast out to tens of millions of subscribers.  
It quickly became clear that a casual tone was usually most effective. “The subject lines that worked best were things you might see in your in-box from other people,” Fallsgraff says. “ ‘Hey’ was probably the best one we had over the duration.” Another blockbuster in June simply read, “I will be outspent.” According to testing data shared with Bloomberg Businessweek, that outperformed 17 other variants and raised more than $2.6 million. 
Writers, analysts, and managers routinely bet on which lines would perform best and worst. “We were so bad at predicting what would win that it only reinforced the need to constantly keep testing,” says Showalter. “Every time something really ugly won, it would shock me: giant-size fonts for links, plain-text links vs. pretty ‘Donate’ buttons. Eventually we got to thinking, ‘How could we make things even less attractive?’ That’s how we arrived at the ugly yellow highlighting on the sections we wanted to draw people’s eye to.” 
Another unexpected hit: profanity. Dropping in mild curse words such as “Hell yeah, I like Obamacare” got big clicks. But these triumphs were fleeting. There was no such thing as the perfect e-mail; every breakthrough had a shelf life. “Eventually the novelty wore off, and we had to go back and retest,” says Showalter. 
Fortunately for Obama and all political campaigns that will follow, the tests did yield one major counterintuitive insight: Most people have a nearly limitless capacity for e-mail and won’t unsubscribe no matter how many they’re sent. “At the end, we had 18 or 20 writers going at this stuff for as many hours a day as they could stay awake,” says Fallsgraff. “The data didn’t show any negative consequences to sending more.” 


bearspaw said...

That personal touch is so important when you're being hosed.

Anonymous said...

But they were targeting BO voters. The more interesting question is, "What happens when the average IQ of your target audience exceeds 85?"

AMac said...

I was an email subscriber to both Obama and Romney campaigns (long story), and the Bloomberg article's description tracks with my experience.

Obama (and Michelle, and David Axelrod, and...) sent three to six missives a day, with a variety of subject lines, tones, and topics. Some were Ripped From That Day's Headlines.

The Romney campaign got off a couple of emails a week, mostly along the lines of "Dear Sir or Madam, Your support is vital, Please consider making a contribution, Thank you very much."

Auntie Analogue said...

The Ministry of ObamaSavior does not lack for truly devoted Winston Smiths to throw outworn Newspeak down the Memory Hole and to replace those discarded bon mots with fresh smears of dogmash_t.

I grew long ago weary of living in what is a global mass media Skinner box; but it appears that billions of my fellows are blissfully unaware of their entrapment therein - entrapment which they may revoke by mere exercise of wit and sense.

Marlowe said...

Idiocracy in action.

Cail Corishev said...

There's really nothing new here. Spammers have known for years that the best way to get through the newer filters is to make your message look like the kinds of messages ordinary people send to each other. Ordinary people don't send messages with long, informative subject lines and half a dozen attractive link buttons. They send short subjects like 'hey there' (or leave it blank) and they use stuff like big gaudy fonts. The sloppiness of text messaging combined with the ugliness offered by a full WYSIWYG editor.

Some don't unsubscribe because their mailboxes are unlimited and their filters do a pretty good job anyway. But others don't unsubscribe because they know that spammers collect those addresses and sometimes sell them for a premium, because an address that has unsubscribed is an address that reaches a living, reading person. That makes it worth extra. Unless you're sure that you're dealing with an honest mailer, unsubscribing is just asking for more spam.

Mr. Anon said...

Did the Obama campaign ever try: "Drive her wild with UR massive tool!" or some such? That seems to be a very popular marketing ploy.

It's nice to know that Obama administration has the same high ethical standards as these guys:,14313/

Lucius said...

"Obama the boyfriend", Ann Althouse calls it.

I still get emails from John Kerry--I'm sentimental about the guy so I've never unsubscribed, and I enjoy the thought somehow of Sen. (Sec.?) Kerry gently hectoring me like some Irish Daniel Webster through the web.

His emails, when I look at them, seem pretty sedately Romney-esque too. Stuff sometimes about charity marathons or something. Like what you'd expect from a Ron Reagan-type Democrat black sheep son of GHW Bush.

Mr Lomez said...

The more interesting question is, "What happens when the average IQ of your target audience exceeds 85?"

Is there a way, from the exit-poll data, to crudely estimate the average IQ for each of the candidate's supporters? I'd guess it's very close to 100 for each side; or in any case, I doubt there's a considerable IQ gap between Romney voters and Obama voters.

But, yeah, the people responding to these e-mails have to be mostly sub-100, right? Then again, where do they get the money to donate?

Finally, is it really possible that Showalter and co. don't get the joke? Because I know they have relatively high-IQs, which in turn makes me wonder, what good is IQ when it can be so easily trumped by willful ignorance?

Anonymous said...

I got buttloads of Romney mail. He sent me three pictures. Twelve by eight, I think. The RNC even sent me a dollar bill! You know, so I'd feel bad they were so broke and send them money.
I still voted for those retards, but DANG.

Anonymous said...

I don't know about 'spam juggernaut', but if you would care to peruse the excellent 'Roger's Profanisaurus' - an excellent Xmas gift, by the way, you will find an interesting definition for the term 'spam javelin'.

Anonymous said...

Where do they get the money to donate? Just wait for a new program to allow welfare recipients to donate up to $2000 to the democratic candidate of their choice. They should have just as much right as people with money to support their politicians.

Alcalde Jaime Miguel Curleo said...'s e-mails are usually good... Very unhinged. It is an eye-opening intro to the fevered Weltanschauung of coastal California liberals if you haven't had the pleasure of living around them

Jokah Macpherson said...

Reading this made me think of how game blogger Roosh writes in one of his books that he had found over the years "Hey" has a better response percentage than "Hi" when opening girls.

Anonymous said...

If you want to know How Obama won,one of his internet people explain the social media strategy.
120 people on Twitter, Youtube and Facebook round the clock!!!