[Guest post by Nathan Pippenger]
Has anyone else noticed the increasingly chatty tone of the blast emails coming from the president’s campaign arm, Obama for America? It’s a topic of some curiosity here at TNR. And it’s not just the “Thank you” I received recently. There’s also “You still in?,” a few personalized appeals from the president (“I want to meet Nathan,” “Nathan, can we meet for dinner?”), and an email from Michelle Obama simply titled “Gray hairs.” One editor has wondered why the “borderline booty-call language” differs so much from typical political emails. Is there a rogue campaign staffer with access to President Obama’s address book?
I put in a call to the campaign, but I’m still waiting to get an official reply. (It turns out I can easily snag a dinner invitation from the President, but having my phone calls returned is more of a challenge.) Then I decided to turn to the father of Internet campaigning: Joe Trippi. As TNR’s Noam Scheiber pointed out in these pages in 2003, Trippi’s use of technology in Howard Dean’s presidential campaign was revolutionary: “What these rivals didn’t realize at the onset of the 2004 campaign is that the Internet is the ultimate organizing tool. In fact, the reason they’re all now staring up at the bottom of Dean’s shoes is that no political operative had ever realized it before Joe Trippi came along.” Trippi was positive that Obama’s new tone is no accident, and he had two explanations for why the campaign is getting so friendly with supporters.
The first reason, Trippi said, is a simple measure of effectiveness: Which subject lines are most effective at getting people to actually open the email? Trippi described a rigorous, data-driven process. “I know from 2008 they would have not just a few subject lines, but multiple subject lines laid out,” he described, “and then they’d pick the one with the biggest open rate. It’s not by accident. They know what they’re doing.” The communications team at the Obama campaign pays close attention to how readers react to emails, and the response of supporters shapes how they phrase emails in the future. If the emails are getting more personal, in other words, it may simply be because recipients like that approach—and they’re responding, which leads to more of those emails.
The second reason, Trippi suggested, was a matter of campaign image-making. “You communicate differently in a campaign then you do when you’re the President of the United States,” Trippi noted. “When you’re a candidate, Joe is your pal who gave you 25 bucks and walked precincts for you, and you say, ‘Hey Joe, I need your help!’ When you’re the president, you might say, ‘Joe, I’m counting on you to call your congressman.’ One’s friendly, but the other is almost an official request from the president. They could be saying, ‘Hey we’re back in campaign mode now.’” Making that switch, Trippi added, requires a different approach. “You’re now appealing to people on a totally different basis than being president. It’s more personal, more direct, and more fun. You know, it’s lighter.”
It’s certainly that. The other night, I was with a friend when his phone beeped. He frowned. “You know, these text messages from the president are getting creepier,” he said. “They want to know if I checked my email today. Then it says, ‘The First Lady sent you a note.’”