Read Time: 11 min

Email Design Podcast #52: An Inside Look at Hillary Clinton Campaign’s Email Marketing Strategy with Amanda Litman

In the 52nd episode of The Email Design Podcast, hosts Kevin Mandeville and Jason Rodriguez sit down with former Email Director of the 2016 Hillary Clinton campaign and current co-founder of Run for Something Amanda Litman to talk about how she got into political email campaigns and organizing Hillary Clinton’s email marketing efforts in the latest U.S. presidential election. Be sure to follow along and join in the discussion on Twitter using #EmailDesignPodcast.

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In this episode:

  • (1:54) How did you get involved in email? Amanda always wanted to work in politics – she even volunteered when she was little. But she totally stumbled upon email marketing by accident. She attended Northwestern with the hopes of being able to work on former President Obama’s re-election campaign in Chicago, eventually interning on their email team. After Obama’s re-election campaign, she worked for his non-profit, Organizing for Action, and thereafter on the digital team for Charlie Crist’s 2014 election.
  • (4:12) Were there big differences between the email marketing strategies of Obama’s campaign compared to Clinton’s campaigns? Were there major differences in tone between the campaigns? Obama’s 2012 campaign was a big testing ground for email and ultimately proved its importance for future campaigns. They segmented two groups – one which received more email than the other – and found that the increased revenue from the segment that received more email was more impactful than the increase of the subscribes. For Clinton’s 2016 campaign, they did some more testing, but leaned on sending as much email as possible for fundraising. Obama’s 2012 emails were designed for desktop-first, but for Clinton’s 2016 campaign the focus was mobile-first – 60-70% of Clinton’s emails were opened on mobile. Additionally, Clinton was a different candidate with a different message, so they were starting from scratch in creating a unique voice for her campaign.
  • (7:36) How early on did you start working for the HRC campaign? Amanda was one of the first digital team members hired and started in January 2015 on a volunteer basis. Her first official day as Email Director of the campaign was at the end of March 2015.
  • (8:55) How big was the entire digital team and subsequently the email marketing team? The digital team was a little less than 200 in NYC Headquarters and a few hundred more across the states. The email marketing team was 19 members organized into 3 groups – copywriting, organizing team (event mobilization, etc.), and fundraising.
  • (11:29) How did you define the goals of the teams and the overall campaigns? The digital team raised over a third of the campaign’s budget and email accounted for 65-70% of that. In 2012, email actually accounted for more fundraising, as SMS donations increased in 2016. Fundraising enabled the campaign to continue to operate, so that was the biggest goal. The second biggest goal was mobilization for supporters to volunteer, show up to an event, share this video, etc.
  • (13:19) How did the donation breakdown look like between desktop and mobile? Donation rates were much higher on desktop, despite higher engagement on mobile.
  • (14:15) What was your process for developing an email campaign and getting it out the door? Every day, they had a plan for given goals built around the “moments” of the campaigns, such as a debate. Team members would start with creating copy for the email campaigns in Google docs and share with other members of the team for review, typically by senior staff and legal as well. If the email was ever directly from Clinton herself, she would personally review it. They used Silverpop as their ESP and had a printed out 74-step checklist for QA, including checking links, dynamic content, etc. There would be additional team members to review the email and checklist including a final proof send amongst team members.
  • (19:13) Were your emails heavily templated with having to produce so many emails? No, the emails were often the opposite—heavily customized with personalization and dynamic content. There was also a lot of A/B testing among the email campaigns.
  • (20:04) How did you typically build graphical emails? They would leverage their design team for all email design assets. They typically used image slicing and relied on images for dynamic content – they even built an internal “Movable Ink” tool for time-of-open personalization. They used Litmus for render testing.
  • (22:35) How did you determine who the actual sender of the email is? It was usually a combination of Amanda and the writers making that decision. It typically depended on the message – being critical of the opposite candidate, fundraising efforts, etc. – as to who would deliver it. Senior staff members varied in what they were comfortable in approving for email copy coming from them directly. The team was able to create personas from the different senders that their audience connected with. They included the different senders as a part of their welcome series and they saw this help improve fundraising efforts.
  • (26:59) According to an article in the LA Times, HRC’s usable subscriber list went from 2.5M in 2008 down to 100K in 2016. What type of list management problems did you inherit, how did you tackle these challenges, and how did you handle list building strategies? There was a severe deliverability impact to begin with, since the email list from the previous campaign was cold and they basically had to start over. They needed people to re-opt-in to the official HRC organization. Their ads team focused on rebuilding the list and had great success with Facebook ads. The campaign also saw strong activity of subscribers joining the list from forwarded emails by friends. These subscribers also had a higher propensity to donate. The best subscribers and donors were the ones who came at the beginning of the campaign in March 2015, the beginning of the primary campaign, and during the DNC Convention.
  • (31:09) What steps did you take to keep your lists clean? The campaign had great reporting on list health and used Return Path. They created segmentation by engagement with yellow (hadn’t opened in 60 days), red (hadn’t opened in 120 days), and green. They also set up automatically triggered campaigns for re-engagement.
  • (32:57) What other types of segmentation and personalization did you use? The number one way the campaign knew if you were going to donate today was if you donated yesterday. They leveraged a lot of donor-based segmentation based on tiers. Nearly 5,000 people gave the maximum possible donation over email. They crafted the “ask” for recurring donors, non-donors, etc. Subscribers who saved payment information typically accounted for half of an email’s fundraising. They tried to personalize down to interests, such as if a user marked they were interested in Planned Parenthood, using that in messaging, but found that had little impact on fundraising efforts. They assumed most of their list was women (if they didn’t know) and performed many female-based fundraising campaigns. They did not find pushback from their subscribers in taking this approach.
  • (35:59) Where you doing a lot of time-of-open personalization? The campaign found little lift from any send time optimization efforts. They used it when sending to subscribers outside the U.S. for time zones, but given the high frequency the campaign would send emails (sometimes 7-8 emails a day), users would typically pay attention to the most recent ones to hit their inbox.
  • (36:43) What role did geolocation play in your strategy? The biggest focus was on event mobilization around subscribers. They built an automated events program for any field organizer to use, which created an email audience and sent an email 5/3/1 days out and 1 day after for subscribers who RSVP’d and showed up. This program completely off-loaded any work needed from the email team for these efforts and generated over 500k RSVPs to events. Occasionally they would also leverage geolocation for donors to support in efforts around their area.
  • (38:43) What other types of testing did you use? Every email sent on the fundraising end typically had 3-5 variations ranging from copy and design tests and focused heavily within their segmentations (donor tiers, non-donors, etc.). Some of the key findings: Big buttons are best, emojis in subject lines are bad, and using imperatives in subject line copy (telling subscribers what to do) performs best.
  • (41:39) How did you manage the A/B testing? The tech team built a tool called Santa’s Little Helper that automated reporting by mailing group. They also used a strict UTM structure that automatically updated with every email in Silverpop. Their true database of lists lived in Vertica and the tech team built them features to easily search and segment analytics. The tech team actually even built an in-house ESP that they occasionally used.
  • (43:28) What prompted building an in-house ESP and what did you use it for? Fundraising in a campaign is around quarters and the final day typically generates 50% of the funds for the quarter. They had an issue on one day at the end of the quarter and their tech team built their own in-house ESP, named Red Balloon, in 4 hours to let them send out emails on that day. They then used Red Balloon thereafter for things they didn’t want to put on Silverpop’s IPs.
  • (48:57) What was the typical lifecycle of your programs? The email team had a standard welcome series and 30/60/90 day lifecycle programs. The other key buckets was on the various donor and volunteer tiers.
  • (50:02) Did you subscribe to other candidates’ email lists? Yes, Amanda and the email team subscribed to every single candidate. They had interns view all the opposing candidates’ emails and report on if they saw anything interesting. One of Amanda’s favorite stories from the campaigns is that Jeb Bush subscribed to Hillary Clinton’s emails (he had a notorious public email) and he opened an HRC email 20 minutes before he went on stage for a Republican debate.
  • (51:43) What email campaign had the best result? There was a “Woman Card” campaign where they created an actual woman card for subscribers, which raised over $2.5M over the course of 48 hours.
  • (52:50) What was your personal favorite email campaign? Hillary Clinton is known for remembering people’s birthdays, so Amanda’s favorite email is that they recreated this experience for their subscribers by sending a birthday email.
  • (56:40) What have you learned in working for these political campaigns? Amanda learned how important it is to like the people you work with and the people you work with to like you. She also believes personal buy-in amongst the team from building relationships is critical to doing the work.
  • (57:53) What advice would you give to those interested in getting involved with political campaign email marketing? Amanda says that most small non-profits and political campaigns do not have funding to support email marketing roles, so you can often get your foot in the door by volunteering and helping them out.
  • (59:03) Would you work for a political campaign again? Yes, Amanda plans to work for more political campaigns. She is truly passionate about it and feels it is the best way to make a difference.
  • (59:35) What’s next for you? Amanda is the co-founder of Run for Something, a PAC that helps young people run for down-ballot races. If you are interested in running for office or helping young people run for office, sign up on the website. Run for Something provides staff, money, and support to young people campaigning for office. Amanda will also be publishing Run for Something the book later this year.

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