Why Obama Is Unstoppable
The presidential memo under IN THE NEWS came to my inbox, and I printed it out. It was the 751st e-mail I received from the Obama organization since the first effort I received back on March 5, 2008, titled, “What Happened Today.”
This one stunned me—the real deal, the actual take-no-prisoners, kick-ass directive to the cabinet and intel agencies from a controlled but obviously furious president ordering them to cease and desist the turf wars and set up an information sharing system pronto. Implied: “or else ...”
Back in March 2009, I requested to be put on the Obama e-mail list and sent a small donation. I have saved all Obama organization communications (so far) in my computers as a record of the most successful outreach to voters by a politician in the history of the world.
“Money is the mother’s milk of politics,” said the late Jesse H. “Big Daddy” Unruh, speaker of the California State Assembly.
Since 2007, the Obama campaign has built a database of 3.1 million supporters and raised more than $700 million, surpassing what all the candidates from both major parties combined collected in private donations in 2004.
It doesn't matter whether you like Obama, hate Obama or are somewhere in between. If you are in business—any business, consumer, B-to-B or nonprofit—and do not monitor how this extraordinary organization communicates with its constituency and prospects via e-mail, you're a damn fool.
This guy is a great communicator, and we can all learn from him.
The Secret of Success: Watch What Others Do
It’s a story most of my readers know—I heard the [then] US News & World Report circulation director, Dorothy Kerr, tell a luncheon meeting in 1982, “The way to be successful in direct mail is to see who’s mailing what, see which mailings come in over and over again (which means they are controls and making money), and then steal smart.”
I immediately started building an archive of junk mail, created a system to quantify and qualify the stuff, and reported on it in my newsletter, WHO’s MAILING WHAT!
Today, the WHO’S MAILING WHAT! archive has information on more than 200,000 mailings in 200 categories—business, consumer and nonprofit—going back 20 years. It includes marketing gold—nearly 1,000 grand controls that were mailed for three or more consecutive years.
“Creating direct mail without studying other people’s successful direct mail,” said guru Axel Andersson, “is like trying to do brain surgery without studying brains.”
If I were to posit one single rule—or secret—from 25 years of collecting and analyzing junk mail, it's this: All the communications techniques invented and tested by the great junk mail marketers of the 19th and 20th centuries—content and design—are absolutely relevant to e-commerce in the 21st century.
I will take this one step further: One reason for the dot-com bust of 2000 that caused $5 trillion to evaporate was that the smarty-pants 20-something geeks that set up the systems and protocols—and conned the same dim-witted and greedy investors responsible for the subprime crash—didn't know squat about direct marketing, tapping into human emotions or how to monetize a business model.
Political Direct Mail
An early mentor in my career was Walter Weintz, the pioneer of political campaign fundraising. As circulation director of Reader’s Digest, in 1952 he was put on detached duty by DeWitt Wallace to create direct mail for Ohio Sen. Robert A. Taft’s campaign for president, and later for Dwight D. Eisenhower, who won the nomination.
It was Weintz who first asked for contributions of money. His rationale: (1) An influx of cash would help pay for the direct mail campaigns, and (2) those who sent money have a stake on the outcome—like betting on a horse. They want their candidate to win, so they will spread the word among friends, family, neighbors and business colleagues.
This technique—now called viral marketing—has reached its apotheosis in the Obama e-mails.
Until 2008, the Republican Party had a lock on political direct mail fundraising techniques—testing, sophisticated list work and powerful copy. For half a century the Democrats sucked hind tit—always 10 years behind the Republicans in political direct mail know-how.
The Obama E-juggernaut
Here are the first five efforts from the Obama campaign:
- Barack Obama: What happened today (Wed. 3/5/08, 7KB)
- David Plouffe, Barack Obama: The Math (Wed. 3/5/08, 18KB)
- Barack Obama: Make history in Pennsylvania (Wed. 3/5/08, 6KB)
- Nicole Price, PA, Barack Obama: Take the Next Step in PA (Thu. 3/6/08, 6KB)
- Obama for America: What’s next (Fri. 3/7/08, 8KB)
What’s going on? Readers started receiving a dizzying array of seemingly personal messages from the candidate himself as well as many of his operatives—nationally, on the campaign trail and in their home states.
They arrived in a variety of formats and typefaces—as emotionally charged memos, letters, position papers, fundraising efforts, invitations, thank-yous, and personal responses to those who wrote in with ideas and questions.
Suddenly readers were plunged into the excitement of a campaign’s internal workings and came to feel they were a part of history in the making. It was helter-skelter, immediate and damned exciting.
Two e-mails of note in my Obama archive:
Saturday, May 3, 2008, 2:44 PM
From: Caroline Kennedy
Subject: Answer the call
My father called on Americans to ask what they could do for their country.
Those who answered his call built a movement that transformed our country and brought out the best in our national character.
Barack Obama has followed in that tradition — dedicating himself to public service as a community organizer on the South Side of Chicago and then as a state and U.S. Senator.
Now, Barack is calling on a new generation of leaders to get involved and help transform this country.
The Obama Organizing Fellowship is designed not just to help win this election, but to strengthen our democracy by training dedicated volunteers in communities across the country.
Answer the call. Ask what you can do — for this movement, for our democracy, and for this country.
Apply to be an Obama Organizing Fellow today:
Fellows will participate . . .
Wednesday, May 14, 2008, 9:31PM
From: Barack Obama
Subject: John Edwards
I have some very exciting news.
My good friend John Edwards is endorsing our campaign and joining our movement for change.
We're here in Grand Rapids, Michigan — and if you receive this message in time, you can probably turn on your TV and be part of the moment.
I'm deeply honored by John's support. He is a true leader. . .
This is of little interest today unless you relate it to the dark backstory. At that precise time, Edwards had just lost Iowa and was finished as a candidate. He was desperately trying to conceal an extra-marital affair, having huge public fights with his wife and campaign staff, and in return for his endorsement, was hoping to extort from Obama a promise of the vice presidency—and later attorney general. With this announcement, Obama stuck a knife into this little weasel and gleefully twisted it. (Read the gripping story: “Saint Elizabeth and the Ego Monster” in New York magazine, hyperlink below.
During the campaign—along with news, viral marketing and fundraising efforts—I received more than 40 personal e-mails from Barack Obama himself, 11 from his wife Michelle, 12 from Joe Biden and one from Al Gore. Included were invitations to various rallies, speeches, a chance to win an all-expenses trip to Chicago for the election night festivities, and an opportunity to receive a first-edition Obama-Biden car magnet for a donation of $15 or more.
Simply being on the Obama e-mail list was (and is) a gas.
Obama as President
Just as candidate Obama arranged for me to have an insider’s ride on the campaign roller coaster, President Obama and the administration are blitzing me with e-mails that keep me in the loop of national and international affairs—health reform, job creation, Afghanistan, the economy, education, terrorism and the bailout.
Some of the e-mails are as boring as a suitcase full of rocks; others are electric. For example, I am routinely sent the text of upcoming speeches with the caveat, “EMBARGOED UNTIL [time, day and date].” When the president is on the road, I receive the raw press “Pool Reports.” This personal treatment makes me feel like an administration insider.
Two weeks ago, during the brouhaha caused by the Delta Airlines underpants bomber, President Obama—who was on vacation in Hawaii—caught hell from the right for his silence and being soft on terrorism.
Never one for knee-jerk reactions, he waited a few days and then came out swinging. On Jan. 7, I received three documents:
- “Summary of the White House Review of the December 25, 2009 Attempted Terrorist Attack”
- Transcript of the remarks by the President on Strengthening Intelligence
- A copy of the action memo to the cabinet and intel agencies ordering them to quit the turf wars and start connecting dots—or else. This was the real thing, complete with Obama’s signature.
I didn't have to rely on secondhand coverage from the media with their various agendas, slants and spins. All three were the original source material, enabling me to make up my own mind as I sensed the president’s controlled anger between the lines.
Talking heads on the left, right and center are writing off the Obama presidency because of the deficit, terrorism, bailouts, jobs, Wall Street bonuses, the cost of health care reform and his seeming inability to work with the opposing party. (A possible loss of the U.S. Senate seat from Massachusetts today cannot be blamed on Obama, but rather on an abysmal and amateurish campaign by an arrogant elitist who didn't like shaking hands with strangers and single-handedly blew a 40-point lead.)
What these pundits aren't taking into consideration is Obama’s bully e-pulpit, which enables him and his organization to have a secret personal relationship with a vast constituency. When people get an e-mail from the most powerful person in the world, they read it.
Who among the opposition can match Obama’s e-blitz and the communication techniques that he and his organization have perfected during the campaign of 2007-2008? Sarah Palin? Michael Steele? Tim Pawlenty? John McCain, John Boehner, Mitch McConnell and other members of Congress? Bobby Jindal? The adulterer Newt Gingrich? Tea Party leaders?
“Public relations,” said Evelyn Lawson, my very first mentor, “is the business of letting people in on what you are doing.”
Barack Obama is doing that, and doing it very well.
Whether it’s for business, politics, PR or sales, if you want to reach out to people in a private, personal and instantaneous way, one place to learn how is studying the Obama organization’s e-mails—the language, variety, energy, viral techniques and emotion.
****Moon River and Me: A Memoir by Andy Williams. I saw a lot of Andy Williams when I was an NBC page on the old Steve Allen Tonight Show. This lovely guy has written a delicious show biz insider’s remembrance punctuated by laff-out-loud stories and tempered by two horrific murders that touched him—Robert Kennedy and skier Spider Savitch, accidentally shot by Williams’ ex-wife, Claudine Longet. Viking Adult, 320pp, ISBN-13: 978-0670021178, $25.95, hardcover. —DH 12-02-09