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Archive for the ‘communication’ Category

One City’s Drought Communications “Fail”

I just watched a city council adopt a communication campaign that will do a lousy job of informing residents of the new water restrictions and fines it had just adopted in response to state mandates. For Californians to respond effectively to the drought, we’re all going to have to do better than this city did.

“Thanks” to city council input, residents of the San Gabriel Valley city will receive a cover letter and three separate inserts – four pieces in all, competing for attention, over-communicating and creating confusion – all in a bland envelope that will be lost in the day’s mailbox-full of unsolicited mail.

That’s going to be as expensive as it is ineffective.

The city did one thing right. It didn’t use a water bill insert, recognizing it wouldn’t get enough readership in a timely manner. But if you’re going to use an envelope (I wouldn’t!), you’d better print a high-impact headline on it or it’s likely to go out with next week’s trash, unopened.

Here’s a better alternative: Mail two postcards on the same day, one over-sized and one minimum USPS size. Why postcards? Because they get the message out without having an envelope in the way. Why two?

  • The large one would spell out the details, and by limiting the space to a large postcard, there’s much less chance of your message becoming gobbledygook.
  • The small postcard would be the “keeper,” designed with the refrigerator door in mind. All the good stuff would be on one side: Which days they can irrigate on, prohibitions and fines, tips, an easy URL for more information.

Combined with good policy and customer-oriented enactment, this will work.

Messaging That Isn’t All Wet

The grass isn’t greener in Sacramento

The long-awaited and often-delayed California water bond is one of the primary agenda items during the brief mid-summer legislative session in Sacramento. Before August 31, two-thirds of the Legislature must agree to a new bond, or to remove the old bond from the ballot. If they don’t, the old $11.14 billion water bond will go on the ballot with Gov. Brown’s active opposition, and will almost certainly be defeated.

Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, purveyors of what’s second only to air for 19 million Southern Californians, definitely has a dog in this fight, and that dog has a very well-constructed bark: MWD’s messages regarding what they’d like to see in a water bond are clear, straightforward and strong.

In the interest of recognizing good messaging, here it is:

Water Bond Priorities
Restoring Delta, Reducing Reliance, Statewide Improvements

Public water agencies and business organizations from throughout California that receive supplies from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Bay-Delta are united in their support for a comprehensive Water Bond that achieves the co-equal goals of restoring the Delta and providing reliable water supplies statewide. 

Delta Restoration – Critical for California’s environment and economy
•  
Must provide significant funding for public benefits associated with habitat restoration
•  Must provide significant funding for voluntary flow purchase programs to improve fish conditions

Department of Fish &  Wildlife – Best agency to oversee restoration funding 
•  Has decades of experience facilitating and managing habitat restoration
•  Already subject to direct oversight by Legislature
•  Has successful track record and institutional infrastructure in place to facilitate and manage habitat restoration.

Delta Conservancy – Not best agency to oversee restoration funding
•  Has no experience facilitating or managing habitat restoration
•  Primary focus on economic sustainability could conflict with restoration objectives
•  Five board members represent counties opposed to Bay Delta Conservation Plan, one of the most promising and comprehensive restoration plans in the nation designed to achieve co-equal goals.
•  Habitat restoration projects should be funded based on scientific merits and public benefits, not local politics
•  Was never intended to be sole agency for reviewing or implementing habitat restoration in Delta

Reducing Future Reliance on Delta through Development of Local Supplies 
•  Must provide funding for urban conservation, recycling, groundwater remediation, desalination, watershed management and stormwater development
•  Must provide funding for on-farm efficiency, system improvements and increased groundwater storage
•  Local matching funds should be required, as appropriate

Statewide System Improvements 
•  Must provide funding for public benefits associated with surface and groundwater storage
•  Projects must openly compete for bond funding
•  Local matching funds should be required, as appropriate

That’s it, and that’s about as good as it gets. Why? First, MWD  has taken one of the most controversial and complex issues in California and boiled it down to one page. Then there’s the clear statement of purpose below the headline, which focuses the discussion back at the basics, the co-equal goals. After that comes a structure makes it very easy to get to the topic of the moment, with each bullet presenting a single point as a fact, unencumbered by partisan rhetoric.

Whatever your position on this (and if  you don’t have a position, don’t worry – you’re like almost everyone outside the water wonk community), you should see this as a model of good messaging.

Media’s Failure to Report on Water – Good or Bad?

Even in our dry, drought-prone realm, you’d be hard pressed to find any newspaper with a reporter assigned solely to the water beat.

That’s not a guess. Kate Galbraith, a San Francisco-based journalist, recently wrote in America’s premier journalism publication, the Columbia Journalism Review,

 When I Googled “water reporter” over and over again, [only] one guy showed up. His name is Chris Woodka, and he works in Colorado at the Pueblo Chieftain, a daily based about 100 miles south of Denver.

No one showed up for the Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Orange County Register, the Phoenix American, the Las Vegas Review Journal or any of hundreds of other papers covering America’s drought belt. Galbrath explains why she thinks this is:

I couldn’t prove it, but I suspected that even as the [Texas] Tribune [which she reported for] pounded away at water stories, and invited the public to panel after panel of discussions about water, the audience was often people who were already engaged. The challenge was reaching ordinary citizens—many of whom might not even know there is a water crisis.

Two polls show the magnitude of this challenge. Last year, a survey by the University of Texas and The Texas Tribune found that water lay near the bottom of Texans’ policy priorities, despite the ongoing drought. In California, which is now enduring its most intense drought on record, a 2012 poll showed that 78 percent of respondents had never heard of the river delta at the heart of the state’s water-supply system.

To an editor, water news is neither “dog bites man” or “man bites dog.” It’s no one cares whether the dog or the man bit anything.

This lack of coverage hurts a water community that is trying to increase public awareness of the value of water, the need to conserve and the need to invest in improved supply reliability and infrastructure. But before we lament our inability to call the local paper’s in-the-know, experienced water reporter, let’s consider two things.

First, he or she is not likely to be in-the-know and experienced. The sorry state of the newspaper business has led to high turn-over, especially among the (relatively) well-paid more senior reporters.  Chances are, if you were working with a dedicated water beat reporter, you’d be working with a recent hire who didn’t know much more about water than the 78 percent who never heard of the  Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

And forget broadcast outlets. Their on-camera “personalities” may have a bit more experience, but unless the water kills someone or is really, really cute, they’re probably not going to cover it.

And second, given the pressure on reporters to write stories that generate comments, what do you suppose they’d be writing about? Would it be the need to invest in boring old concrete infrastructure, or a justification of a district’s proposed rate increase?

We don’t think so. In the times a water beat reporter would find exciting, like the current drought, you’d get sensationalism in overkill mode. Galbrath recognizes this, listing “Drought and cattle! Drought and rice farmers! Drought and climate change! Drought and power plants!  Drought and  hunting! Drought and the military!” – with a link to each one!

Such coverage might drive temporary conservation, but the goal of any experienced water communicator should be to change long-time water use patterns, not support come-and-go drought-related conservation.

In less “exciting” times, would you see articles that support a more enlightened citizen view of water? Articles that explain the value of water or the need to conserve it? Sure. Some.

But you would see much more of  sensationalism in non-drought clothing. “Water district expenses out of control! Water quality deteriorates! Widow can’t pay water bill!  Water employees get lush retirement packages! District director takes golf junket!”

So, maybe it isn’t such a bad thing after all that water communicators must constantly struggle to get the media interested in the only thing on the entire planet that’s almost as essential as the very air we breathe.

 

What Makes Water Agency Communications Work

LP&A has nearly two decades of experience working with many of Southern California’s most prominent water providers to create programs that educate stakeholders, change public behavior and accomplish strategic objectives.  Over that period, we’ve developed a time-tested approach to successful water agency outreach that is grounded in key principles that we like to call “the Four Pillars of Water Agency Communications.” 

Trust

LP&A believes water district communications require building and maintaining trust.   Trust makes it easier to convince customers to conserve. Trust can protect an agency’s reputation if an accident occurs or if infrastructure repairs are needed.  Trust makes rate increases or changes in rate structure more easily accepted.  And trust makes it more likely legislators and regulators will support an agency’s objectives.  Trust is built through a mix of regular, consistent and truthful communications that explain complex matters in a customer-friendly way, and by providing opportunities for two-way dialogue that allow ratepayers and stakeholders to play an active role in their water agency.  LP&A has helped water districts build trust for nearly two decades.  Our approach protects and builds upon the reservoir of trust an agency has previously amassed, and directs it toward the District’s current objectives.          

Clarity

Water agencies regularly deal with complex issues and regulations, like Proposition 218, the BDCP, SDWA, CEQA, NEPA, ESA, and the Clean Water Act.  The trick is making these topics understandable and relevant to your target audiences.  For most agencies, it can be as simple as clearly communicating the need to conserve while rates climb higher.  Alternatively, it could be as complex as conveying a district’s position on a key issue in a manner that motivates action by regulators or other elected officials.  LP&A’s Clutter In/Clarity Out approach sees that our clients’ strategic objectives are regularly met.  

Perspective

LP&A approaches every communications task by placing ourselves in the shoes of the target audience and asking, “What’s in it for me?”  It’s only human nature for audiences to consider the greater good only after considering how an issue may affect them personally.  It’s also an unfortunate reality that most members of the public and many stakeholders are not heavily engaged in water issues.  As such, we must tailor our messages and strategies in terms of their impact on the target audience.  What are the benefits to them?  What are the impacts?  How will their lives change?  These personal-level issues must be addressed before audiences will be open to considering the bigger picture.  We’re experts in making sure water agencies have the proper perspective in their strategic communications.  

Focus

Water agencies operate using public funds, so they have an obligation to be as efficient as possible.  Without clearly defined goals, public agencies can slip into “communicating for communication’s sake,” squandering staff time and financial resources without achieving sufficient benefit. Communications efforts that are designed to accomplish specific, measurable goals ensure ratepayer-funded communication activities are supportable.  All LP&A communications strategies are focused on seeing that goals and budgets are set and met.             

Overthrow the Master Bedrooms!

Political correctness has struck again, and homebuilders best take notice. It seems the long-used term “master bedroom” isn’t just racist, it’s sexist. So says the Baltimore Business Journal:

Not that kind of “master” suite!

The “master suite” is being phased out — not from our homes, but from our lexicon.

A survey of 10 major Washington, D.C.-area homebuilders found that six no longer use the term “master” in their floor plans to describe the largest bedroom in the house. They have replaced it with “owner’s suite” or “owner’s bedroom” or, in one case, “mastre bedroom.”

Why? In large part for exactly the reason you would think: “Master” has connotation problems, in gender (it skews toward male) and race (the slave-master).

This strikes us as OK if a little silly. Not as silly as “mastre bedroom,” but silly nonetheless.

If you, like we, don’t want all sorts of N-words, J-words, W-words and S-words (we’ll leave it to you to fill in the blanks) being thrown around, you’ve got to accept that the PC Loons will determine a whole host of words are offensive. Having just watched “42″ and squirmed through the scene where the Phillies manager berated Jackie Robinson with a host of nasty racial invectives, we’re glad we rarely are exposed to such deliberate demeaning of others today. So OK, “master bedroom” it’s not.

But it’s silly because the suggested alternatives, owner’s suite and owner’s bedroom, are just as likely to be attacked by the PC crowd as master bedroom.

For starters, there’s that tricky apostrophe. “Owner’s” suite says we’re single or don’t think much of our mate, both of which, if not true, are offensive. “Owners’” assumes two owners, and that’s … what … singlist? It certainly would make this single parent uncomfortable, if we were a single parent, which we’re not. How could we be if we are “we” all the time?

And then, Mr. Homebuilder (or Ms. Homebuilder, or Mr./Ms. Gender-Questioning Homebuilder), are you implying that one mate “owns” the other, or “owns” their kids? If you use that, you’re demean whomever the owned party is, making you a sexist and a … what …  childist? And you’re a classist, too, because saying that we “own” that room obviously is just a code word for disparaging renters and hating the homeless.

Perhaps homebuilders can resolve this quandary by calling it Bedroom #1. No wait. That’s childist, isn’t it? Why should the parent’s/partners’ bedroom rate higher than the child’s? And if Grammy has moved in, then you’re ageist, too.

How about “the larger bedroom with the walk-in closets and the bigger bath?” Yeah, that should do it. If there’s not enough room on the floorplan for all that, just put TLBWTW-ICATBB. Wait. That could get you in trouble with dyslexics.

Mesa Water’s Excellent Rebranding Program

By Laer Pearce

Orange County Register reporter Mike Reicher is doing what appears to be a solid job reporting hard and breaking news on the Costa Mesa/Newport Beach beat.  His recent investigative work, however, isn’t as solid and necessitates this post.

Reicher chose to report on a theme nearly all of our public agency clients have to wrestle with: public scrutiny of agency expenses. His focus was Mesa Water District’s communications program, a program we worked on from 2008 through last December, when our current contract ran out. We hope to keep up our good work once the public relations agency review that will be starting soon concludes.

Criticizing a High-Integrity Process

Before we get to Reicher’s criticisms of the cost of Mesa Water’s communications program, let’s look at the district’s process, because good process breeds good programs, and vice versa.  Mesa Water did everything right:

  • We secured our contract by participating in a competitive review in which we faced a number of other capable firms. We were selected because we offered the right mix of expertise, flexibility and cost.
  • Each element of the district’s communications program had to tie back to the district’s strategic plan. If it didn’t help achieve a strategic goal, staff didn’t bother offering it to the board of directors for consideration because they wouldn’t have bothered passing it.
  • After an appropriate period of time, five years in this case, our contract was allowed run out so a new agency review could be conducted. We appreciate this because we realize we are paid with public dollars, and we want those dollars to be spent wisely.

This is a model of good governance and an example for public agencies to follow when selecting a contractor or consultant for a major project, or launching a new initiative. It led to a very successful working relationship and a public outreach effort that received prestigious awards from the California Association of Public Information Officials, the California Special Districts Association and the Orange County chapter of the Public Relations Society of America.

A Justifiable Budget

The article, “Mesa Water’s $500,000 rebranding,” is seriously flawed in its execution, even if the topic is fundamentally legitimate. Newspapers should be skeptical of government expenses and should report on excesses they find. But reporters must be careful not to write a story to support a pre-conceived storyline. If the facts make the story less sensational, they need to write the story that’s there, not the one they wanted to be there.

There is no $500,000 rebranding program underway at Mesa Water, but we will leave it to the district to address most of the story’s inaccuracies, as most are better addressed by them.  We are obligated, however, to correct inaccuracies regarding our billings.

In the story, despite information provided to him to the contrary, Reicher reports we billed Mesa Water “nearly $270,000 in total consulting fees,” which overstates our billings by 18 percent. We billed the district $228,573 for our fees.

Over the five years we worked for the district, our billings averaged out to a bit under $46,000 a year and a bit over $3,800 a month. Mesa Water has been a good account, absolutely.  But you’d have a hard time making the case that they’re the sort that spends crazily on communications – especially if you compare our $3,800 a month to the $110,000 a month the Great Park’s PR firm billed the city of Irvine.

Also, the rebranding included much, much more than simply redesigning a logo. Mesa Water’s Public & Government Affairs Manager, Stacy Taylor, has the right view of branding: It’s not a logo; it’s what your stakeholders think of you. As such, many wouldn’t consider some of our activities for Mesa Water to be “branding,” but they were: They were the necessary laying of a communications foundation upon which a positive brand could be realized.

An Obligation to Communicate

So all of this raises the larger question: How much of their ratepayers’ money should public agencies spend on communications? Many would answer zero, but they would be just as wrong as someone who answered, “The sky’s the limit.”

Here’s what I wrote in an earlier blog post on this sensitive subject:

 Issues are increasingly complex.  People are busier than ever and have less time to absorb information.  The channels of communication are both broader and more cluttered than ever. This is not a safe place for amateurs.  Professional communicators, whether they be in-house or consultants, are increasingly necessary for effective communications.

Mesa Water agrees. The cost of a strategic, two-way, professionally executed program will be greater than the cost of having an administrative assistant put together a newsletter every other month – but it’s worth it because there’s a high price to pay if government entities don’t communicate.

Let’s say for example, a water district with an inadequate communications program proposes a rate increase and is met, as can be expected, with a firestorm of protest. The intensity of the protest leads the district’s board of directors, who all want to be re-elected, to delay the rate increase. This doesn’t do anything to address the higher prices they are paying for water and power, however, and before too long, the district isn’t making enough on water sales to cover its obligations.

Lost revenues and the deferred maintenance that results will cost this water district much more than a good communications program would have.  That’s why we believe public agencies don’t just have a right to communicate with their stakeholders, they have an obligation to.  Agencies have a companion responsibility to communicate appropriately. Again, from the earlier post:

There’s one more thing, one very important thing.  Consultants who work for public agencies need to respect that they are being paid with public money – our money, as taxpayers.  That means we need to be careful to use it wisely, which gets us back to [expensive give-aways and programs that are strategically unsound].  Is that where you want your tax dollars to go?

We didn’t think so.

Laer Pearce & Associates has never pursued the sort of high-cost, low-yield, no-bid public agency contracts doled out by the Great Park, and we never will because they are unjustifiable uses of public funds. Just read my book Crazifornia: How California Is Destroying Itself and Why It Matters to America to get an idea of how I feel about excessive government spending.

Dealing with Journalistic Sensationalism

Should Mesa Water even have bothered working with a reporter who by all signs was intent on writing a negative story?  One water district communicator told us no, and she has a valid point. If you’re being criticized for your communications budget, why pile up more expenses trying to stop the inevitable, especially if newspapers’ reach and influence are diminishing?

Mesa Water’s long-standing philosophy, however, directed them to talk to the reporter as a matter of openness. That’s defensible if you start, as Taylor did, with an understanding that the end result will likely be unsatisfactory. Given that assumption, here are some pointers for dealing with journalistic sensationalism:

First, you have to know before the story comes out how you will respond.

  • Make sure your efforts to secure a fair story are thorough and documented.
  • Provide internal audiences that will be asked about the story with what they need to answer inquiries.
  • Prepare your website in advance with an FAQ on the subject, then update it as necessary when the story is in hand or as comments raise new questions or inaccuracies.

Once the story is out:

  • Respond to customers personally, because newspapers are impersonal.  Taylor is inviting customers to call her, which will give her the opportunity to build a relationship – the end goal of all good communications.
  • Only request the most important and easy to justify corrections because you’ll have a much better chance of securing them than if you try to get a laundry list of corrections through.
  • Prepare yourself for follow-up stories.
  • Finally, be measured in public responses because they will keep the story in the news. Concentrate instead on internal audiences, key stakeholders and customers.  And remember, even the American Society of Newspaper Editors acknowledges that only used car salesmen and advertising executives (not PR executives, thank goodness!) are trusted less than journalists.

OMG! Texts R Public!

A judge in San Jose has ruled in favor of a community activist seeking to close what many see as a flagrant loophole in California’s public record act – the continuing privacy of text messages sent and received by elected and appointed public officials and public employees. Private email accounts were also included in the judge’s ruling.

Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge James P. Kleinberg ruled that “emails, texts and other messages sent to and from personal devices by Mayor Chuck Reed, council members and redevelopment officials about city business including subsidizing a development in San Pedro Square downtown on property owned by former Mayor Tom McEnery and his family” should be turned over to the activist who filed a Public Records Act request for them. Read the Contra Costa Times article here.

The decision doesn’t have statewide application yet, but it’s only a matter of time.  Public officials should not be caught short by this decision – it was bound to happen. California has a strong public disclosure tradition that has morphed over the years in include other emerging technologies – faxes, emails – so any public official or public agency employee who thought their text messages would remain out of the public view was short-sighted.

Our rule of thumb when working with public agencies is that any and every communication may become public, so every communication needs to pass scrutiny of the “What if this was on the front page?” sort. We advise others to take the same approach.

After all, the best way to avoid a crisis is to not do things that could cause one.

 

Invocation

I had the honor today to deliver the invocation – the opening prayer – at the board of directors meeting of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California.

Oddly, I was nervous at the podium, something that almost never happens with me.  It must have been the responsibility of praying for others, the room’s amazing (and slightly intimidating!) architecture, and all those water leaders tiered around me!

There were no bolts of lighting or wafting smells of brimstone, so all in all it went well. Here it is:

Chairman Foley, members of the Board, thank you for extending this honor to me today. You have allowed me to check off one more box on my life’s to-do list.

Let me preface this invocation with a little background on why Director Dick invited me to be here today. After three decades at the helm of a public affairs firm that specializes in leading clients through California’s regulatory jungles, I wrote a book, Crazifornia, Tales from the Tarnished State. In it, I tell a lot of stories about the foibles and failures that have dulled the shine of California.

There’s plenty in the book about bureaucratic mismanagement, questionable policies, misguided legislation and outlandish ideas, but you can read Crazifornia from cover to cover and you won’t find a chapter titled “California’s Crazy Water System.”

In fact, it’s the opposite.  I present California’s water delivery system as a shining example of what California can accomplish when it does things right. Consider the grand visions of the State Water Project, Hoover Dam and the Colorado River Aqueduct. Look at the great successes your member agencies have achieved in promoting water conservation. These are modern miracles.

As with anything, we could do better, but we have accomplished things here in California that would stop others hobbled by smaller visions and constrained by narrower commitments.

The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California’s Board of Directors and its staff have always been asked to make the hard decisions and drive the challenging policies that support the California water system. This great undertaking, I believe, is the one of the greatest examples the world has ever seen of God’s gift of intelligence to mankind.

So, with that background, let us pray.

Our Father and Creator, we thank you for the bounty and freedoms we enjoy as Californians and Americans.

We have read how You gave to King Solomon very great wisdom and insight, and a breadth of understanding as measureless as all the sands on the seashore. We thank You, Father, that you have not forgotten us in Your gifts, but have also planted in us an intelligence sufficient to envision great undertakings, and then to build them, and finally to manage the resources they deliver using the principles of stewardship you have laid down for us.

We ask your guidance on this group of so few people selected from among all of Southern California’s multitudes to direct the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. Help them today to apply their wisdom, just as Solomon once did, to the careful stewardship of the treasures entrusted to them, so that your children from Ventura to the Mexican border can awake in the morning and go to sleep at night comfortable in the knowledge that the clean, healthy water they need to live will always be there for them.

Amen.

As is usually the case nowadays, MWD’s invocation policy asks that no references be made to “Jesus,” out of deference to those whose religious beliefs He offends, and those who become uncomfortable upon hearing His name. I’m OK with that, but know that in my heart I read the last paragraph as, “In Jesus’ name, Amen.”

I Before E?

Yeah, you’ve got this nailed. It’s “I before E except after C,” and that means spelling is no problem. Well, how about this:

I before E except when you run a feisty heist on a weird beige foreign neighbor.

We would never run a feisty heist on our weird beige foreign neighbor (We don’t even think he’s all that weird!), but we certainly admit we’ve been caught up in spelling errors ourselves.

Oh, you’ve got spell-check, do you? Great!

Eye halve a spelling checker
It came with my pea sea.
It plainly marks four my revue miss steaks eye kin knot sea.
Eye strike a quay and type a word and weight for it to say
Weather eye yam wrong oar write.
It shows me strait a weigh as soon as a mist ache is maid.
It nose bee fore two long and eye can put the error rite.
Its rare lea ever wrong.
Eye have run this poem threw it,
I am shore your pleased to no.
Its letter perfect awl the way.
My checker told me sew.

We present all this to make a point. Spelling, as challenging as it can be at times, is simple compared to the communications challenges most of our clients face.  Challenges like these:

  • A developer needs to make concerned neighbors understand what a traffic study really says about what traffic will be like after a proposed project is built;
  • A water district must raise rates and needs to show its customers why the increase is necessary and why water is still an excellent value;
  • A public agency, facing complex new regulations from both Sacramento and Washington D.C., needs to explain to its constituencies what will change and why;
  • A mall owner needs to reassure shoppers that a mall is just as safe as all the others in town, even though someone was just stabbed in its parking lot;
  • An industry group needs to show regulators and the public that the technology they support is safe and necessary, even though opposition groups rail against it.

These are all actual experiences we have dealt with, and in each case, we found communications solutions that worked, helping our clients achieve their strategic goals. That’s why our mantra is “Clutter in, clarity out,” and why we like to say, “If it’s regulated, we can communicate it.”

Is There Such a Thing as Spam? Not with Obama

Now that the election is over, the super-secret inner workings of the highly successful Obama campaign are becoming known, including the email campaign responsible for most of Obama’s $690 million in online campaign contributions. Public relations and public affairs folks – and anyone who uses email to reach target markets – should take a lesson.

Here’s your textbook: Joshua Green’s The Science Behind those Obama Campaign E-Mails at Bloomberg Businessweek. And here are the lessons:

1. Don’t fly blind

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.

2. Take off your tie

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.

3. Under-think the design

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.”

4. Fear not

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.”

A caveat on that last one. President Obama has a wee tad more draw – both positive and negative – than the subject of most blast emails. You might want to dial back this advice from “nearly limitless capacity for email” to “a much greater capacity for email than you might think.”

 

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