Obama vs. Romney: Asleep at the (Transactional Email) Wheel


Are you missing one of your biggest opportunities to connect with subscribers, customers and donors at a time when they’re most engaged?  What about you, President Obama and Governor Romney?   

There’s no shortage of articles, posts and best practice commentary available on why marketers should focus their sights on transactional messaging.  It has been well documented that these emails trounce standard emails when it comes to open and click rates.  They contain relevant and valuable information based upon recent activity or purchasing and subscribers are expecting to receive them.  They have a distinct purpose to serve, but all too often, the content doesn’t go any further than that.  These templates can go months or even years without even the slightest tweak to creative or copy, which is truly a lost opportunity.   

Over the last few weeks, I have been having a field day exploring Return Path’s new and exciting competitive intelligence tool, Inbox Insight.  Essentially, this tool allows marketers to view their competitors’ email creatives and have access to engagement and delivery metrics for all campaigns that are deployed.  You read that right.  Creatives and metrics for ALL campaigns.  Every promotional send, every targeted mailing, every transactional email (with all personally identifiable information (PII) masked, of course).

With this new marketing super power at my fingertips, I couldn’t resist jumping right into the most read, most forwarded emails in that ultra high stakes race that is the presidential election.  Unless your eyes glazed over during the second paragraph of this post, it shouldn’t be a surprise what category these emails fell in to. 

In no time at all, it became apparent that the “Thank You for Donating” emails for the Obama and Romney camps have a read and forward rate that consistently demolishes the performance of their standard campaigns.  In even less time, it became clear that both camps are missing the boat and not making the most of these campaigns. 

Thank You Email Performance Vs. StandardBefore we jump into what went wrong, let’s look at the numbers.  Similar to trends that have been seen across the email universe, the transactional “Thank You” emails for both the Obama and Romney campaigns had drastically higher read rates than standard campaigns.  In this case, “drastically higher” meant a 464% lift in read rate for the Obama Campaign, and an 832% lift for the Romney campaign (from 9/30/12 through 10/23/12), when compared to the average for standard promotional or informational messages form that time period.  What is even more impressive about these numbers is that these “Thank You” campaigns were matched up against all other emails that were deployed, not just the big sends.  The standard campaign set included emails that leveraged location-based targeting, personalization and group-specific segmentation, all tactics that typically lead to higher engagement rates.

Another noteworthy figure to consider is that these “Thank You” emails were much more likely to be forwarded on by the recipient using their email client’s “Forward” button.  While this struck me as a bit odd, the numbers don’t lie.  Not only were recipients much more likely to read these “Thank You” emails, they were also much more likely to forward them on. One possibility is that the subscribers who had donated were proud of their contributions and wanted to showcase their support to friends and family (or their accountants).

With all of those engaged eyes on their content, what were the Romney and Obama camps using their pixel space on?  The short answer is that they didn’t use it for much.

The Template

The Obama campaign was (and still is) sending a no-frills, no-fun all text format for their “Thank You” messaging.  No logo.  No navigation bar.  No images.  Just text and a few hyperlinked statements that are not likely to drive much traffic. Considering that subscribers had just demonstrated their firm belief in reelecting Obama as president by donating, including a logo or even an image of him in the email would be the least they could have done.

Obama Thank You Email

The Romney “Thank You” template definitely had a leg up with a more polished, engaging template.  In addition to spicing things up with a simple colored border, their logo and donation details, Romney donors were also able to show their support by clicking share buttons for Twitter, Facebook, or email.

Romney Thank You Email

So what could the presidential candidates have done better?  There are tons of best practices that can be followed for a best-in-class transactional email.  Listing all of them here would have amounted to a ridiculously long post, so instead, I’ll focus on those that can provide the best subscriber experience and make the biggest impact.

A good transactional template can be a great (and hopefully good looking) work horse.  In addition to including a clickable logo, the inclusion of a subtle navigation bar can channel engaged recipients back to the important content of the website.  Additionally, leveraging text headers ensures that navigation options will render even with images disabled.  Within the primary body of the message, transactional details should be front-and-center; however, marketers shouldn’t stop there.  The inclusion of banner space within the template can allow for promotional content to be easily updated, swapped out or input dynamically. 

The Mandatory “Thank You”

Content directly relating to the transaction should be the primary focus of the email.  It’s what the subscribers are expecting and will also keep marketers on the right side of CAN-SPAM compliance guidelines.  Both candidates lead with this information, leverage text and kept things brief and to the point.  They both followed best practices here:  text will render with images on or off; ISPs like to see a nice blend of text and images; and finally, text is easy to update dynamically.    

This is all well and good, but what could they have done better?  Quite a few important things were going on throughout the first 3 weeks of October.  Instead of updating the “Thank You” messaging to be more relevant with what is going on in the race and beyond, both candidates sent the exact same template out during the lead in to the first debate as they did right after the last debate.  By updating the language to better reflect the critical issues and timely events that where going on, both Team Romney and Team Obama could have provided some major fodder to fire up their active, donating base.

Read Rate Fireworks, Click-through Fizzle?

Once a recipient has opened an email and reviewed the content, they have a choice to make.  What next?  If the email doesn’t give them an easy and engaging way to click through, that recipient will most likely head to the next message in their inbox queue or jump over to the options on their browser.  Unfortunately for the presidential candidates, those fantastic read rates most likely didn’t translate into fantastic click rates as neither gave the recipient an easy or engaging way to click through.

By including interesting, attention-grabbing and actionable content within these templates, both the Romney and Obama camps could have enjoyed more clicks, more shares and more website visits to pages that may help impact their campaigns. 

One of the biggest challenges with promotional content in transactional emails is that it has to transition the subscriber’s focus from dry, factual information related to the transaction to less relevant, but equally useful and interesting content that peaks curiosity and inspires engagement.  While this is no small feat, experimentation and testing can help make it happen.

Are You Asleep at the Wheel Too?

With all automated email programs, it’s all too easy to set it and forget it.   Instead of continuing on autopilot, take a look at your engagement metrics for your triggered programs.  Are your versions of “Thank You” emails seeing lots of opens and/or clicks, but limited “love” from the marketing department?  Shower your subscribers with the attention and updates they deserve by giving them something interesting to click on when they’re already engaged with your email message!

Do you want to know how well your competitors’ campaigns are doing and exactly what they’re sending?   Check out Inbox Insight and activate your own marketing superpowers! 

minute read

Popular stories



BriteVerify email verification ensures that an email address actually exists in real-time


The #1 global data quality tool used by thousands of Salesforce admins


Insights and deliverability guidance from the only all-in-one email marketing solution

GridBuddy Cloud

Transform how you interact with your data through the versatility of grids.

Return Path

World-class deliverability applications to optimize email marketing programs

Trust Assessments

A revolutionary new solution for assessing Salesforce data quality


Validity for Email

Increase inbox placement and maximize subscriber reach with clean and actionable data

Validity for Data Management

Simplify data management with solutions that improve data quality and increase CRM adoption

Validity for Sales Productivity

Give your sales team back hours per day with tools designed to increase productivity and mitigate pipeline risks in real-time