Why Watch Obama? Here Are 13 Million Reasons

President's E-mail Push Offers Marketers Big Lessons in Engagement

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- The election's long over, yet the e-mails keep coming in. Those who signed up to support Barack Obama during last year's campaign are discovering that they've become part of the "permanent campaign," the ground troops in the Democratic National Committee's ongoing battles. And the effort may serve as a template for marketers looking for ways to keep consumers engaged beyond the point of purchase by using a tool as old-fashioned as e-mail.

Obama: Campaign is now permanent.
Obama: Campaign is now permanent. Credit: Roger L. Wollenberg
During the presidential campaign, President Barack Obama amassed a database of 13 million fervent supporters who were tasked with everything from making donations to recruiting more advocates. But after winning the election it was unclear just how he would use that database or if it would actually serve him any purpose going forward.

Turns out the database has continued to be one of his biggest assets, and the "permanent campaign," as it has been dubbed, continued to roll on after the election, with e-mails from President Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama and campaign manager David Plouffe asking supporters to identify ways to get involved in their communities, donate money to the DNC and to the inauguration ceremony. Right around the time of the inauguration, it was announced, via e-mail of course, that management of the database and the grass-roots effort would be taken over by the DNC and be renamed "Organizing for America" (OFA). Mitch Stewart, a member of the campaign team, was named executive director, although Mr. Plouffe remains very involved in Organizing for America's activities and development.

Natalie Wyeth, press secretary for the DNC, said the goal is to keep involved the people who were "so engaged" during the campaign. She said the DNC has not used the database to solicit donations yet, "but it should go without saying that we will need the financial backing of our supporters to keep OFA active," and that the frequency of the e-mails and who receives them is based on the White House's legislative agenda and what's going on in congress. It's not mailing the entire database every time. "Our strategy and activities will be dictated by what will work best to help President Obama accomplish his agenda items," she said.

While most of the e-mails, which are all personalized and highly segmented, now come from either Mr. Plouffe or Mr. Stewart, a number are still "signed" by the president himself, including the ones recently seeking support for his proposed budget, which included the phone numbers of the recipient's local congressional representatives. After his budget was passed, an e-mail from the president was sent thanking people for their support.

Lessons for all
Steve Cone, CMO at Epsilon, a database marketing agency, thinks the fostering of two-way communications by the DNC and the use of video is a nice touch and something all marketers, particularly those in the crosshairs of the public, could learn from.

"The DNC is really looking to build a constant ... dialogue," Mr. Con said. "The ironic thing is that folks like those in the financial-services industry are doing no communication to employees and customers, whereas Obama is doing daily communications. This is the first time a politician of any kind has used the internet for daily one-to-one dialogue."

The effort also serves as a case study and reminder that e-mail can still be used as an effective relationship builder. Joe Rospars, the man who drove the campaign's new-media effort, said few people have opted out of getting the e-mails because the relationships they built with the president and other supporters didn't end on Election Day. "They are demanding to play a role in the process in Washington and in their communities," he said.

Thom Kennon, VP digital strategy at Wunderman, said this is the best example of how to effectively use the somewhat lost art of e-mail. "When you gain an immense amount of very well-targeted scale and put that message in the hands of people who are very inclined to share that message with other like-minded people, all of a sudden your advertising and marketing gets an immense amount of efficiency and scale that you otherwise wouldn't have," Mr. Kennon said.

But like any marketer, the DNC has to be wary of overkill. In early February three e-mails were sent out in one week. Zain Raj, CEO of Euro RSCG Discovery, feels it may be hitting a point of over-communicating without any distinction of why something is important: "A lot of communication coming to my inbox that sounds and feels like rationalizing and justifying their actions vs. a meaningful point of view that elicits a dialogue," Mr. Raj said.

The DNC's Ms. Wyeth said that based on the feedback from supporters, the DNC's efforts do not amount to overkill.

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