Oh good, you clicked! Don't thank me. Thank the Obama campaign and its genius tinker-tailor-subject-line operation.
The Obama campaign raised $690 million online. The majority of it came from the fundraising emails that peppered inboxes for the last two years. They employed a team of 20 writers and a sophisticated analytics system to measure and improve their effectiveness. Now, they're starting to spill the secrets they learned during the campaign. And as revealed in a new report from Joshua Green*, there was a high-powered viral media outfit lurking in Chicago. The lessons from the campaign aren't just a recipe for making money, but for winning eyeballs in the brutal deathmatch to grab your attention on the Internet. What we can learn is how the Obama campaign fine-tuned its content for maximum Internet impact, i.e., how it channeled its inner BuzzFeed.
As a digital media person, I recognize a lot of these tricks, but their content doesn't really change ("Money, plz, kthx."). Hold that variable steady and it becomes a lot easier to test what online media works and what doesn't.
First, let's propose that your inbox is a publication. It's a weird publication to be sure, assembled from your mom's emails, your friend's quips, some chat boxes floating in the right hand corner, daily deals sites that you must have signed up for at some point, various digests, some news alerts, and that thing you've been meaning to deal with for months but haven't. So, this reverse chronological publication is always available for you, and you know there are some things you'd like to read within it, and many more that you'll flip by and/or delete.
The first step for the Obama campaign was to grab your attention long enough to get you to open the email. So, they got casual. "The subject lines that worked best were things you might see in your in-box from other people," Toby Fallsgraff, the campaign's email director, told Green. "'Hey' was probably the best one we had over the duration."
Tone, on the Internet, is everything. Unlike a magazine where you know what tone to expect (magaziney!), writing on the web is all jumbled up. I think people get really, really good at detecting if pieces of writing on the Internet -- be they emails, blog posts, tweets, or Facebook updates, Google ads, YouTube comment threads -- are meant for them or not. And the key signal is how you put the words together. The tone tells you who the implied author of the work is. And that's how you answer the eternal question, in a inbox of infinite sentences, would I like to read this person's?
Of course, like everything else in the Obama campaign, this process was a cyborg. Humans input the initial emails, but machines sorted the best from the worst. Here's how Green described the process:
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.
What I learned in my own reporting was that the worst-performing letters in that testing process only generated 15 or 20 percent as much money as the best performers. The analytics allowed them to only send emails they knew worked.
But perhaps the most interesting and crucial part of the Obama camp's email strategy was that it was not static. They didn't find that the "Hey" subject line worked and then stop there. Their analytics told them that every subject-line technique, every tonal quirk, had a limited shelf life. The well ran dry almost as soon as you'd divined its location in the psyche of the Democratic base.
Once more quoting Green:
But these triumphs were fleeting. There was no such thing as the perfect e-mail; every breakthrough had a shelf life. "Eventually the novelty wore off, and we had to go back and retest," Showalter said.
In my experience in the content game, nothing has proven more true. Any detailed social media primer I give you would be out of date by the time I could finish writing it. Any operational headline writing strategy would stop working if everyone used it. Everyone clamoring for your attention on the web is trying to strike that perfect mix of familiarity and novelty. And that means the content techniques that work are necessarily recursive. You change what people like by doing whatever you do. Which then requires that you do something else, which then changes their tastes again.
This is true for your core donors (or readers) as well as the farther flung people who might only get forwarded your fundraising email (or story) every once in a while. Sometimes, I start to think of the Internet as a gatheration of starlings, each reader/writer moving in response to her immediate content environment, and somehow the whole thing seems to move together, following a million different versions of the same core set of rules.
* I accidentally misattributed this piece to the equally excellent Joshua Davis. Corrected!
Ordinary Americans will be able to submit—and vote on—questions to be considered when the candidates meet again.
Viewers unhappy with the questions asked at Monday night’s debate will have a shot to weigh in before Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton meet again on October 9: For the first time, the networks producing the town-hall style debate have agreed to accept questions voted on through the internet.
The Commission on Presidential Debates had already announced that the second of three debates would feature questions submitted online in addition to those asked by the traditional studio audience. But on Tuesday morning, the organizers confirmed they are embracing a format that a broad bipartisan cross-section of activist and civic groups known as the Open Debate Coalition have been pushing for years. Americans will be able to submit and then vote on questions online at PresidentialOpenQuestions.com, and ABC and CNN have agreed to consider the 30 most popular queries when they jointly plan the debate.
Conservatives have put families and communities at the center of their conception of a better America—but they’re notably absent from the Republican nominee’s account.
Again and again at Monday night’s debate, Hillary Clinton attacked Donald Trump’s record in business. She accused him of caring only about himself. Again and again, he pleaded guilty.
When Clinton quoted Trump as cheering for a housing crisis, Trump responded, “That’s called business.” When Clinton accused Trump of not paying taxes, Trump answered, “That makes me smart.” When Clinton attacked Trump for declaring bankruptcy to avoid paying the people he owed, Trump replied, “I take advantage of the laws of the nation because I’m running a company.” Clinton set out to paint Trump as selfish and unethical. Trump basically conceded the charge.
Commentators are declaring Trump’s answers a tactical mistake. But they’re more than that. They show how unmoored he is from conservatism’s conception of America.
If this were Clinton, wild speculation would abound.
At the first presidential debate last night, Donald Trump sniffed audibly several times.
Here is a compilation, composed by some patient people at Slate:
Some consider this “breathing.” Others hear something more.
Over the course of this election cycle, pundits have breached all standards with regard to conjecture about the bodies of the candidates and their functionality. Some took Hillary Clinton’s coughing fit as proof of imminent peril. A Florida anesthesiologist got millions of YouTube views for claiming to have used “CIA techniques” to diagnose her with “advanced neurodegenerative disease.”
Donald Trump himself has said that Clinton “lacks the mental and physical stamina to take on ISIS.” As she worked despite pneumonia, he said with an eyebrow raised, “something’s going on.”
In a unique, home-spun experiment, researchers found that centripetal force could help people pass kidney stones—before they become a serious health-care cost.
East Lansing, Michigan, becomes a ghost town during spring break. Families head south, often to the theme parks in Orlando. A week later, the Midwesterners return sunburned and bereft of disposable income, and, urological surgeon David Wartinger noticed, some also come home with fewer kidney stones.
Wartinger is a professor emeritus at Michigan State, where he has dealt for decades with the scourge of kidney stones, which affect around one in 10 people at some point in life. Most are small, and they pass through us without issue. But many linger in our kidneys and grow, sending hundreds of thousands of people to emergency rooms and costing around $3.8 billion every year in treatment and extraction. The pain of passing a larger stone is often compared to child birth.
The belief in a common purpose that long defined America’s civil religion was strikingly absent on Monday night.
Civil religion died on Monday night.
For more than 90 minutes, two presidential candidates traded charges on stage. The bitterness and solipsism of their debate offered an unnerving glimpse of American politics in a post-Christian age, devoid of the framework that has long bound the nation together.
Hillary Clinton may have offered little sense of humility, of obligation, of responsibility in Hempstead, but it was Donald Trump who directly rejected those virtues, reframing them instead as vices. He painted altruism as a sucker’s game, and left sacrifice for the losers. It was a performance that made clear one broader meaning of his candidacy—the eclipse of the values that long defined America.
For decades, the candidate has willfully inflicted pain and humiliation.
Donald J. Trump has a cruel streak. He willfully causes pain and distress to others. And he repeats this public behavior so frequently that it’s fair to call it a character trait. Any single example would be off-putting but forgivable. Being shown many examples across many years should make any decent person recoil in disgust.
Judge for yourself if these examples qualify.
* * *
In national politics, harsh attacks are to be expected. I certainly don’t fault Trump for calling Hillary Clinton dishonest, or wrongheaded, or possessed of bad judgment, even if it’s a jarring departure from the glowing compliments that he used to pay her.
But even in a realm where the harshest critiques are part of the civic process, Trump crossed a line this week when he declared his intention to invite Gennifer Flowers to today’s presidential debate. What kind of man invites a husband’s former mistress to an event to taunt his wife? Trump managed to launch an attack that couldn’t be less relevant to his opponent’s qualifications or more personally cruel. His campaign and his running-mate later said that it was all a big joke. No matter. Whether in earnest or in jest, Trump showed his tendency to humiliate others.
The way people talk about the internet is, as with most things, imprecise. They say “literally” when they mean “figuratively." They say “the internet” when they mean “the web.” (The internet is the structural underpinning of the web, which is what you see when you’re clicking around online.)
And yet we’ve come a long way since the days of “surfing the net,” “the information superhighway,” and “cyberspace.” Most of us, anyway. Politicians, in particular, still have a knack for evoking 1990s web lingo when they find themselves commenting on modern information systems. (The recent congressional record is full of this kind of thing.)
“Cyberspace,” in particular, is an old-school favorite that people just can’t seem to shake—in large part because of the rise of concerns about “cybersecurity,” which has kept the “cyber” prefix in use. In the mid 1990s, the term “cyber” by itself was often a shorthand for “cybersex,” or explicit online chatting. The term “cyberspace,” though, is usually traced back to William Gibson’s 1984 novel Neuromancer, which describes a network of connected computers that creates a mass “consensual hallucination.” Before that, “cyber” goes back to Norbert Wiener’s epic writings on cybernetics in the 1940s.
The Democrat’s command and poise left her rival looking frustrated, peevish, and out of sorts.
Monday brought the first debate of the presidential season, but it often felt like two separate debates. One, from Hillary Clinton, was wonky, crisp, and polished; if not always inspiring, it was professional and careful. The other, from Donald Trump, was freewheeling, aggressive, and meandering, occasionally landing a hard blow but often substance-less and hard to follow. But the two debates intersected at times, sometimes raucously, as Trump repeatedly broke in to interrupt Clinton.
It was a commanding performance from the Democratic nominee. Clinton delivered a series of detailed answers on subjects ranging from race to the Middle East to tax policy. Meanwhile, she delivered a string of attacks on Trump, assailing him for stiffing contractors, refusing to release his tax returns, fomenting birtherism, and caricaturing black America. She stumbled only occasionally, but left few openings for Trump. She remained calm and often smiling as Trump repeatedly attacked her and interrupted her answers—doing it so often that moderator Lester Holt, often a spectral presence at the debate, finally cut in twice in short order to chide him. (Vox counted 40 instances; Clinton made some of her own interruptions, but fewer.) Clinton displayed a sort of swagger perhaps not seen since her hearing before Congress on Benghazi.
He didn’t “disappear” from his debate-moderation duties—he simply recognized what a two-person conversation is all about.
The criticisms came quickly. “CNN LAUNCHES MANHUNT AFTER LESTER HOLT VANISHES FROM DEBATE,” Andy Borowitz quipped. “Just grabbed some milk from the fridge and sure enough @LesterHoltNBC’s picture is on the side of the carton,” Chris Sacca agreed. The Washington Post’s media columnist, Margaret Sullivan, provided a more studied analysis of Holt’s (dis)appearance as the moderator of 2016’s first presidential debate: She gave Holt “a solid B-minus in this Mission Impossible,” on the grounds that “he pushed back some; not enough.” The Independentprovided a less studied analysis: Had Holt, it wondered, “got stuck in the toilet?”
Moderating a presidential debate will always be a high-stakes, high-pressure task—even more so when that debate will claim an audience, in the end, of more than 100 million viewers, and even more so when the campaign in question involves a candidate who seems to interpret reality itself as a light suggestion. To do well, Holt would need to ask good questions, of course; he would also need, however, to find a happy middle between fact-checking the candidates in real time and letting them, you know, actually talk—to the public, and to each other. Interrupting the debaters, and not; challenging their assertions, and not; Lauering, and not; these were elements of the delicate balance Holt needed to strike while conducting Monday’s 90-minute long orchestra of American democracy.
Last night’s most amazing feat: Hillary Clinton turned Donald Trump’s career into a handicap on the biggest night of the campaign.
For decades, Donald Trump has sold himself to the public as a fantastically successful businessman. Nothing is more central to his personal branding. So you would think that talking about business would be Trump’s strength in a presidential debate, especially against Hillary Clinton––she knows more about foreign and domestic policy, but has almost no business experience herself.
Somehow, it wasn’t so Monday.
Exchanges about business produced some of the worst moments that Trump had all night, moments that are likely to haunt him in campaign ads and YouTube clips. At times, giving better answers would have been easy. At other times, Trump’s opponent skillfully maneuvered him into addressing hard to defend attacks.