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!
John Dowd is the president’s second personal lawyer to leave the job and it’s the second major change to his legal team this week.
Updated on March 22 at 1:15 p.m.
John Dowd announced he will depart his position as President Trump’s lead personal lawyer in the Russia investigation, the second person to leave that job in less than a year.
Dowd announced his exit late Thursday morning. The specifics of the decision remain obscure—The Washington Post described it, somewhat paradoxically, as “a largely mutual decision”—but the departure comes amid rising frustration from the president with his legal team and frustration from the legal team over Trump’s refusal to follow advice. Dowd had been a particularly strong voice arguing against Trump testifying to Special Counsel Robert Mueller, and over the weekend Dowd called for Mueller’s firing, initially telling The Daily Beast he spoke for the president, then later insisting he spoke only for himself.
The Cambridge Analytica scandal is drawing attention to malicious data thieves and brokers. But every Facebook app—even the dumb, innocent ones—collected users’ personal data without even trying.
For a spell during 2010 and 2011, I was a virtual rancher of clickable cattle on Facebook.
It feels like a long time ago. Obama was serving his first term as president. Google+ hadn’t arrived, let alone vanished again. Steve Jobs was still alive, as was Kim Jong Il. Facebook’s IPO hadn’t yet taken place, and its service was still fun to use—although it was littered with requests and demands from social games, like FarmVille and Pet Society.
I’d had enough of it—the click-farming games, for one, but also Facebook itself. Already in 2010, it felt like a malicious attention market where people treated friends as latent resources to be optimized. Compulsion rather than choice devoured people’s time. Apps like FarmVille sold relief for the artificial inconveniences they themselves had imposed.
How sugar daddies and vaginal microbes created the world’s largest HIV epidemic
VULINDLELA, South Africa—Mbali N. was just 17 when a well-dressed man in his 30s spotted her. She was at a mall in a nearby town, alone, when he called out. He might have been captivated by her almond eyes and soaring cheekbones. Or he might have just seen her for what she was: young and poor.
She tried to ignore him, she told me, but he followed her. They exchanged numbers. By the time she got home, he had called her. He said he wasn’t married, and she doesn’t know if that was true. They met at a house in a different township; she doesn’t know if it belonged to him. Mbali, who is now 24, also doesn’t know if he had HIV.
She enjoyed spending time with the man during the day, when they would talk and go to the movies. But she didn’t like it when he called at night and demanded to have sex, which happened about six times a month. When she refused him, he beat her. For her trouble, he gave her a cellphone, sweets, and chocolates.
FBI employees are required to adhere to an ethical standard that includes an affirmative duty to offer relevant information to internal investigators.
When Attorney General Jeff Sessions fired former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe last week, just hours short of McCabe’s retirement, he cited an internal FBI investigation that concluded McCabe “lacked candor” in his conversations with investigators when asked about disclosures to the media during the 2016 election.
But what does that actually mean?
“Lack of candor is untruthfulness or an attempt to dissemble from the point of view of the investigator,” said Dave Gomez, a former FBI agent and a senior fellow at George Washington University’s Center for Cyber and Homeland Security. “The problem comes when, in answering a question, the person under investigation attempts to spin his answer in order to present his actions in the best possible light. This is normal human behavior, but can be interpreted as a lack of candor by the investigator.”
Party leadership is sending an unmistakable signal to voters: So long as Republicans hold the congressional majority, they will not act to meaningfully constrain, or even oversee, the president.
Every time Donald Trump breaks a window, congressional Republicans obediently sweep up the glass.
That’s become one of the most predictable patterns of his turbulent presidency—and a defining dynamic of the approaching midterm elections. Each time they overtly defend his behavior, or implicitly excuse him by failing to object, they bind themselves to him more tightly.
It happened again last weekend when Trump fired off a volley of tweets that, for the first time, attacked Special Counsel Robert Mueller by name. A handful of GOP senators responded with warnings against dismissing Mueller. More congressional Republicans said nothing. Party leaders, such as House Speaker Paul Ryan, tried to downplay the attacks by insisting that Trump would not act on them and fire Mueller, who is investigating Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. Most important, and regardless of their rhetorical posture, Republicans almost universally locked arms to reject legislative action to protect the special counsel.
Schools are moving toward a model of continuous, lifelong learning in order to meet the needs of today’s economy.
When the giant Indian technology-services firm Infosys announced last November that it would open a design and innovation hub in Providence, the company’s president said one of the key reasons he chose Rhode Island was its strong network of higher-education institutions: Brown University, the Rhode Island School of Design, and the Community College of Rhode Island.
In a higher-education system that is often divided between two- and four-year colleges and further segregated between elite and nonelite institutions, it’s not often that a community college is mentioned in the same breath as an Ivy League campus. Nor is a two-year college seen as a training ground for jobs in the so-called creative economy, which include industries such as design, fashion, and computer gaming that typically require bachelor’s degrees.
Can TV comedies about murder move beyond the punchline?
The first murder in Barry happens offscreen. Barry (Bill Hader) walks robotically out of a hotel bathroom toward a bed where—the camera pans to reveal—a man has been shot in the head. Barry removes the silencer from a revolver and grimaces, slightly, as if he has indigestion. He pats himself down to check he hasn’t forgotten anything, looks at his watch, and leaves the room.
The premise of Bill Hader and Alec Berg’s new eight-part HBOcomedy is that Barry is an assassin, but a reluctant one. Essentially gentle and conflict-averse deep down, he’s eager to hang up his weapons and try something new. As he explains to an acting coach, Gene Cousineau (Henry Winkler), he’s a former Marine who came back from Afghanistan with crippling depression and no direction, until a friend of his dad’s back in the midwest pointed out the one job his particular set of skills made him suitable for. But, Barry says, forlornly, “I know there’s more to me than that.”
They’re both blamed for predisposing their members to violent acts, but they’ve sparked radically different public-policy responses.
When I thought about locking up with a crew in 1996, I wanted to see a full initiation first, not parts I stumbled upon over the years. My friend Cliff and I arrived at a park not close from my home in Jamaica, Queens. Leaves danced with the wind around our feet, wafting an eerie feeling in my 14-year-old black body. The grounds of the initiation beckoned: a high-rise chain link fence, enclosing two basketball courts.
Through the daylighted chain, I watched scowls and punches and stomps engulf the uninitiated teen—a stoppage, then an awkward transition into hugs, handshakes, and smiles. The striking contrast shot at my core of authenticity, the insincerity of the punch-hug, of the stomp-smile, murdering my thoughts of joining a crew.
How evangelicals, once culturally confident, became an anxious minority seeking political protection from the least traditionally religious president in living memory
One of the most extraordinary things about our current politics—really, one of the most extraordinary developments of recent political history—is the loyal adherence of religious conservatives to Donald Trump. The president won four-fifths of the votes of white evangelical Christians. This was a higher level of support than either Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush, an outspoken evangelical himself, ever received.
Trump’s background and beliefs could hardly be more incompatible with traditional Christian models of life and leadership. Trump’s past political stances (he once supported the right to partial-birth abortion), his character (he has bragged about sexually assaulting women), and even his language (he introduced the words pussy and shithole into presidential discourse) would more naturally lead religious conservatives toward exorcism than alliance. This is a man who has cruelly publicized his infidelities, made disturbing sexual comments about his elder daughter, and boasted about the size of his penis on the debate stage. His lawyer reportedly arranged a $130,000 payment to a porn star to dissuade her from disclosing an alleged affair. Yet religious conservatives who once blanched at PG-13 public standards now yawn at such NC-17 maneuvers. We are a long way from The Book of Virtues.
“I thought we would at least know what was going to happen to us.”
At first, Elena Remigi thought getting British citizenship would be a formality. Though she was born in Milan, she had lived in the United Kingdom for more than a decade. She owned a house, she had a car, and she even got permanent residency—an arduous process that involves filling out an 85-page application and providing a stack of documents to prove eligibility. But after Britons voted in June 2016 for the U.K. to leave the European Union, she thought the long and expensive process to get a British passport would be worth it.
It was so easy before. In much the same way an American from, say, Nebraska, could pick up and move to New York without having to go through an immigration process, let alone change citizenship, one point of the European Union was to give all European citizens the same kinds of rights to live and work anywhere in Europe. Moving from Milan to London was a lot like moving from Omaha to Ithaca. Except it’s not anymore—but nobody’s exactly sure yet what it’s supposed to be like.