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!
Emma Perrier was deceived by an older man on the internet—a hoax that turned into an unbelievable love story.
Emma Perrier spent the summer of 2015 mending a broken heart, after a recent breakup. By September, the restaurant manager had grown tired of watching The Notebook alone in her apartment in Twickenham, a leafy suburb southwest of London, and decided it was time to get back out there. Despite the horror stories she’d heard about online dating, Emma, 33, downloaded a matchmaking app called Zoosk. The second “o” in the Zoosk logo looks like a diamond engagement ring, which suggested that its 38 million members were seeking more than the one-night stands offered by apps like Tinder.
She snapped the three selfies the app required to “verify her identity.” Emma, who is from a volcanic city near the French Alps, not far from the source of Perrier mineral water, is petite, and brunette. She found it difficult to meet men, especially as she avoided pubs and nightclubs, and worked such long hours at a coffee shop in the city’s financial district that she met only stockbrokers, who were mostly looking for cappuccinos, not love.
In western Germany, populations of flying insects have fallen by around 80 percent in the last three decades.
The bottles were getting emptier: That was the first sign that something awful was happening.
Since 1989, scientists from the Entomological Society Krefeld had been collecting insects in the nature reserves and protected areas of western Germany. They set up malaise traps—large tents that funnel any incoming insect upward through a cone of fabric and into a bottle of alcohol. These traps are used by entomologists to collect specimens of local insects, for research or education. “But over the years, [the Krefeld team] realized that the bottles were getting emptier and emptier,” says Caspar Hallmann, from Radboud University.
By analyzing the Krefeld data—1,503 traps, and 27 years of work—Hallmann and his colleagues have shown that most of the flying insects in this part of Germany are flying no more. Between 1989 and 2016, the average weight of insects that were caught between May and October fell by an astonishing 77 percent. Over the same period, the weight of insects caught in the height of summer, when these creatures should be at their buzziest, fell by 82 percent.
The president relishes bellicose language and performative violence, but seldom acknowledges its human toll.
When White House of Chief of Staff—and Gold Star parent—John Kelly, on Thursday defended Donald Trump’s call to the newly widowed Myeshia Johnson, he was somber and sincere, which is refreshing. But he was wrong.
Context matters. From another person, at another time, observing that Sergeant La David Johnson “knew what he signed up for” by joining the army wouldn’t have sparked outrage. But consider what else Representative Frederica Wilson—with the backing of Johnson’s mother—has alleged: That Trump didn’t know Johnson’s name; he repeatedly called him “your guy.” And that Trump’s tone was oddly jovial: “He was almost, like, joking.”
Above all, consider what we know about the way Trump discusses pain and death. This is the man who congratulated Puerto Ricans—whose island had been utterly devastated—for losing only “16” and not “thousands of people.” The man who told a crowd in Corpus Christie on August 29, while thirty thousand Texans were displaced, “It’s going well.” And who said after touring the convention center where thousands of Houstonians were taking refuge that, “we saw a lot of happiness.”
More comfortable online than out partying, post-Millennials are safer, physically, than adolescents have ever been. But they’re on the brink of a mental-health crisis.
One day last summer, around noon, I called Athena, a 13-year-old who lives in Houston, Texas. She answered her phone—she’s had an iPhone since she was 11—sounding as if she’d just woken up. We chatted about her favorite songs and TV shows, and I asked her what she likes to do with her friends. “We go to the mall,” she said. “Do your parents drop you off?,” I asked, recalling my own middle-school days, in the 1980s, when I’d enjoy a few parent-free hours shopping with my friends. “No—I go with my family,” she replied. “We’ll go with my mom and brothers and walk a little behind them. I just have to tell my mom where we’re going. I have to check in every hour or every 30 minutes.”
Those mall trips are infrequent—about once a month. More often, Athena and her friends spend time together on their phones, unchaperoned. Unlike the teens of my generation, who might have spent an evening tying up the family landline with gossip, they talk on Snapchat, the smartphone app that allows users to send pictures and videos that quickly disappear. They make sure to keep up their Snapstreaks, which show how many days in a row they have Snapchatted with each other. Sometimes they save screenshots of particularly ridiculous pictures of friends. “It’s good blackmail,” Athena said. (Because she’s a minor, I’m not using her real name.) She told me she’d spent most of the summer hanging out alone in her room with her phone. That’s just the way her generation is, she said. “We didn’t have a choice to know any life without iPads or iPhones. I think we like our phones more than we like actual people.”
The White House chief of staff decried the desacralization of military deaths—but it was the president he serves who politicized condolence calls.
White House Chief of Staff John Kelly made some extraordinary remarks during Thursday’s White House briefing. They were extraordinary not only because Kelly seldom speaks on the record to the press and was doing so for the second time in a week, but also for the deeply personal nature of what he said—discussing the death of his son in combat, a topic he has in the past been careful to avoid. Yet Kelly’s defense of President Trump, who is embroiled in a self-inflicted crisis over his condolences for the families of fallen servicemembers, also contained the grain of a strong rebuke to the president.
Kelly began with a description of what happens when a soldier, sailor, marine, or airman or -woman is killed in battle. Then he said:
By making it harder to punish official misconduct, the justices risk damage to America's republican institutions.
For a few days earlier this month, it looked like the years-long corruption probe targeting New Jersey Senator Bob Menendez would fall apart seven weeks into his trial. At issue was the prosecution’s “stream of benefits” theory, which argues that the steady flow of donations and gifts from a wealthy Florida doctor to the Democratic senator—and the flow of favors from the senator to the doctor—amounted to quid pro quo corruption.
During a hearing last week, Judge William Walls seemed to signal that argument was dead on arrival by citing a recent Supreme Court ruling that has vexed public-corruption investigators across the country. “I frankly don’t think McDonnell will allow that,” Walls told prosecutors, referring to the decision in McDonnell v. United States that fundamentally changed the standard for bribery.
Two centuries ago, America pioneered a way of thinking that puts human well-being in economic terms.
Money and markets have been around for thousands of years. Yet as central as currency has been to so many civilizations, people in societies as different as ancient Greece, imperial China, medieval Europe, and colonial America did not measure residents’ well-being in terms of monetary earnings or economic output.
In the mid-19th century, the United States—and to a lesser extent other industrializing nations such as England and Germany—departed from this historical pattern. It was then that American businesspeople and policymakers started to measure progress in dollar amounts, tabulating social welfare based on people’s capacity to generate income. This fundamental shift, in time, transformed the way Americans appraised not only investments and businesses but also their communities, their environment, and even themselves.
The views of religiously conservative Americans no longer dominate U.S. culture or law. How will LGBT supporters engage with their perspectives on sexuality?
Among socially conservative religious leaders, the rapid shift of the cultural and legal status quo on issues of sexuality has created a palpable sense of disorientation. Some, like Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention, have argued that this is a time of clarity for Christians: It will become harder for evangelicals to blend into mass culture, and while that separation comes with costs, it may actually be a boon to the faith. Others, like the writer Rod Dreher, have suggested that conservatives may be forced into a sort of cultural withdrawal, a retreat into self-sustaining communities of people who share similar values.
In a new book, Albert Mohler, the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, offers a third way: stand up and debate, even on issues that seem to be moving toward an ever-firmer cultural consensus. In some ways, Mohler neatly fits the stereotype of an evangelical leader who has taken up a stand against queerness. He’s white, he’s male, he’s Southern; he makes no apologies for his view that homosexuality is intertwined with sin. But he could also probably ace a Women and Gender Studies seminar. (He even once wrote an essay for The Atlanticon the Cosmopolitan editor Helen Gurley Brown.) In his book, We Cannot Be Silent, he cites sociologists like Jürgen Habermas and discusses television shows like Modern Family. He explores the difference between gender and sex and transgender and intersex.
Why thousands of Christians from across the globe travel to Jerusalem each year to celebrate a Jewish holiday
JERUSALEM—The scene was like a contemporary Christian music concert, but with a lot more Jewish swag. European pilgrims wore Star of David jewelry as they swayed among the palm trees of Ein Gedi, an oasis in the Judean desert. Spanish delegates sported matching “España loves Israel” T-shirts. A tiny woman from China jogged around waving a person-sized flag bearing a Hebrew word for God, while another Chinese woman periodically blew a giant shofar, the ram’s horn that is sacred in Judaism. The crowd sang songs from the Psalms, following transliterated Hebrew on giant television screens. As night fell, their chorus of “holy, holy, worthy, worthy” seemed to fill the desert.
This was the opening ceremony for the 2017 Feast of the Tabernacles, the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem’s annual celebration held during the Jewish holiday of Sukkot. More than 6,000 Christians from all over the world had come to show their love for Israel, and I tagged along with ICEJ spokesperson David Parsons and his wife, Josepha. “It’s like a pre-celebration before Moshiach comes,” she explained, using the Hebrew word for messiah.
Americans aren’t quite as bad as the internet has led us to believe.
Former President George W. Bush’s speech this week in New York City flagged a malign force in the world: the “sustained attempt by a hostile power” to feed and exploit America’s divisions.
“According to our intelligence services, the Russian government has made a project of turning Americans against each other,” Bush said. “This effort is broad, systematic, and stealthy, it’s conducted across a range of social-media platforms.” He urged new efforts to secure the American electoral system against subversion in the digital sphere.
I agree with that prescription. But I’ve long thought that evidence of online political manipulation by Russia suggests a need for something beyond changes in policy. Internet users should change their comportment, showing more charity to competing political tribes and exhibiting less pessimism about the state of U.S. politics.