I recently heard Thomas Gensemer, Managing Partner of Blue State Digital, speak at a breakfast at the Harvard Club sponsored by Quantum Media. BSD managed Obama’s online fundraising and volunteer efforts. During the off-the-record talk Gensemer repeated what he’s said in interviews, but been mostly ignored, that when it comes to raising money on the web “email is still the killer app.”
Although he didn’t address it specifically in his talk, social networking, including Facebook’s vaunted “Causes”, has been a disapointment.
In an online interview Gensemer explained the real key to Obama’s success: “For all the talk of social networking, blogs, and mobile applications, email is still the ‘killer app’. Our email list of 13.5 million individual email subscribers was the backbone of the campaign… This is not a story about technology; this is not a story about Facebook or Twitter. This is about dynamic, personalized, two-way relationship via email.”
While the perception has been that social networking is what fueled the grassroots campaign, Obama’s online success was, in reality, made possible by brilliantly executed email campaigns. 13 million email subscribers were kept informed and activated on a daily basis, leading to $500 million in donations and 200,000 hosted events, not to mention the election victories.
What was really different about Obama’s online communications was the way the video and email messaging treated subscribers with dignity and intelligence. The lesson is that in today’s digital environment, growing and cultivating an audience through email – or even direct mail, for that matter – requires marketers to think less like advertisers and more like publishers. And to the extent that social networking is of value to both non-profits and online publications, it’s to attract visitors so they can be converted into email subscribers. Until that is understood, social networking will continue to be over-hyped and misunderstood.