Hey! Innovation

by Scott Bowden

Hey! InnovationWhen we reach out to our colleagues seeking their involvement in an innovation initiative, innovation practitioners typically do not put much thought into how to craft the invitation.  Whether we are seeking participants for an open innovation effort such as a Jam session, or are bringing a specific set of individuals into a workshop setting, we usually spend most of our time thinking about the actual innovation event rather than the wording of the notifications to potential participants.

A recent article on Bloomberg.com suggests that we might want to pay more attention to our email invitations.  In “Obama Campaign’s Chummy E-Mails Reveal Science in Fundraising,” Joshua Green provides some interesting perspective on the power of language in email solicitations by articulating the strategies used by the Obama 2012 campaign team in their highly successful email fundraising efforts.  Since fundraising is one of the most challenging endeavors for email communications (asking for money is even more difficult than sales because the donor does not receive a product in return for the payment), we as innovation practitioners can benefit from the insights gleaned from the Obama 2012 team.

The Obama 2012 campaign raised an astounding $690 million online, and much of that was the result of direct email solicitations to targeted campaign supporters.  While campaign fundraising by targeted email is by no means innovative, what is interesting about the Obama 2012 campaign is the scientific approach the team took in crafting what has perhaps become the most important aspect of a solicitation in this short attention-span world of constant digital communications is the email subject line.   According to Amelia Showalter, the campaign’s director of digital analytics, the email team used extensive “A-B” testing of their messaging to ensure they had the message crafted just right before they blasted out electronic communications to their huge donor list.

The team found that the messages that struck a casual tone were the most profitable for the campaign.  As campaign email director Toby Fallsgraff notes, “[t]he subject lines that worked best were things that you might see in your in-box from other people [… and] ‘Hey’ was probably the best one we had over the duration.”  Some other effective subject lines included “Join me for dinner[,]” “It’s officially over,” “It doesn’t have to be this way,” and “Wow.”  Fallsgraff also mentions another simple yet poignant subject line, “I will be outspent,” as particularly effective in fundraising.

Showalter also notes that aesthetically ugly messaging body text, such as large fonts for links and yellow highlighting on key text, proved effective at capturing the reader’s eye.  Variety was important as well, for an approach that worked once had a fleeting utility requiring creative new approaches and testing for the next missive.  Interestingly, Showalter notes, the team often placed bets on their different A-B scenarios and were stunned by how often they were wrong about which approach would obtain the best results.  One sign that this more colloquial approach to email subject lines is working is the prevalence of such lines in spam email, making it harder to differentiate an email from a friend from that of a spammer.

For the innovation practitioner, the more casual approach to soliciting participation in an innovation effort could bear fruit.  For instance, we traditionally would send a formal invitation to innovation workshop participants that covers the topic of the meeting, accompanied by detailed text with logistics for the meeting as well as topics and prep work.  Instead of this approach, we should consider sending a notification as if we were engaging with friends to work on an effort that could even be viewed as “fun.”  We chuckle at the notion that we would be invited to an innovation meeting by a manager with the directive along with a set timeframe (“be innovative between 4 and 5PM today in the windowless conference room 104”).

A better approach might be to write “Hey! We’ve got a problem to solve” followed by striking, non-intuitive text providing some details about the problem but still leaving some of the details to the imagination of the reader.  The same philosophy could be applied to a broader invitation across the company to solicit participation in an open innovation virtual session.  More colloquial communications, while still respecting basic corporate propriety, could result in more engaged participation from colleagues.

Either way, innovation should take heed of the lesson from the Obama 2012 campaign email team and focus on the importance of the email subject line, and content, and the need to test and retest to maintain positive results.

Source: Joshua Green, “Obama Campaign’s Chummy E-Mails Reveal Science in Fundraising,” Bloomberg.com (November 29, 2012).

image credit: thedigitalyogi.com

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Scott BowdenScott Bowden works on Innovation Programs for IBM Global Services.

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