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Obama’s site is performing a test on you

Are you in?

Barack Obama’s re-election campaign is using an interesting strategy to get people to sign up for their mailing list. Right now, half the people who visit www.barackobama.com for the first time see a box asking for their e-mail address, next to a photo of Obama. The other half see an identical page, without the photo. (I discovered this by accident and checked it out in a browser with cookies turned off.) Here are screen grabs of the two versions of the home page:

People familiar with online marketing can guess what’s going on here. It’s an A/B test (also called a split test). The Obama campaign will count how many e-mail addresses they get from each version of the page, then switch to the version that has the highest conversion rate. Then they’ll launch another test against that one.

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The Obama campaign used similar tests during the 2007-2008 campaign. One of the tests is explained in detail in a fascinating blog post by Dan Siroker, who was the director of analytics for the Obama campaign at that time and is now the CEO of Optimizely.

The Obama campaign’s 2007 splash page included both an image and a call-to-action button, like this:

The campaign set up a test with 24 different combinations. There were 6 kinds of media—3 photos and 3 videos. And there were 4 different buttons—SIGN UP, LEARN MORE, JOIN US NOW, SIGN UP NOW. The Obama campaign unleashed the test on everyone who visited the site, until each possible combination was seen by about 13,000 people. This is called a multivariate test (or multi-variable test).

The results: The campaign determined that LEARN MORE outperformed all the other buttons, that every photo outperformed every video, and that the best-performing photo was one showing the Obama family. So this version won the test:

Siroker’s post says the unoptimized version of the Obama page had a sign-up rate of 8.26%. The version after the test optimization had a sign-up rate of 11.6%. He figures this 40.6% improvement in e-mail sign-up rates led to an additional $60 million in donations to the Obama campaign.

Crazy as it sounds, the 2012 election could be decided by who makes the best use of website optimization.

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It might seem strange for the President to be using everyone who visits his reelection site as unwitting test subjects. But there’s nothing shady about this. Split testing is older than the Internet, and at least as old as direct mail. It’s a standard practice in marketing (we do it at the company where I work), and it’s probably used by political candidates of all parties.

From the look of the current www.barackobama.com site, the site designers have taken the lessons of 2007-2008 and combined them with current trends in interactive design. The site opens with a simple, static form, rather than a busy page or complicated multimedia elements.

From a copywriting point of view, the new call-to-action is impressive. Rather than saying LEARN MORE, the page asks an unresolved question (ARE YOU IN?) and then gives the user a chance to resolve it (I’M IN!).

It will be interesting to see which version they ultimately go with—the one with Obama’s photo, the one with no picture, or some other variation entirely.

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Bonus: The 2007-2008 Obama campaign became famous in typographic circles for using the Gotham font so effectively on campaign materials. This year the campaign actually commissioned a custom version of the font from Hoefler & Frere-Jones: Gotham Serif.

— By Daryl Lang. Filed under Politics, Technology

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