Attentional Bias: Send more emails

The 2012 reelection campaign of Barack Obama rewrote the rules on email fundraising and launched many a marketer thinking about A/B testing, highlighting important stuff and intriguing subject lines (remember “Hey”?). But the most interesting learning came from Dela Quist on the AlchemyWorx blog:

While relevance, engagement, creative, subject lines, testing and targeting all played a part in Obama’s success, they pale into insignificance when compared to the impact of reach, frequency and list size.

Quist took a deep, analytical look at the use of frequency in Obama’s campaign and found the same thing our testing has shown time and again: Send more, raise more.

This works because of something called attentional bias, the tendency for our perceptions to be affected by recurring thoughts. For example, if you’re in the market for, say, a food processor, and in your search you see Brand A 20 times and Brand B 5 times, you’ll be more likely to purchase Brand A. Oh, and you won’t even consider Brand X because you haven’t seen it yet.

The data show that this worked for the Obama campaign. The more frequently they emailed the more donations they received, meaning frequency had the most impact on revenue.


There are three important considerations for increasing your email frequency:

  1. Open Rates Will Decrease
    It’s important to note that as you increase the frequency of your sends you will see a decrease in your overall open rate. In the Obama campaign there was a 15% drop in open rate as frequency increased. If their strategy had been to get more opens they would likely have mailed less, resulting in less revenue.This is why it’s important to focus on open reach instead of open rates. This measurement gives you a more accurate picture of how your entire file is responding to your overall marketing communication, instead of looking at a single offer in a vacuum.
  2. Everyone Will Unsubscribe
    There is a concern that if you mail more frequently your unsubscribe rate will go through the roof and you’ll lose valuable donors. While this is a valid concern, in my experience the unsubscribe rate barely budges with an increase in frequency. In fact, emailing too infrequently may actually have more of a detrimental effect on subscribers because your organization is no longer top of mind — they may have even forgotten they signed up for your messages.As I’ve written before (Embrace the Unsubscribe) Unsubscribes are primarily a gauge of relevance. If your message is irrelevant to the recipient they are more likely to unsubscribe. So long as you’re creating highly relevant content your Unsubscribes should be mostly those who have already lost interest in your mission.
  3. Our Donors Get Too Much Email
    The most common concern about increasing email frequency is that your subscribers will feel like they get “too much mail” from you. This is where the attentional bias becomes most important. In the grand scheme of things sending fewer emails to your donors won’t really make a dent in their information overload. In fact, the main thing it will do is get your message in front of your donors less often, ensuring that your organization gets less of their attention.

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If you want to start driving more revenue from your email campaigns, consider increasing the number of emails you send. HubSpot did some analysis showing that the sweet spot for frequency is between 16 and 30 emails a month. That might seem like a lot if you’re only sending two to three a month right now. So start small. Test one additional email a month and watch your metrics. I bet you’ll see your revenue go up.

If you want to chat more about the fascinating ways cognitive biases can improve your fundraising, contact me at