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The Groupon Election

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I open up my inbox and there's another deal-of-the-day email, promising 30% of my entire order at the store or the opportunity to win a once-in-a-lifetime dinner with a celebrity (airfare's on us!).

Two years ago, this scene would have described the barrage of daily marketing emails flooding your inbox from Groupon, the Gap or Target. Today, it's representative of the standard fare we get from the Obama and Romney campaigns.

Before 2012, there were tried and tested rules of political email. The messages mostly came as letters from the candidate or campaign manager, with a carefully worded "ask" and P.S. lines. It was traditional direct mail fundraising, brought to the Internet.

Today, campaign emails look a lot more like Groupon daily deals, and this is no coincidence. This is a function of staff -- Harper Reed, the Obama campaign's chief technology officer, came from Threadless -- and tons of data and optimization.

Campaign email in 2012 says mostly the same thing it said yesterday, and the day before, and the day before that, verging on harassment. The Romney campaign thought the market for last-minute impulse trips to the Republican convention was large enough that it's running a "Be There in Tampa" promotion almost all the way through Mitt Romney's acceptance speech. A cursory glance at Obama campaign emails over the last few weeks suggests a new title for President Obama is in order: Dinner Companion-in-Chief.

Compared to the same period four years ago, the Obama campaign is sending more than twice as many emails, and informative state-of-the-race missives from the campaign managers are practically gone. According to nycsouthpaw, where those Obama '08 emails had "data, strategy, and an air of knowingness," Obama 2012 emails are "hectoring, manipulative, full of angst, and there are just way more of them." A selection of subject lines: "SO COOL," "Up late" and my personal favorite: "(No subject)."

There is a simple reason for all of this: Because it works.

The Obama campaign does nothing if not a ton of testing. Reporters who have signed up with dozens of individual accounts report that the Obama campaign will test numerous subject lines in the first few minutes of an email send, until they settle on one version for the rest of the list. A culture of analytics is embedded through and through in Chicago, in every department from digital to field, and the campaign even has a Chief Scientist.

When you run your campaign based on data, the email that you in your gut as a digital strategist want to send is often sidelined in favor of the email with the broadest appeal, the one that beams a signal straight to the amygdala, screaming "Open me!" Another theme of winning campaign emails is flat-out fear -- "We're getting outspent!" or "You might miss out!" This draws from the lessons of behavioral science, where studies have long shown that people fear a potential loss more deeply than they appreciate a gain of the same magnitude.

As a result of iterative testing (and in some cases, shameless copying), we are seeing campaign digital departments being run more and more like marketing departments for major brands, where all that matters is the bottom line revenue number. The tools one uses to drive that number look remarkably similar: graphics promoting flash sales at the campaign store, sweepstakes, and urgent deadlines.

As the Internet is enabling politics to borrow from brand marketing more easily, so too is business learning from politics. Long before the campaigns learned the optimization tricks of Madison Avenue, many were nonetheless able to run strong, well-funded campaigns on the backs of small contributors giving $10 and $50 at a time (the Obama 2008 campaign and the Scott Brown's 2010 upset campaign stand out as examples). These donors were not motivated by the deal of the day, but by a sense of purpose and a belief in the substance of the candidate's message.

Businesses of all sizes are learning the power of revenue models that replicate the small donor mindset of grassroots campaigns. Chick-fil-A's biggest grossing day grew out of a Facebook event urging everyone to visit its stores on August 1. Groupon itself was initially a website for political action. Though Andrew Mason's company later adopted a different model, the concept of a deal "tipping" if enough people signed on is drawn straight from political and nonprofit campaigns, where Howard Dean's 2004 campaign collected pledges that would be charged only if a majority of supporters voted to opt out of the public financing system.

We see this same model of revenue tied to collective action at work in other platforms like Kickstarter, which only charge your credit card if a project is successfully funded. And through crowdfunding, entire companies can be funded through a quasi-political campaign to get enough "supporters" to sign on.

The convergence of marketing and politics can do good things for both business and politics, but it's unlikely that, taking the long view, the current batch of campaign emails will be seen as shining moments in digital democracy. And long-term success is more than good subject lines. After all, these tactics helped Groupon through a period of hypergrowth -- but its stock price lately tells a different story.