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Five political emails that look nothing like political emails

As someone who works in digital public affairs, I paid close attention to the emails that were sent out by the Obama campaign during the 2008 and 2012 election cycles and am now closely watching what is being sent out by  Organizing for Action.  The reason I’m paying attention is simple: the Obama folks know what works.  Years of research is behind every email that gets sent.

Since the election, emails from Organizing for America seem to have followed two general templates:

  1. Emails sent from individuals (Barack Obama, Michele Obama, David Axelrod, Lindsay Siler, etc.) are almost always text-based and extremely simple in their design.  Images are rarely included.  Very straightforward formatting.  They are made to look like the emails you receive from your friends and family.  You can see an example here
  2. In contrast, emails sent generically from Organizing for Action are extremely visual and viral in nature.  They include pop culture references, infographics and animated gifs, and usually only minimal text.  You can view examples of these types of emails below.

I’ve been particularly interested in the increased frequency and complexity of the visual-based emails.  They have much more in common with product marketing emails than traditional political ones.  I think the rise of these emails is a good indication of how competitive the battle for email opens and clicks has become. 

When you send an advocacy email today you are fighting for attention.  You aren’t just competing against the opposing political party or issue group.  Your are fighting companies like Groupon, Amazon and Gilt for the attention of your supporters. 

In the case of Organizing for Action they are also fighting fatigue.  Many have been on the Obama email list for six or seven years and have gotten thousands of email from the various versions of the campaign.  Even is they don’t subscribe, you have to think many are tuning out the emails. 

The increasingly visual and share-hungry emails sent out by Organizing for Action are an attempt to win this battle for attention.  They can’t just inform, they have to entertain a bit too.

Having gotten through the throat clearing, here are five examples of visual and viral emails sent by Organizing for Action the last few months.  Click on the title or image to see the full email.

1. Fist Bump

Not a lot of explanation required here.  This simple, e-card style email was sent out as part of a list building campaign around the President’s birthday.



2. Infographic Email

This infographic email was sent out by Organizing for Action to celebrate their one year anniversary.  The 2012 Obama campaign has used this style a few times.  I love it. 



3. Cats

As a way of connecting the Affordable Care Act with Valentine’s Day, Organizing for Action sent out an email asking friends to share kitten photos with their Facebook friends that include health care-related messages.  The actual email template is actually pretty text-based, but I included this one due to the clear attempt to leverage the Internet’s love of cats for political gain.



4. Breakfast Club Gif

In-mid February Organizing for Action sent out an email asking visitors to take a pledge that they will help spread the word about the March 31 health care coverage deadline.  If you took the pledge, you are automatically entered into a contest that would give you the chance to meet president Obama.   Organizing for Action sent out this email featuring the Breakfast Club gif below.  The email is about a contest deadline, so, presumably, the animated gif is telling you to stop what you are doing right away and enter.


5. Prince Animated Gif Email

As a way of promoting the same contest as the Breakfast Club gif, this email included not one, but two, animated gifs of Prince presumably judging you for not having taken the pledge yet.  I actually felt a bit tricked here, as upon receiving the email I had assumed President Obama and Prince would be doing some sort of joint appearance.


Why to people share?

Explaining the Upworthy Phenomenon with Science

The last few months I’ve been a bit stumped by how popular Upworthy has become.  The site attracted 90,000,000 unique visitors in November 2013, which seems completely crazy to me.

I get that the site is really good at writing headlines that beg to be clicked and shared.  I’ve clicked on a lot of them.  The problem is that 90% of the time the best part of the story is the headline.  The actual content is usually disappointing.

This purse isn’t the “single greatest gift for a woman.”  This isn’t “the greatest anti-smoking video on the Internet.”  Neither is this. And I’m all for marriage equality, but this ad isn’t one of the greatest love stories I’ve ever seen.

For me at least, Upworthy fails to deliver on what it promises.  As a result I basically tolerate it at this point.  The headlines show up in my feed, but I rarely click and never share or like Upworthy content.  I’ve been burned too many times.  I would just block it altogether, but reading Upworthy headlines is like taking a Master class in click baiting.

I’m clearly in the minority though.  While the site has experienced some traffic loss recently, it is still doing quite well and its content is shared at a much higher rate than any other publisher.

I recently came across a New York Times study, The Psychology of Sharing, that went a long way towards explaining Upworthy to me.  The whole study is worth reviewing, but I found these stats on why people share particularly relevant:

  • 68% share to give people a better sense of who they are and what they care about.
  • 84% share because it is a way to support causes or issues they care about.
  • 73% share information because it helps them connect with others who share their interests.
  • 69% share information because it allows them to feel more involved in the world.

If you look at a typical Upworthy headline you will see it checks off nearly all of these boxes.  Take this headline from today, “Dear Advertisers: Please Stop Portraying Women Like This In Adverts. Regards, Women.”  By sharing this headline, I am:

  • Saying I’m the type of person that doesn’t approve of the way advertisers portray women.
  • Showing my support for equality for women.
  • Connecting with others who support equality for women.
  • Engaging in a dialogue and feeling connected to the world.

That’s a lot to accomplish in just a few clicks.  The fact that the video isn’t that interesting or funny really doesn’t matter.

I think the other thing that is brilliant about Upworthy is that there usually isn’t any downside to sharing their content.  While there are exceptions, Upworthy allows you to take stands on topics that generally aren’t actually controversial.  By sharing the above article,  I am taking an extremely non-controversial stand (women shouldn’t be portrayed as morons in ads!) against a nameless, faceless entity no one is going to defend (advertisers).

I’m being political without the nasty business of actually getting into politics.  It is like taking a stand against cancer.

For Upworthy the message sent by the content is so great that it doesn’t matter that the content itself rarely is.


NBCNEWS.com Succumbs to the Grid

When the Mashable site was redesigned into the now familiar grid layout, I wrote a blog post bellyaching about the infinite scroll, various usability issues and somehow Jakob Nielsen. I’m still not a big fan of the grid approach to website design because it’s not design, it’s the process of dumping content into boxes that descend like fish food over time to the bottom of the page and I find that solution lacking creativity. Mashable does the grid better than most because they follow basic principles of usability and the content is presented with as much care as possible given the constraints of the layout. There is actual white space between content blocks and the text is always readable in its low contrast, smart presentation. It may not be a web designer’s favorite arrangement but it works serviceably and I never rolled back my enthusiasm for the site content when they made this switch.

NBCNEWS.com has made incremental design improvements over the last few years but hasn’t committed to a redesign for as long as I can remember. A full redesign is in place now and it’s a hefty one.

The grid is in place and the usability is out the window. As much as none of us liked that last sentence, we are appreciating this new homepage even less. The good news is the infinite scroll that some users (Me. I’m talking about me.) disliked is not part of this redesign. Also not part of this redesign unfortunately is any white space between stories, ads or my gigantic personalized weather. The only break my eye gets is where the TODAY show promo is involved (tagline: Rise To Shine. Someone wrote that). The content and in particular the photography on the site is more often than not compelling but lost in a sea of cropped boxes, garish contrasts and text overlays. The site feels as though it belongs on a bigger canvas. With some room to spread out the content would get the presentation it deserved.


Where Mashable pays close attention to readability, contrast, fonts, eye-strain and the basics of the user experience NBCNEWS came up with this slap in the puss…


When a user clicks through to the article, things ease up of course, but in a lumbering, unfinished manner. The sub level pages look like a beta launch to me. The text is laid out in a lifeless manner. The call-outs are unpolished. The sidebar ads are sized/placed clumsily.


Navigation on NBCNEWS.com is plentiful. A click on the menu icon opens a nearly full screen of options which is weird but understandable given what they’re trying to accomplish here. The fact that the options look almost identical is a problem for me. Sections, Top Storylines, Featured News, local options are all treated the same and could use some variation.


I’m a firm believer in the iterative design process and I have no doubt that the team behind this redesign will be making adjustments as they go to improve usability. However, like I apparently did at our Christmas party last year, the grid layout is likely going to overstay its welcome if it hasn’t already and for web designers that’s not great news.


10 Tools We Can’t Live Without

Like a lot of companies, the way our Brick Factory team works has changed dramatically the last few years.   We have moved away from buying traditional software to using web-tools hosted in the cloud. In some cases we have moved from traditional software (such as Microsoft Office) to web-based tools (such as Google Apps).  In other cases we have started using online tools we weren’t even really aware we needed (Browserstack, Mockvault).

In the spirit of sharing what we’ve learned, below are ten tools we use every day to do our work.

Google Apps

Every since we started Brick Factory our company-wide email and calendar system has been powered by Google Apps.  Over the last year Google Docs and Sheets have become our word processing and spreadsheet programs of choice due to the ease of collaboration and integration with our Google accounts.  As a company with a distributed workforce, we use Google Hangouts every day for our team meetings.

Google Apps is an essential part of everything we do.


Basecamp is our primary project management tool at the Brick Factory.  We use it to manage projects internally and to share resources and collaborate with our clients.

We sort have a love/hate relationship with Basecamp.  It’s greatest strength (it’s simplicity) is also its greatest drawback (it’s too simple).  Our team at the Brick Factory consists of 20 designers, developers and strategists.  Given our diverse skill sets and personalities, it is pretty much impossible to find a project management tool that is going to thrill everyone.  Basecamp comes the closest.


As a way of filling in some of the functionality holes in Basecamp, we recently started using Workstack.  Workstack is workflow management tool that allows you to view the Basecamp To Dos for each of your co-workers on a single calendar.  It makes resource management and internal scheduling much easier, saving us time.


Planbox is an agile project management tool we’ve started using on some of our larger development projects in lieu of Basecamp.   It is a bit cumbersome for managing our smaller projects, but is great for our larger builds where we follow a more formal project management process.  If you are using agile, we would recommend giving Planbox a try.


The rise of mobile and tablets and the proliferation of browsers has made testing websites a huge pain.  Browserstack makes it easier for web developers to test the sites they are building in different browsers running on different operating systems.


Mockvault is a nifty tool that allows you to present your design comps in browser, track revisions and collect feedback.  We started using it around a year ago and love it.


UXPin is an easy-to-use tool that allows anyway to create good, professional wireframes.  Our UX and design team doesn’t use UXPin for wires, but our Strategists use it to put together quick prototypes for internal and/or client review.


For a long time we used a custom system to track our time.  At the beginning of 2012 we started using Harvest for timesheets and haven’t looked back.  It is user friendly and includes powerful reporting tools.  We looked at every time tracking solution under the sun and Harvest is by far the best for our needs.


We recently started using Pipedrive as our company CRM.  We use it to track our new business efforts and to manage our contacts. We used Highrise for years and never loved it – it didn’t fit into our workflow and was inflexible.  We then tracked everything in Google Docs for a time as well.  We started using Pipedrive a few months ago and I love it.  It is perfect for us – it has the features we need while also being extremely easy-to-use.


When you work at web development firm, managing your online passwords is a huge pain.  You literally have hundreds of passwords to track and keep updated.  Passpack is a secure way to organize and share passwords among teams.  I would guess using Passpack saves our IT team a few hours a week that would be spent helping people track passwords down.

Do you have a favorite tool we should check out?

Front-End Developer at Brick Factory

The Brick Factory is looking for a front-end developer to take the lead on implementing innovative, effective websites and web solutions for our clients. We work with non-profits, trade associations, advocacy groups and brands, so there will be good variety in the work you do. Many of your projects will be major builds that you will oversee starting with the kick-off meeting, so you’ll develop a deep knowledge of each project and become our resident expert on your builds.

The Big Picture:

  • Lead front-end development efforts on large web-based projects.
  • Collaborate with our team of designers, project managers and back-end engineers to create project plans and to set realistic implementation schedules.
  • Communicate effectively with project teams, and self-manage your time to make sure the work gets done well and on schedule.
  • Think outside the box to help improve processes, implement new technologies, and develop innovative solutions for our clients.

The Details:

  • Convert design and user interface files into working websites; troubleshoot and support existing implementations.
  • Construct responsive and mobile-focused themes for Drupal and WordPress.
  • Configure modules; content types and views; roles and permissions; navigation, menus, taxonomy; actions and workflows.
  • Execute build tasks with high attention to detail: client specs, validation, and load times.
  • Test cross-browser, cross-platform, and/or cross-device compatibility for inconsistencies.
  • Maintain high execution standards: write clean, maintainable code; actively participate in code reviews; maintain documentation; maintain QA process.

What you bring to the table:

  • You’re fun and easy to work with.
  • You’re a problem solver. You would rather figure out the best solution than be told how to do it.
  • You’re organized. You can manage multiple projects with an eye on project specs, quality and schedule.
  • You have a deep knowledge of CSS and HTML with 4+ years of experience.
  • You also know your way around Javascript and JQuery.
  • You’ve gotten your hands dirty with CSS frameworks such as Foundation or Bootstrap.
  • You have some experience with responsive design.
  • It would be great if you also:
    • Have a basic knowledge of Drupal and WordPress.
    • Have worked with CSS preprocessors like SASS.
    • Have worked with version-control systems like SVN or Git.
    • Have a good sense of UX/UI.
    • Have a basic understanding of PHP.

What we’ll bring to the table:

  • A great small-team environment, with plenty of opportunity to lead and learn.
  • A metro accessible office in downtown Washington, DC, if you’re in the neighborhood. We’re also open to telecommuting for the right candidate.
  • A full-time position with a competitive salary.
  • Budget for training and attending conferences.
  • Generous vacation/personal time.
  • We’re an Equal Opportunity Employer
  • Additional perks and benefits

Sound interesting? Take a look around our website, blog, Facebook and Twitter.

If you think we’d be a good fit please send a resume and cover letter to prodjobs at thebrickfactory . com. The cover letter is required. We realize that it’s not fun to write, but it helps us get to know you.