Three years ago, 8 Chicagoans launched a Kickstarter attempting to fund “a party game for horrible people” called Cards Against Humanity. They’d earned a bit of a cult following online and wanted to see if they could do something more. They asked for $4,000, got $15,000, and before long, found themselves occupying spots #1-4 on Amazon’s top-selling “toys & games” list. Not bad for a card game that Max says started as “a dumb thing in our parents’ basements.”
Email has been essential to CAH since the early days, when the game was just a downloadable PDF. Much like his irreverent creation, Max’s take on email marketing is slightly left of center. “Sending an email is one of the worst things you can do to a person,” he says. “You are stealing a little part of their life away. 99.99% of all emails are incredibly annoying and a huge imposition. If your job is to write emails, you should always be fighting to send fewer things and make sure each email you send is so incredible that it’s a rare treat to hear from you.”
That’s not just talk, either. CAH’s emails are a delight. They’ve only sent 15 of them in 3 years, and humor is a driving force in each one. For the recent announcement of their fourth expansion pack, Max borrowed his content from a famous movie to hilarious and perhaps somewhat confusing results. ”We only send emails when we have something new to tell people, never more than one every few months,” Max says. “Every email rewards people for giving us their time and attention—we give them something new, something free, something funny, etc. Another thing we think about it is that we try to make every email actionable. There’s a new thing you can do having read it that you couldn’t have done with a previous email.”
Humor as a value, respect as a necessity
Max says email lets him and his co-workers be themselves, which is crucial to their core values. Values, as it turns out, are much more important to the CAH team than strategy or tactics or even necessarily knowing what they’re doing. ”We’ve taken great pains to keep Cards Against Humanity an independent project,” Max says. “We like that nobody can tell us what jokes we can or can’t make, and we love the very personal relationship we have with our audience. Communicating primarily through emails helps maintain that connection. This is why we work hard to write informal emails and continue to use the humble email address, firstname.lastname@example.org.”
In addition to only sending when they have something important to say, Max says the CAH team makes sure their email content is exclusive (“We don’t simultaneously announce things on Twitter. That’s their reward for signing up”), and they work extremely hard on that content (“We never repeat ourselves, and we try to be funny and to the point”).
‘Tis the season
Last year, CAH pulled off a pretty wild holiday promotion that led to them donating $70K to Wikipedia. “Our crazy holiday thing from last year was a huge hit,” Max says of what he calls “a lucky break,” though they did go in with aspirations. “We wanted to do something unorthodox to get some attention around the holidays, but we knew it was going to be really tough to remind people we even existed with all the noise of the holiday marketing happening.”
This year, they were at it again. Max says they knew they wanted to do “something even bigger and dumber,” and the result was nothing if not ambitious. They offered up 100,000 holiday packs, each containing 12 days of holiday mystery gifts—one per day—for $12. They offered them up with their usual sense of humor, of course. The subject line was “This year’s holiday bullshit,” and the opening line of the email was “The holiday season is upon us, and it’s time for us to do a crazy stunt in a desperate bid for your attention and money.”
Max says the team worked on the gifts and logistics for about 5 months, trying to get everything just right for that pivotal email. It’s the most wonderful time of the year, after all.
“Cards Against Humanity is at its strongest when we can point to hypocrisies and absurdities in the culture around us, while obviously also being part of that culture,” he says. “The holidays are an especially absurd time of the year, so we’re really in our element when we can participate in them but also make fun of them and play on people’s expectations.”
(On a non-email holiday note, the results of CAH’s wonderfully counterintuitive Black Friday “sale” are worth reading.)
It’s hard to argue with CAH’s results. They’ve currently got around 350,000 people on their list, and their open rate regularly lands in the 60-75% range. Those 100,000 holiday packs? They sold them in less than 7 hours. They pass on that success, too. Their latest project, Tabletop Death Match, pits 16 enterprising game makers against each other. The winner, which will be decided by a panel of expert judges, will get its first printing fully funded by Cards Against Humanity, plus a booth at Gen Con 2014, a tabletop game convention. It’s a little way for the CAH to contribute something to their scene, and fits quite nicely with those values Max mentioned in his XOXO talk earlier this year: ”Knowing what you’re doing is not nearly as important as knowing what you believe in and what your values are, and understanding how to translate that into the decisions that you’re making.”