A few days ago, a leading software company sent me one of their regular marketing emails. This missive is full of information about them: news about their latest triumphs, a message from the company, new product features, support information and so on, interspersed with a few special discounts and items for sale. After a quick glance to look for deals that interested me, I deleted the email and moved on. As I surveyed my overflowing email Inbox, I briefly wondered whether to unsubscribe from their mailing list; perhaps next time.
This got me thinking. Like most other Americans, I now suffer from "E-newsletter fatigue". Email marketing has come a long way since Marketing guru Seth Godin first popularized it circa 1999 in a landmark book, Permission Marketing , and is far from dead, even in the face of competing new technologies like blogs and RSS feeds. Today, the MarCom department of practically every reasonable-sized business spends a significant amount of effort churning out these electronic messages, most of which are virtually indistinguishable from those of their competitors.
Perhaps the time has come to take Email Marketing to the next level!
Engaging the Reader
Ideally, a multi-email campaign is like a good blog; each communication must engage the reader. There is no reason the reader has to read your email, any more than there's a reason that the reader must read a blog post; you must attract readers with interesting and valuable content.
A good example of engaging users, albeit in the offline world, is the Trader Joe's newsletter that shows up regularly in mailboxes around the country. Although hardly cutting-edge technology, the printed version is quite entertaining - it's full of fun facts, bits of history, useful recipes and nutrition information, and of course, references to Trader Joe's offerings. The online version is authored in the same vein: the example below highlights a single product in a fun and interesting way, and provides some additional tidbits that change the whole tone far away from "hard sell".
Another example is the Hitwise Intelligence blog, which comments on interesting meta-trends observed in Hitwise data - such as whether the McCain web site appeals to Independents, or if Heely's are making a comeback. The media, industry observers and customers watch these reports closely and then immediately start discussing them, in public forums, conferences, blogs and around the water cooler.
Of course, trend data is Hitwise's business. But anyone can do the same thing. You can highlight information and trends of customer interest, from data that you already have. What are the latest trends in Spring fashion? Is the rising price of gas going to affect the cost of groceries? If you're a grocery chain, how do you plan to react and help keep prices down?
Or you can provide useful information that, even if it doesn't directly sell your product, helps your customers and users. But it has to be specialized information, that only you can provide; for example, informing readers that daylight-savings time starts this weekend is useful, but not particularly compelling.
If your Marketing emails are full of the cool new features you've recently implemented in your product or awards won by your company, then that's only mildly interesting to readers. For most products, only a small fraction of customers care about all the bells and whistles anyway. Let's take Microsoft Office - assuming that you use it, do you know all its features? Do you even care? What about the "advanced" features of your TV?
Most progressive companies have recognized the significance of blog marketing, which sets a new, higher standard for engaging customers in a two-way conversation. This new standard applies equally well to Email Marketing - only the transport mechanism is different. Similar to a blog, most readers will tolerate some level of self-promotion (yes, "special discounts" count as self-promotion) and even some off-topic content; but overall, the signal-to-noise ratio must be very high from the perspective of the reader, not the email sender.
The reality is that most readers are perusing the email thinking - How does this help me? What can I get out of this?
So imagine the mother of three, logging in for ten minutes early in the morning, before the kids wake up; the hotshot lawyer checking her emails between appointments; the harried Executive at his son's baseball game; the teenager checking his mobile phone on-the-go; or whatever your target demographic is. In the 5 seconds that it takes the reader to scan your email: is your content compelling enough to make them want to remember it, to go back and learn more when they do have time, when they get back to the office or at home?
To take it one step further, is it an email that they're eagerly waiting for? Why not?