All About Email - The Last Word in Email Publishing

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Email holds the key

Knowledge, they say, is power. Right now in NZ we may well be experiencing a slight variation on that theme – knowledge leads to power.

I am referring to the widespread knowledge of National Party policy, and specifically the activities of its leader in the run up to the election – spread by his quite savvy daily campaign email newsletter; undeniably it is an effective tool in spreading his message, keeping his supporters informed and enfranchising marginals; it may well lead him to power.

Interestingly, the Labour party, who have been promising an email newsletter for several years, do not appear to be delivering. Also interestingly, they appear to be about to relinquish power.

You can parallel this quite closely to business, and this is of direct relevance in these difficult times. The businesses who will endure and prosper are the ones who take the time and trouble to inform and enfranchise their customers – those who fail will overlook the importance of this.

A good, well strategised and managed email campaign, right now, is likely the most cost efficient and effective way of achieving this.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Report as Spam

One thing all email marketers fear is being reported as spammers - especially to the major networks - gmail, yahoo etc. This can happen for no other reason than your properly subscribed recipient is having a bad day - they click report as spam, and there you are, on the spammers register. This can have seriously adverse effects on your recipient rate.

You go to enormous length to build a reputation as a trusted sender and it is gone just like that. Unfair, isn't it.

I saw a unique and rather funny solution to this today - I am not sure that I approve, but it's worth sharing. I received an email newsletter from xyz company - the sender being very prominently displayed in the banner was a report as spam button - which generated an email to saying I think this newsletter I have just received is spam.

Presumably, xyz company simply unsubscribed anyone who did this - having circumvented the possibility of being reported to an ISP, and got on with their business.

I wonder if it will catch on!

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The promise premise

I rang Sky TV the other day. I wanted to upgrade to their new MySky service. Sure, they said. We'll be round on Wednesday.

How exciting. Wednesday was perfect. It meant I could watch John Deed and record Ashes to Ashes. sadly they came on Thursday. I was so upset I told them not to bother.I guess what I am saying is, if someone makes a promise, then keeping that promise is as, if not more significant, than the actual substance of the promise.

There is an email parallel. When you sign up for marketing emails or newsletters, you will (you should) receive a welcome message which tells you what to expect in terms of service as a subscriber. Frequency, volume and subject matter should all be covered.

That is their promise to you, and if they fail to keep it, you might well unsubscribe. Emails received too often, or not often enough. Too many, or too few. Content which fails to live up to your expectation.

Using email to communicate with customers or stakeholders needs holistic planning.Work out what you have to say. Plan when and how to tell them. Tell them what, and when you are going to tell them. Then tell them. And they will be happy!

Monday, August 25, 2008

Absence makes the memory weaker

Let’s assume you use email as a marketing / communications tool for a reason - a good one that is – to engage your stakeholders in meaningful dialogue, and, from time to time, to call them to action.

One thing that is sure to diminish your ability to do this, in this oh-so-crowded email marketplace, is irregular communication with unpredictable gaps between missives.

I received an email recently from a company from whom I had not heard in a year. It took me a while to remember who they were and why I had subscribed in the first place. Sadly for them, I realised more quickly that they were not holding my attention, and unsubscribed.

Regular contact (allowing of course for high value and personalised content) enables you to build dialogue – which makes people less likely to disengage from it. It allows you to build anticipation from one communication to the next.

So it keeps your audience active, enthusiastic, and subscribed. As mentioned, you need to deliver the right content, but if you can do that, then you will have much higher response rates, and much lower unsubscribe rates.

You wouldn’t publish a magazine to which people were subscribed on an ad hoc basis – not for long, anyway. So don’t lose touch with your audience. Set a schedule, let people know what it is when they sign up, and keep to it – any keep in the forefront of their minds.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Dear Customers, you are all the same...

Segmentation is a major buzz word in email marketing right now. It means splitting your database into groups – characterised by common themes – preferences, purchasing habits etc.

By segmenting, you can increase personalisation. By increasing personalisation, you can deliver increasingly directed and relevant marketing messages – which should lead to an upswing in transactions.

A potential client approached us last week – with a database of 27,000. He wanted to start segmenting and personalising. He had, however, no information except names and email addresses.

The question this raises is one of timing. At what point do you start gathering data about your customers? Is it a one-off or ongoing process?

As with most things, there is no universal formula for success.

Your data gathering strategy must be formed in the context of your business, and your audience.

But there is a basic principal which should be followed.

Use the sign up point to gather a limited, important amount of data which will allow initial personalisation. Win the customers trust with a series of interesting and relevant emails. At this point, ask for more data. Explain your request so that the benefits to the customer are their driving force in answering your questions.

Justify their faith in you by delivering what they want. Use the data you have to ensure that what you send them is always relevant and takes into account what they have told you.

A major benefit of this is the improvement in perceived dialogue between you and the customer. Personalised emails, containing a great deal of unique customer data and preference recognition, are far closer to a discussion that standard, generic marketing emails. Discussions lead to deals. That’s smart marketing.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Email and the hairline economy

Anyone who denies that we are in a recession probably still thinks there were nuclear weapons all over Iraq. Never before have we seen debt levels like this, in both business and consumer sectors. Oil prices will never fall significantly. Inflation is here to stay. Property prices will continue to fall.

In fact, it may well be that we all have to make significant changes to our lives and businesses. No bad thing, perhaps. This could be the wake-up call that we need.

So what does it mean for email? Well, I think it represents an opportunity – for email to mature as a medium in NZ, and for many businesses and organisations to undergo a long overdue traditional media cost cutting exercise, and dramatically improve their communications impact and efficiency into the bargain.

I predict that in 12 months time the volume of legitimate commercial email in NZ will double. I also predict that unsubscribes will rise dramatically as recipients make more aggressive reading decisions based on impact, content, presentation and relevancy.

Smart email marketers will increase segmentation, email design will change considerably to increase initial impact and allow for mobile view, writing for email will become a highly valued skill, and 90% of businesses and organisations sending email will continue to skimp on costs and trust their own in house knowledge, leading to even higher unsubscribe rates and lack of return on investment.

The 10% who value, and employ skilled email agencies, will beat the recession, and emerge all the stronger.

You heard it here first.....

Thursday, July 3, 2008

A Silly Bank

A month overseas gives you a nice clear head. A fresh perspective. Even a new tolerance of those things which were threatening to make you explode because you needed that holiday so much.
So when I got back and surveyed my inbox, even though there were over 1000 emails to deal with of which at least 30% were spam (thank you our wonderful anti-spam laws for keeping it below 50%) I did not mind.

Jet lag is a funny thing. For the first three night I found myself at my desk by 3.00 am. Actually, it’s a great time of day to work.

Anyway, as I was sitting there, happily considering opportunities to enhance my length, or give my bank account details to a range of generous Nigerians, I was surprised to receive a marketing email from my bank. At 3.00 am. At first I assumed it was a con, some spammer stealing their identity, but closer inspection revealed it to be the real thing. I won’t tell you which bank it was, except to say I consider them A Silly Bank. The same bank, by coincidence, that recently told me they did not need an email agency to show them the best way to use email to market their services, as they had plenty of expertise in-house.

I have to say, just for a few moments, it swept away all the good from my break, and made me mad. Not just because they should have employed our services, but because this sort of irresponsible and ignorant email marketing breeds mistrust amongst the general public.

For email to prosper as a marketing channel, big players need to get it right, and A Silly Bank sending out emails at 3 in the morning is wrong.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Don't open sesame

We hear more and more about crowded inboxes, competition for attention, and how email recipients have so little time to read what we send them.
I am no different; I too receive a very high volume of email, and today I caught myself doing something that I suspect may be very common behaviour.

I cleared my weekend inbox. In amongst the mass of messages were some newsletters that I read avidly. Today I read them avidly, but I did so in the preview pane. I thought about this and tried to remember the last time I actually opened an email. Some time ago, was my initial response. I racked my brains and reached the conclusion that it was in fact some considerable time ago, like a year or two.

If I am right, and if more and more people are behaving in this way, what does it mean for email publishers?

Well, quite a lot. Opening rate metrics become irrelevant. Brevity, preview pane impact, and low image levels become vital. Use of preview pane real estate become even more important.

I know the golden rule of email analysis is never assume your behaviour is typical, but I am willing to bet that just this once this is a growing trend; one that probably will not, and cannot be reversed.

Next up, based on this assumption, I am going to reflect further on the design of an email in a world where readers only ever use the preview pane.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Spoiling the broth

I watch Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares. Most weeks, Gordon gives great advice that gets ignored by the owners of failing restaurants, usually because they are bad businessmen. Gordon finds this quite a frustrating experience.

I know how he feels. Last year a publishing company asked me to take a look at one of their email newsletters. They did not want to pay for my advice, but suggested that if I gave some for free, then there could be quite a bit of business in it for me. How tempting.

I duly gave the advice, and it was duly ignored. Today, I received the same email newsletter. In the opening paragraph, it had 3 spelling mistakes (including the word magazione, which I presume meant magazine), numerous grammatical errors, no alt text for all of the pictures which blocked the preview pane, and, well, at this point I got bored of counting basic errors and unsubscribed.

The newsletter is about rugby, a subject close to my heart. But as a reader, I felt pretty disenfranchised. They hadn’t even bothered to spellcheck it. Shows how much they care about their email readers.

If the same errors had appeared in print, then the editor would now be looking, probably with some difficulty, for a new job.

I know that the publishing industry has been one of the slowest to fully embrace online opportunities, but even the most moronic publisher surely appreciates that the basic tenets of print publishing apply to online?

A good email newsletter acting as a prompt and alert can really enhance the appeal and commercial success of a magazine. Or not, in this case. Like Gordon, I just walked away and left them to their own devices.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Compelling Sign-up Strategies

All email databases contract; unreported change of address, relocation, loss of interest etc all contribute to a process of natural wastage which is inevitable. So in order to stand still, let alone go forward, it is crucial to have a simple and compelling sign up process to attract new audience.
What contributes to the success of your sign up strategy?

Visibility, simplicity of process, and maximisation of opportunity are three key factors.
If using email to engage and market to customers is a core strategy, then signing up for your emails must be highly visible – it should be a focal point of every page on your website, and prominently displayed on non electronic media. It should form part of the standard text of every email message you send.

How many people track readers to their sign-up pages and then compare numbers with actual sign-ups? It makes fascinating reading, and percentages vary wildly from 5% to 95%. In every case, simplicity, and not requesting superfluous information is a key factor in sites with the higher percentages. Initial sign up is not the time for requesting too much personal information.
When someone is signing up to receive email from you, you have a wonderful opportunity to begin the process of engagement. Maybe even two or three opportunities – sign up page, thank you page and welcome email. Use them wisely.

Database wastage will only grow as email gets busier. Smart marketers will recognise this, and already be implementing strategies to marginalise its impact.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Will you marry me?

It is a question you ask when you get engaged. Engagement leads to marriage - a plan for life, but as we know, some marriages don’t last.

Because laws dictate that we can only send email to people who have requested them, we begin the process of audience engagement by being told “I want to be engaged to you”.

So when it all goes sour, and that reader divorces themselves from your emails, the smart email marketer will acknowledge that it may well have been their fault – they failed to continue to engage.

So what are the key factors in engaging, and continuing to engage readers?
Expectation is one. At time of sign up, a reader should learn what they are going to receive, when, and how often.

Information value is another. How often do marketers send out information which they think is interesting, because they analyse it from their side of the fence, but which in reality bores readers senseless? To gauge audience value on information you send, you need to juxtapose your perspective.

Purpose is an oft forgotten or underestimated aspect of engagement. Is there a purpose to your campaign, to each component deployment? What do you want the reader to do? Have you told them that? All too often a lack of purpose, and absent calls to action mean that recipients read, then scan, then in time ignore your emails. Compelling text and images without purpose need to be very good to carry on the process of engagement ad infinitum.

I’ll talk more about engagement in the coming weeks, but remember, if you want to stay married, you need to stay engaged.

Monday, April 21, 2008

The right to reply

Have you ever received an email newsletter from an address that begins noreply@ or something similar?

It is about the most stupid thing any email marketer can do. Putting a line in your message which says reply to another address is simply not good enough, because people the world over reply to emails – by hitting the reply button.

So the address you send from should be one you expect replies to arrive at, and it needs to be closely monitored and replies acted upon immediately.

If it is not, you could be missing business

Thursday, April 17, 2008

The Hurdle Race

Email marketing is a never ending hurdle race. Each deployment represents a new hurdle in continues reader engagement. But in email, if you fall, you are probably out of the race. Once you have disengaged a reader, they most likely will unsubscribe, or simply stop reading your emails.

Never estimate reader unsubscribe inertia. Most people continue to receive, and immediately delete, far more emails than they actually unsubscribe from.

So don’t think, just because you have a low unsubscribe rate, that you are engaging your readers.

Complacency is a fast track to poor results. Each stage of an overall email campaign news to be the most exciting, persuasive, engaging and fully functional. It is as if you are starting from scratch with each send out. OK, readers you have hooked may allow you a little latitude, but if you build that in to your efforts, then you will quickly let standards slip.

At Inbox we say to each and every client, before each and every mailing; “This is your first contact with these people – are you going to engage them?” Content, design, functionality, rendering etc are all checked and improved upon relentlessly in order to ensure the email does the best for the client and the recipients.

It’s called the pursuit of perfection, and in the noisy marketplace that email is, nothing less will do.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Making Images Work

I get around 30 email newsletters every day. Most have amazingly high image to text ratios. Many have no alt text at all, and of those that do, the majority have banal descriptions such as image of whatever, or even worse the image file name.

I feel sorry for the companies who are creating their own designs, or whose agencies are too lazy to learn the fundamentals of email marketing.

Whatever numbers you believe about images disabled, we all know it is a growing percentage of our databases.

So Alt Text must be used. But not just any old alt text. Plain and banal descriptions are unlikely to engage a reader enough to make them enable images. Crafting Alt Text is copywriting skill in its own right.

If images are disabled, you want compelling text which makes the reader wish to see your images. Next time you receive an email newsletter, think how you could have improved the alt text – what might make you want to see the image?

Alt Text has one other use as well - as a “hover caption” – and what better way to annotate your images and build on their marketing message?

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Never Assume

The old police saying; to assume makes an ass of you and me. I think it was Oscar Wilde originally. No Matter.

In email, sender assumption is the cause of lower open rates, lower reaction rates, and higher unsubscribe rates.

Sender assumption, that is, that the recipient will mirror the sender - in terms of interest, knowledge, understanding and enthusiasm.

To a degree, this can be overcome by dumbing down - creating your email with the lowest common denominator in mind.

Make sure you sender ID clearly identifies you. Make sure your subject line is informative and engaging. Make sure that your call to action is the focal point of your email. Make sure that your desired transaction is simple and obvious.

Too often , marketing minds used to the subtlety of other media make the mistake of copying their tactics for email.

Time is not on your side. You have seconds to compete with a crowded inbox. So keep it simple, and never assume that the recipient is sitting there, waiting eagerly for your email, and has hours to devote to deciphering what it is you want them to do.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

So when should I send out my newsletter?

Since email time immemorial there has been great debate about timing. What day to send, what time to send?

Statistics are studied, theories evolved. Results change, and consequently so do timings.
Timing strategies often depend upon your database; is it primarily composed of business users, or weekend users?

Some rules do apply to all deployments – from Friday lunchtime through to Monday lunchtime, don’t bother sending – unless your message is time sensitive and critical to an event during that period. After hours emails in midweek are usually a waste of time, as well.

I believe that the most important timing rule is consistency. By deploying at the same time of the same day each week or month, you can gradually create an event – one that will be anticipated, and also that can be teed up by previous send outs, and on your website.

This can only help opening rates and audience engagement.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Too many links spoil the broth

I am currently challenging conventional wisdom in email. This week, my subject is links. Most people agree that a high degree of consistency between web design and email design is important. One area where that often carries through is in site navigation – boxes of links to part of a website appear in the email template.

3 years ago we conducted a survey on user behaviour. One of the most interesting results was that the more links that existed in an email, the more people clicked them. The novelty of receiving email newsletters, and following their links was still high. This trend has now reversed. The best results, in terms of click-throughs, come from fewer links.

In fact, I would suggest that if the purpose of your email is to get recipients to click through a particular link, then you would be best served by having only that link, and by focussing the direction of both layout and content towards it. Anything else is a red herring.

So when designing an email template, think about links. Yes, have one through to your home page, but do not replicate the navigation menu of your site, as you may lose people who might otherwise have clicked through your key message link.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Don't let branding hide your key impact message

Just as all websites began life with headline banners that covered the width of the site to brand and identify the site, so most Html newsletters did the same.

Again, as with last week’s post, this is valuable real estate, and if you are communicating with an audience who are not brand new, is it the best use of that space?

What is your key intent in the email – is it reinforcing your branding, or perhaps the delivery of a message which hopes to stimulate action and response?

If it is the latter, then you should consider split headlining – reduce your branding to 30% of the headline banner, and replace it with rich text – headline news, calls to action which work in conjunction with your subject line and new top text headline (see last week’s post).

This is unlikely to diminish your brand or identity impact – remember that is already enforced through your sender ID.

It may not look quite as slick initially, but it will improve impact – especially in the preview pane.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Sudden Impact!

Early Html email was quite a basic proposition, but senders soon discovered rendering incompatibilities between browser types. Code disintegration, blocked images etc made a good chunk of volume unreadable.

The solution, which was quickly adopted as standard, was to offer a link to a web version at the very top of the email.

As inbox competition intensifies, and preview pane decisions are commonplace, perhaps this valuable piece of real estate can be put to better use.

Most marketing emails and email newsletters have a principal headline – either an attention grabbing news story, or a tag line designed to entice the recipient to read on and complete whatever transaction the email requires.

Try putting it at the very top, in bold, and in a standout colour, with a line separating it from the subsequent, standard text.

The impact this has, being the very first thing seen, may cause a marginal increment in readers.
It should complement, rather than replicate, the subject line. The two can work together.

I predict that before every long, this will become a new standard.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Time for email marketers to challenge conventional wisdom?

In the increasingly crowded and noisy place that is our inbox, it is getting ever harder to gain entry and get heard.

Smart email marketers will recognise that if they are not going forward, they will be going backwards in terms of email impact. There can be no standing still.

Like websites, marketing emails, as part of their evolution, have, to a degree, become standardised in format. Conventional wisdom exists.

Perhaps, in order to stand out from the crowd, it is time to challenge those standards. To look at what is considered acceptable and necessary and wonder if there might be a better way of doing it. Such is the process of evolution.

Over the next few weeks I plan to examine those standards one by one and see if I can think of any changes or developments which will benefit the goals of the sender, whilst at the same time remembering the needs and requirements of the reader.

I’ll share my thoughts with you, and look forward to your comments.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

No.8 Wire not suitable for email

NZ is rightly proud of its ability to produce cheap, innovative solutions. But sometimes it is just not appropriate.

To kick off 2008, I want to quote 2 key points in the new year message from Al DiGuido, one of America's foremost email thinkers:

Outsource smartly. Some people still believe effective e-mail deployment and execution can be accomplished with internal IT staff and deploying on your own servers. Not a chance. The last thing you want to worry about these days are the technical underpinnings of the infrastructure that deploys interactive messaging.Instead, use that time to leverage the capabilities available to you to increase customer acquisition and retention and to upsell. Stop listening to IT folks who claim they're the only ones on Earth who can build what you need. Great technology is in the market. Establish a demanding list of features and functionality, then find a vendor that can serve your needs.

Demand great customer service. In the old days, e-mail provider customer service was measured by the speed and flawless nature of message delivery. We all remember how painful it was when mistakes were made, campaign delivery lagged, or IP addresses were blocked. We took partners to task for lack of service. We created huge service level agreements with all types of penalty grids for violations.Customer service must to be much more these days. If your provider isn't proactively offering tangible insight into your campaigns and how to improve effectiveness, it's time to start asking why not. Stop thinking about e-mail as print production or direct mail blasts. Your provider and the people who work for the company must provide value-added insight as part of their agreement to serve you.