It’s for Me! EMail that Matters

At this time of year, almost everyone is giving and receiving gifts. Some approach this as an obligation or a chore, while others take great joy from carefully selecting gifts that seem “just right” for each person on their list. Research shows that the giver actually gets more satisfaction from a gift exchange than the recipient – which probably explains the common practise of “re-gifting”. But many of us may still have a (somewhat useless) gift that was made by a child years ago – it means something special because someone made it just for us. In my case, I have a necklace that was made for me long ago by a 3-year-old in a class I taught: I’m sure he no longer remembers me, but I remember him.

presentAnd then there are the holiday cards. Some show almost no sign of human intervention: names and addresses are all printed ahead of time. Those are my least favorite. Some include a long letter about the families adventures during the year. (Some people hate those, but I personally love to get them, especially from folks that I don’t see often.) Others have a short, but hand written note. I tend to remember the ones that include some sort of message that makes me feel that the writer was thinking specifically of me.

It was in this frame of mind that I started to notice the emails that I have been receiving from brands during the holiday season. I always do a lot of my shopping online, so there have been the usual transactional emails. And I’ve also been getting all sorts of “Happy Holidays” greetings from brands to which I subscribe. Some of them are like the pre-printed christmas cards, or the generic gift – I appreciate the thought, but it doesn’t really make a strong impact in my mind. The best of the messages I have received demonstrate that they know me, and are paying attention to the sorts of things I respond to, and when. The tone of voice sounds like a real person wrote the message. And these are the ones that I remember – because they make me feel special.

So, what are some of the best practices for making your brand emails feel special to their recipients – so that they will keep your brand at the top of their mind when making purchases?

1. Personalize the email. Sure, it seems obvious, but I am amazed by how fe emails I receive actually put my first name in a salutation line. Of course I know that my name is there because it is stored in a database somewhere, and another 200,000 folks may be getting the same email. But studies have shown that including the recipient’s name in the email subject line increases open rates, and including it in a salutation increases recall. As Dale Carnegie said way back in 1936: “Remember that a person’s name is to that person the sweetest and most important sound in any language.”

2. Keep it simple. Remove the clutter and make the message really clear. Don’t try to communicate a lot of different ideas; keep it to two or three. And use pictures!

3. Create different messages for different people. The people who open your email messages regularly deserve a reward for their loyalty. Over time, you should be making it more and more easy for them to do business with you, as you observe their behavior over time. You don’t want to be creepy about it and say something like “thanks for reading all 14 of our last emails”. Pay attention to the sorts of things that people are clicking on, and begin to develop more of the content that people are spending time with. Develop different streams of content that can be mixed and matched. Develop automated messages that are triggered by a given behavior. Put yourself in their place and think about what you would expect to receive next – and then deliver that and more.

4. Create groups of different people and send them appropriate messages. Just as you need different content for different people, divide your email audience into groups of like-behaving people. Even a simple segmentation between people who always open and people who do so rarely will allow you to tailor your content appropriately. You may not be able to change everything, but something as simple as a different subject line can make a huge difference in the results.

Don’t Neglect the Digital Marketing Basics

A recent report from Pew Research is a good reminder that brands should not forget the importance of email and search in consumer communications. http://www.pewinternet.org/Reports/2011/Search-and-email/Report.aspx?src=prc-headline

Highlights:

According to the study, 92% of internet users in the United States use search engines and send email. The number using social networking services? 65%.

  • 96% of those ages 18 through 29 use search engines.
  • 90% of those making under $30,000/year use search engines; that’s not substantially less than the 98% usage rate seen amongst those making $75,000/year and up.
  • 94% of internet users in the 18-29 category use email while 87% of those in the 65+ group use email.

All told, well over half of U.S. internet users (59%) use search engines on a daily basis, and an even higher percentage (61%) use email daily.

Is EMail Marketing Dead?

Brands have used email marketing for years as part of their marketing communications. For brands that don’t sell directly to consumers, email can provide a channel to establish a dialogue with consumers, and to provide content that could be shared with others, so it was “social” before social networks came along. With the rapid growth of Facebook, brand marketers sometimes ask whether they investments in building an email database and creating email content still make sense. My answer is a hearty YES! Email continues to be an important part of a brand’s social marketing strategy. Here’s why:

1. Email is still growing; consumers still choose to receive it. While many consumers are increasing using social networks for connecting with friends and families, permission-based email subscriptions continue to grow. This implies that consumers are looking for relevant information from brands. By carefully segmenting content and monitoring consumer response, brands can provide real value and information that consumers are seeking.

2. Email is a hub for brand communications. Email provides the brand a unique ability to connect the consumer to all elements of the marketing plan: the brand can send consumers to a Facebook app, share a YouTube video, invite them to an event in the “real” world. Mike Bloxham from the Center for Media Design at Ball State University calls email “the connective tissue in the media mix based on the ubiquity of its use, the amount of time people use email throughout the day, and the ability for marketers to proactively communicate with their customers through the medium.”

3. Email is relevant to the consumer. Because the marketer controls the database and can track the behavior and interests of email subscribers, the brand is able to create different email content for various consumer groups, providing the opportunity to be more relevant to each consumer. At present, Facebook messages on the news feed can only be segmented by geography and language. Facebook can now function as a “reception room” for potential consumers; it’s an easy and light format that allows consumers to easily get to know the brand. Once the consumer has decided that they want deeper, more personal contact with the brand, links between social they can sign up to receive email messages that will include personalized content that is right for them.

4. Email remains important to users of social channels and mobile devices. Nielsen studies indicate that users of social channels are also heavy users of email. ExactTarget found that 58 percent of online consumers check their email first, compared to the 11 percent who start their day by checking Facebook. ComScore reported that mail dominates time spent on mobile devices and computers.

Email is alive and well, and an important part of the social marketing strategy for consumer brands. Email is one part of the social CRM toolkit, allowing brands to build strong and enduring relationships with consumers.

CRM: the Love Story

So many movies are based on the same classic story: boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back, all  is well with the world. At some point in the story there usually a scene that involves some version of the dreaded phrase “you just don’t understand me”. As a viewer, you know these two are meant for each other and they will find their way back together. And therein lies the tale: they will figure out what is important to themselves and to each other, and the relationship will emerge stronger than ever.

OK,  maybe I watch too many chick flicks, but I do think that all this has some bearing on the work I do with my brand team partners as we develop our  CRM strategies. (CRM is our shorthand for Consumer Relationship Marketing. Sometimes the same acronym is used for Customer Relationship Management, and that’s not what I’m talking about here.)  Because of the inherently social nature of beverage alcohol brands, we have been integrating relationship marketing into our strategies for many years, and the internet has helped us not only be more cost efficient, but to be more real and relevant in our conversations. This enables us to truly build a relationship.

Today, it’s not enough for a brand to just send “love letters”. The consumers that raise their hand and tell us they want to hear from us expect us to listen, to know who they are, to understand them. And a relationship is a two-way street: there are times that our friends might reach out to use with a question or a comment, and they expect a response that recognizes the existing relationship. A brand needs to have a personality that is almost tangible, and our efforts should always seek to know them our friends better, so that they never get the feeling that “they just don’t understand me”.

So how can we do this?  I would bet that you have friends that would rather text you instead of phoning, or who prefers to let folks know what’s going on with them using Facebook instead of Twitter. We expect our “brand friends” to know that too. Brands need provide a way for our friends to tell us how they would like to talk with us: postal mail, email, SMS, our web sites, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, etc. I see articles talking about “social CRM”, but I think that misses the point: to the consumer, it’s the same brand regardless of channel, and it’s all “social” even if we are referring to an email or a web site.  We want to inspire conversation in whatever way the consumer wants to engage in that conversation, and in a way that brings others into the conversation too.

Now that most brands have defined the role of the various tools and channels, we can develop strategies that allow them to all work together. A brand should define objectives in terms of what we seek to accomplish in the relationship, and only then define how or where we will seek to accomplish those objectives. Much like the classic romantic comedy, we can think about the relationship in four stages.  

1. They meet. Acquisition strategies: inviting, recruiting, bringing new people into a relationship with the brand. Where are your consumers, how will they meet you, what will attract their attention, how are you going to get them to “give you their phone number”? Maybe they would be more comfortable just giving you an email address. Or maybe they just want to say hello, and might come back again another day. Regardless, try to figure out a way to remember their name so that the next time you see them, you can say hello. But for every brand, some consumers may always stay in the “acquaintances” category.

2. They get interested in each other. As two people get acquainted, they start to identify things they have in common. A brand wants to have the same opportunity with each consumer: how can we engage new and existing consumers in ways that express the brand’s personality, to help them to get to know us and include us in their lives. For some of these consumers, this will hopefully blossom into “more than a romance” – we are hoping for a “committment” of brand loyalty, we want they consumer to have a sense that “this is a brand for me”. I always assume that an 80/20 rule will apply, and 20% of the acquaintances will become “interested”.

3. They have a fight over something, and some one else is there to help them feel better. Which consumers have “broken up” with us, and more importantly, why? What other suitors does our consumer have? How do we demonstrate that we are more attractive, and why would they choose us instead of the others? What mechanics does the brand have in place to identify consumers who are unhappy or dissatisfied? How can we follow up with those we haven’t heard from in a while, or identify they have left and earn a chance to “win them back”?

4. They make up, fade to black.. and live happily every after. But of course we all know that this is just the beginning. In a real relationship, the hard work begins once the two have made the committment. And only a few of the consumers who are “interested” in the brand will become an advocate, but these most loyal consumers are the ones from which we can learn the most. Brands must continue to seek to understand the wants and needs of those who are truly “in love” with the brand. We can give them tools that enable them to express their passion for the brand. We can help them participate as stewards of the brand by asking for their opinions and ideas. And we can let them know we recognize that they are an important part of what makes the brand successful.

In any good relationship, success depends on communication. A brand must develop ways to understand what the consumer thinks about the relationship: what’s working, what’s not, what’s missing.  The brand must have techniques in place to measure, learn, and refine our tactics based on what we learn. The measurements should track back to the objectives we are seeking to accomplish in the relationship. We will certainly continue to track open rates, “likes” and “comments”, the number of people at each of the stages I’ve noted above. It is even more important that we establish measures to help us understand the relationship: do our consumers feel valued and included. Would they say “you really DO understand me”?