No man is an iland
Archive for June, 2011
I collect first names on my newsletter sign-up form, but I never use them.
[Cue embarrassed silence and nervous shuffling among the experts out there.]
Yes, it’s an email marketing no-no.
The extra form field hurts sign-up rates and it raises expectations that subsequent emails will be personalized more than they are.
The survival of my “first name” field is partly down to the delusion that I’ll bite the personalization bullet “sometime soon”.
Call me a database coward.
But it also survives because seeing those first names acts as a necessary reminder that my emails go to, um, human beings.
As in many online industries, the idea that the audience actually includes sentient beings is often trampled into oblivion by our technology focus and the words that go with it:
Targets, segments, cells, addresses, clusters, groups, samples, lists, databases, records…
So where can we win with a little reorientation to “real” readers?
1. Adapt to recipient skills
Anyone who works in online marketing for any length of time knows a link when they see one, can handle a mouse well, is likely a skilled smartphone user and knows what a website wants you to do, even when it’s not clear.
Your readers probably don’t match that profile.
Website usability is not a niche topic anymore, but when was the last time you saw anything about email usability?
Consider subscription processes.
Most of us check to make sure they work in the physical sense – if I take the required steps, is my address added/removed from the list?
Do you also check to make sure they work in a psychological sense? Do people know what the “right steps” are?
What’s intuitive and obvious to the people who design emails and list management processes isn’t intuitive and obvious to those who just read them and use them.
It’s not rare, for example, to click on an unsubscribe link and find a page like this:
So do you uncheck the box or leave it as it is?
Another example is designing for touchscreens.
Most readers are not concert pianists, brain surgeons or needlework experts. We are clumsy…prodding and poking in roughly the right place to try and hit the link on the screen.
So we need more white space around links to avoid what Chad White calls:
There are many other examples.
Are the linked parts of your email clearly clickable? And are the things that seem clickable – like images and headlines – actually links? Are your fonts big enough for those without the bright eyes of a young, dynamic marketer?
2. Design and create for your readers, not yourself and not your peers
The online marketing world is in love with what we might call “attention metrics”, like pageviews, likes, retweets and open rates.
This love grows, the harder it is to measure the more pragmatic business success metrics associated with what we do.
So bloggers and newsletter publishers tend to focus more on attention than do those pushing out email coupons.
There’s nothing wrong with attention metrics per se, provided you don’t lose sight of the connection to those metrics that truly matter…those metrics that reflect whether your customers or prospects are doing what you ultimately want them to do.
Trouble is, they don’t always connect like that.
More attention doesn’t always mean more sales, particularly if attention is coming from the wrong source.
You can end up writing, publishing or promoting to a crowd, where that crowd is not your customers or audience.
It’s a particular danger for content producers, who can fall into a whirlpool of mutual admiration writing for the benefit of other content producers in a shared community.
So email marketing bloggers like me can end up writing content that other email marketing bloggers like to promote.
But am I writing for other bloggers or for email marketers? The two groups don’t value the same things.
J-P De Clerck wrote a fascinating article about content commoditization. He says, for example…
“The increasing attention for content is very often resulting in “me too” content and as such, commoditizing content, with lots of pieces that repeat what other pieces elsewhere contained.”
This attention focus places popularity above influence, reach above impact and, in many cases, familiarity above originality.
You can end up dedicating a disproportionate amount of space to the wrong topics or promotions: topics and promotions that are more relevant to the sender and their community than the recipient.
3. Adapt your language
From the instructions to my DVD recorder:
“You cannot connect this unit to DVI devices that are incompatible with HDCP”
The writer and everyone in their team knows what a DVI device is and what HDCP is.
Like instruction booklets, marketing emails and other content are trying to communicate concepts and get the right response.
That demands clarity. Not something we in the marketing world have a great reputation for.
Clarity means writing for the language, understanding and perceptions of your readers, not your colleagues.
That has wide implications. For example:
Language – jargon
Unless you’re sending email to email marketers, your readers are unfamiliar with the inside language of email marketing.
Check, particularly, your administrative list messages (like subscription confirmations, unsubscribe forms, thank you pages and preference centers), preheaders and email footers to see if any jargon crept in.
Do would-be subscribers get to choose between plain text and HTML email? Do they know what “HTML email” is?
Does your email footer link to a preference center? Do they know what a “preference center” is or why they might want to visit one?
Does someone fresh to the Internet even know what “unsubscribe” means?
Language – the implications of words
We know what we send, what the email says and what happens when you click on an email link.
We know it so well that we can forget to communicate those three things clearly to those who don’t.
How, for example, do you describe the messages you send to would-be readers? Are your messages newsletters, alerts or promotions? Do your new subscribers join a list, club, group or loyalty program?
All these words have different connotations and set different expectations, impacting on how those messages are then received.
This concept also takes us into copywriting and calls to action.
If you want someone to clickthrough to an article, it does matter whether the relevant link describes this action as “read more”, “learn more” or “discover more”.
If you want someone to continue down the path to a purchase, it does matter whether the relevant link says “shop now”, “buy now” or “learn more”.
Language – how you present concepts
As (email) marketers, we often think in terms of confrontation.
We talk (mea culpa) about fighting for attention and grabbing sales, as if we’re flogging cheap replica watches to reluctant tourists in a Casablancan bazaar.
Readers don’t look at it like that.
They don’t sign up against their will (hopefully), they sign-up because they want what you promise. They want good deals, they want good content…they want to be helped.
What we consider as driving sales is actually considered good service by the reader.
So should we perhaps take a more service tone to email offers and content?
Language – pride versus privacy
You’re proud of your new email marketing tools. The reader doesn’t care. But they do care about privacy.
The proud marketer writes:
“We noticed you didn’t open the last email, so here’s another chance…”
“As someone who recently browsed our laptop section, you’ll enjoy our list of bestsellers”
The reader-oriented marketer writes:
“If you missed our last email, here’s another chance…”
“Looking for a new laptop? Check out our bestsellers…”
It’s the difference between stalking and service.
4. Understand consumer inboxes, habits and preferences
We’ve already talked about the martial tones employed in the marketing world, as we seek to stand out in a flood of email scouring its way through reader inboxes.
Are inboxes really like that?
For some audiences, yes. But for other audiences? For your readers? Maybe not.
We take a narrow view of consumer email habits, dominated by a few truisms that resonate with our own (unrepresentative) experiences:
- People get loads of email
- People want discounts only
- People have tiny attention spans
- People using mobile devices have even tinier attention spans
All of the above is true. All of the above is false.
You don’t have to go far, for example, to find people talking about keeping mobile content short and sweet. It’s a fair concept.
But if you think there’s no room for longer content for mobile devices, then hand back your Kindle.
One estimate puts sales of the Kindle in 2010 at 8 million. My smartphone says the Kindle app for Android devices was downloaded over 250,000 times.
A Kindle is a mobile device. A smartphone is a mobile device. What do people use the Kindle and Kindle apps for?
So at least some people (like me) are using mobile for deeper content.
When you see survey results on consumer habits, don’t just look at the top result (which may only be top by a percentage point or two): that’s what the media does.
We should look at the bigger picture, not a mirror. We’re all different.
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What your content looks like when you use long paragraphs:
What your content looks like when you use short paragraphs (aim for 5 lines or less):
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This isn’t the 1990s.
You should be using a Twitter feed embedded on your Facebook page to push your chat channel to PPCSE visitors who saw a banner ad for your mobile app.
By the way, do your business cards carry QR codes yet?
Oh, and in the two seconds you took to read that last sentence, someone just invented a new way of reaching people online.
It might be the new Facebook. Or not.
Time for a stiff drink.
And a deep breath.
How can we make sense of all this intimidating multichannel thinking that is pushed at us from every corner of the media web?
And how does email fit within your multichannel approach?
If I had all the answers I’d be a consultant, not a writer. But there are three sets of issues that strike me as rarely discussed when contemplating a multichannel strategy:
- The need to understand where you stand
- The role of commitment and control
- Deciding what goes where
Let’s explore each, with a special focus on email.
I’ve also picked the brains of Joe Gagnon, President of e-Dialog (a provider of advanced email and multichannel marketing solutions) for some insider tips on meeting the email/multichannel challenge. Thanks Joe!
[...and perhaps some multichannel marketers can pipe up with their own insights.]
Understanding where you stand
If you hang around the online marketing world, you’ll feel a lot of pressure to be active in every channel out there. But much of that pressure is artificial or irrelevant, coming from:
- Constant mentions in Twitter streams and Facebook updates (like FourSquare notifications)
- People pushing what’s new and cool (especially journalists)
- People addressing very specific audiences that include technology first-adopters (which probably isn’t your audience)
- People selling or advocating channel-related services (so they’re biased – I’m sure I am!)
- People who simply like the “multichannel” concept (me again!)
Deciding where to be online first needs an understanding of the playing field, in the context of your own audience, business and business model. Specifically…
1. Audience location
Where is your audience? What channels (or combination of channels) do they favor? And are these preferences shared across your market? (Probably not – different segments, different preferences).
2. Channel basics
What are each channel’s fundamental characteristics? What aspects of business are they best suited to? What do people expect, want (and not want) from an organization through a particular channel?
Gagnon recommends taking any and every opportunity to gather information that helps you power a more informed, relevant contact with your customer. For example:
“How often does she want to be contacted? Through which channel? Send a survey to understand her expectations around channel management and frequency.”
“Does she use Facebook for fashion tips, and email and mobile for offers? How often is she opening an email from you on her mobile device? How are you tuning your program as a result?”
Email for example, is regularly cited as preferred to social channels for receiving commercial promotions online. And subscribers to promotional lists have appropriate expectations, namely that…:
“…they will have access to better offers than the general buying population.”
“Subscribers expect advance notice of new products, sales, price changes, and from a transactional perspective – immediate order, ship and delivery confirmation notices as well.”
All the above also needs to be tempered by the realization that preferences are usually relative, not absolute: most people are multichannel. They may prefer text messaging, but don’t use it to the exclusion of everything else.
Preference analysis needs to be far more nuanced than glib survey headlines would have you believe.
What value can you give people through each channel? And what value can each channel deliver to your business?
That second question tends to get ignored in the rush to pay homage to the “customer is in control” mantra that grows in strength with each new version of the Internet.
Consider carefully, for example, whether you want to encourage email subscribers to switch attention to your Twitter account. Emails tend to get at least a cursory glance. Tweets disappear in a stream of Twitter consciousness that makes an inbox look like an oasis of tranquility.
Crocs.com, for example, uses their Facebook presence to enter a brand dialog, but also to encourage people to sign-up for email. Why? Because:
“…the conversion rate for consumers clicking to Crocs.com from an e-mail vastly outpaces the rate for shoppers clicking from Facebook”
It’s about “horses for courses”: choosing the mix of channels and emphasis that best matches a slew of business goals…for your specific business situation.
Measuring the value of multichannel efforts is itself a challenge.
Gagnon admits that measuring, for example, ROI is a bigger issue with integrated marketing initiatives. Marketers seek to understand the contribution of each touch and channel, so they can properly assign credit for the conversion.
“In 2011, much of the discussion in marketing has been around this very concept – attribution. In other words, having the ability to look beyond “the last click,” which is a laggard industry standard that gave all the credit to the last ad clicked before purchase.”
“Attribution management is about the 4 C’s – understanding the contribution, so you can create the right complement, of contacts to drive a conversion. Attribution management is key to identifying what components of your marketing program are introducers, influencers and closers…”
As David Baker writes:
“The email channel will remain a constant, yet we have to recognize the stacking effect and prioritize attribution so all channels are rewarded for connecting the experiences.”
A useful resource here is MineThatData, where Kevin Hillstrom regularly explains how to calculate the true incremental value of a particular channel to key metrics and where your analytical efforts should really focus.
Commitment and control
The second set of issues concerns your capacity to sustain a multichannel strategy.
What resources do you need to commit to and coordinate a particular combination of channels?
The commitment aspect is particularly important for social channels, where success is intimately related to your ability to deliver value through that channel.
Commenting on email/social integration, Margaret Farmakis writes:
“Don’t underestimate the time and resources it takes to manage your social initiatives and have a plan in place for disseminating content on a consistent schedule.”
Email Marketing Reports has no Facebook page. Not because I think Facebook pages are a bad idea (my FamousInboxes.com site has one), but because I don’t have the time to maintain it in a meaningful way.
I’m not alone.
A recent survey of small business owners in the US found over half “will not boost their multichannel marketing efforts because of limited resources and time.”
We’ve all experienced the Mayfly effect: blogs, Twitter accounts, Facebook pages, LinkedIn Groups, discussion lists, email newsletters etc. that launched in a flurry of exciting content and died away in no time at all.
Are there easy multichannel wins you can exploit? Do you really need to wait until you have an integrated customer database and expensive software before you begin to tackle multichannel online marketing?
And what can you do now to make multichannel marketing easier in the future?
In terms of data, Gagnon suggests you ask yourself three questions:
- What data are you gathering now that will help drive a more informed marketing decision – not just tomorrow but a year from now?
- What report(s) do you have in place to understand how your customer’s channel consumption is evolving?
- Do you know the true contribution of each channel to your overall marketing spend?
Another element to consider is your control over each channel, particularly your degree of independence from third parties.
Email and websites are a fundamental part of the Internet’s core structure. Many (social) channels are commercial monopolies. The costs and practicalities of such channels are subject to the whims of the owners. Worse, as Chris Penn writes:
“If these companies go out of business (and many have), your social platform that you’ve worked so hard to build goes with it.”
Deciding what goes where
Gagnon says marketing success is ultimately about getting all customer channels to operate in harmony, thereby maximizing the overall customer experience:
“…the marketer needs to deliberately and thoughtfully utilize all possible channel connections.”
1. Marketing role
Should the channel drive response through the channel itself or support responses through other channels? Or both?
Gagnon already outlined email’s role as an outlet for promotions. But he also feels it has considerable potential as a facilitator of other channel success.
Email subscribers have made a clear choice to get brand-related communications, so email:
“…provides a natural jumping off point for messaging – it sets the foundation for regular communication…it plays a foundational role for the multichannel marketer.”
He cites some practical examples:
“…reaching out to subscribers to notify them of the newest mobile app, driving them to an in-store event, informing them of a contest on your social site, and so on. All can (and should) be done using email.”
It’s a concept echoed by others. Scott Cohen, for example, recently described email as:
“The Great Facilitator… the lubricant that makes the engine of conversation run on other channels”
Email’s role here is particularly strong in growing social media engagement. As Gagnon says:
“Some of the low-hanging fruit for the use of email includes strategies whereby they draw consumers online, by using email as an integral and integrated part of a social media growth initiative.”
“Email strategy works exceptionally well for this because it enables the brand to engage the consumer in discussions while occasionally presenting them with offers.”
2. Repetition versus originality
How do content and offers differ between channels? This is an issue I long struggled with!
Do you simply vary the presentation to fit the flavor of the channel? Or do you change the fundamental offer or content itself?
How do message frequency increases through multichannel approaches affect positive (like sales) and negative (like unsubscribes) metrics?
How do you account for people communicating with you through different channels and those who restrict their communication to just one?
These questions go back to the understanding of each channel’s strengths. As Gagnon told me:
“…it’s important to identify the right tool for the job. Are you trying to engage your customer in conversations or are you trying to target information and promotions exclusively for them based on their preferences?”
“If it’s the former, Twitter and Facebook are perfect channels for creating dialogs and sharing experiences while also allowing the brand to “listen” to this activity and learn from it. If it’s the latter, email is still the only channel that can really target messages to customer needs and preferences while moving them along the customer lifecycle.”
And, of course, it’s not an either/or scenario. Gagnon says:
“…if brands give consumers enough reason (read: value) to engage in both email and social media, they can leverage the strengths of both…”
So, how do you view multichannel marketing and email’s role in it?
P.S. When I started out online, multichannel online marketing meant email marketing and organic SEO for the Alta Vista, Lycos and Hotbot search engines. In fact, there WAS only organic SEO: paid search ads hadn’t been invented yet.
I’m really not that old…but I certainly feel old sometimes.
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