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Mar 11, 2004
Blog Post

MarketingSherpa Experiment Diary: Can a New Desktop Application Replace Email Newsletters?

SUMMARY: No summary available.
By Managing Editor Anne Holland

Last Thursday, Thomas Korte, International Product Marketing Manager over at Google, emailed me, "I just wanted to let you know that your newsletter has recently started to be classified as spam :-( when it is sent to my work email."

Arrgh! Despite the fact that we've been researching how to get permission email past filters for two years now, I get notes like this all too frequently.

The problem is at-work email accounts. Corporate IT departments are so desperate to stem the spam influx that they hurl every filter they can at it -- including content-based filters that are infamous for high "false positive" rates. And since we use words in our stories like "advertising," "online marketing," and "opt-in" these filters sometimes stop our issues.

We've leapt through all the hoops to get as much email through as possible, including getting our own dedicated IP address, sending story-summaries instead of full-stories (fewer total words means less stuff you can be filtered for), and switching consistently non-opening subscribers to text-only.

It worked - our open rates now run 55-67% depending on subject line. But I wasn't satisfied.

So when Matthew DeGanon at Arcavista asked if I'd like to try offering a desktop application, powered by his tech, that sends content directly to readers' PCs without going through email, I was very excited about the experiment.

I'm a big huge fan of Weatherbug - a desktop application more than 13 million people have downloaded to get weather news without having to go to email or a Web site. It's fun, it's cute, it's useful, and it's free. Hey, I thought, how cool would it be to launch a "SherpaBug"?

Well, it's launching today. You can see for yourself:

And, here are four lessons I learned along the way:

Lesson #1. Set Goals Prior to Development

I'm horribly easily swept into doing projects because it will be really fun and cool. And then later I kick myself in the pants and say, "Was there an ROI worth mentioning?"

Example: We invested in creating a "Torture-a-Spammer" online game 18 months ago. The rationalization was that it would be a great viral marketing tool. Hundreds of thousands played it, but only 5% signed up as newsletter subscribers and they had a rotten, dreadful conversion rate to becoming MarketingSherpaStore customers. The experience was fun, but a waste of money.

Unmitigated creativity is not the path to business success. Setting goals and measuring results is.

So, I set a few worst case scenario assumptions in place prior to saying yes to the Arcavista project, including:

o If 1% of current readers download the application and keep it on their desktop for at least a year;

o and, these readers spend an average of $1 more per year than the average newsletter reader spends in our online store, presumably because they'll see and click on more of our content than newsletter readers;

o and, production time cost to update and maintain the application with our articles would be lower than this extra $1 more per year per user we made;

o will this at least cover costs?

OK, this reasoning is a bit flawed because the people most likely to download a MarketingSherpa desktop application are probably also likely to be among our biggest fans, and thus more likely than most to spend more money anyway.

If I had a perfect customer database backend I'd be able to account for that. We're still building it, but if you have one and you're trying a similar experiment, be sure to include that factor in your calculations. (And then let me know your results.)

Lesson #2. Design will be hell

Think about the first Web site you were ever allowed to direct the design on. You wanted to go wild -- and probably a lot of the ideas you had were dreadful from a usability standpoint.

(My first professional site in 1996 had round icons swooping about the page instead of a traditional navigation bar or readable text. Looked fabulous, but it was miserable to get around on.)

Although I yearned to take the format for a test-drive and get really creative, I knew unmitigated creativity does not a successful design make. Arcavista's design team had some ideas, but let's face it, these guys are not in my target audience or familiar with my brand. Their ideas looked like a military videogame suitable for male 20-somethings.

My Web designer had some ideas, but let's face it, he's a Web designer. His idea looked just like a little square Web page. Anybody downloading that would think, "and the point would be?"

I had some ideas, but let's face it, I'm in love with MarketingSherpa so my idea was to overwhelm the poor user with 20 buttons to different parts of the site. It was nothing more than a giant, scary-long navigation bar.

After two months of dithering, I printed out a copy of everyone's mock-ups and cut and pasted a new version together (yes, with scissors and tape) using the best bits of each.

I liked the way the Arvcavista guys made theirs look like a gizmo instead of a flat screen. I loved the colors from my Web designer. And a tiny handful of my buttons got tossed in as well.

It looks OK, but not as incredible as my first feverish dreams. But hey, we have years to evolve in. Plus, as more folks launch desktop applications, there will be more places for me to steal design ideas from.

Lesson #3. You can't update apps as easily as email (or sites)

Once we settled on the final design, Arcavista made me sign a letter saying in effect, "This is the final design for version 1.0." I thought they were a little admin-happy but whatever.


When I called up a few days later to ask, "Hey, can we tweak that yellow a bit?" my account rep had to say, "Sorry, not unless you want to delay launch for a week." I said, "Why? What's the big deal? It's a two-second tweak."

Turns out something, that might be a two-second tweak for your Web site, is a much bigger deal for your desktop application. The guys have to make the change, then test it in the lab to make sure no other code got broken, then update the version... it all takes more time.

So, if you're considering an application, you can't make sudden, swift changes to your format creative even though it's super easy to update the content inside the format. (We're planning to do it about seven times per week.)

Lesson #4. Copywriting will be hell

Finally we were ready to launch. So I had to write the copy for the landing page to describe this wonderful new thing. Great. How?

If you say, "desktop application" many of us creative types shudder away. It's a techy term that doesn't sound remotely enticing. Neither does "bug". Neither does "peer-to-peer device" which is what one friend suggested. And "spyware" is out of the question (especially since we're not watching anything besides normal email stuff -- how many users we get and then if any of the clicks turn into sales).

I ended up writing so much descriptive copy in an effort to explain what exactly this thing is, that the first landing page was frighteningly long. Nobody was going to read all that.

In the end, I cut and cut and danced around the issue entirely.

Because desktop applications are relatively new, there isn't a term you can use like "Web site" that everyone will know what that is. You just have to describe the benefits and say "Free" and "New" and cross your fingers.

You can see the copy I wound up with on the info page. The good news is, it's a Web page, so if the copy doesn't work we can change it nearly instantly....

Let me know what you think --

And thanks for your support.
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