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Jun 17, 2004
How To

Folksy Email Newsletter to Dog-Lovers Gets 96% Open Rate & Outstanding Sales: Tactics You Can Copy

SUMMARY: Back in 2001 when the sock puppet took a dive, a little company in Nebraska hit their first million selling gourmet dog treats online. And these days, they're not so little anymore.

Their secret? A comprehensive email program that follows strict best practices, combined with folksy copywriting and design that upscale buyers adore. Our exclusive story includes lots of campaign samples, plus ideas you can apply to your own program no matter what business you are in.
"Somebody who runs a business like ours needs to be a little bit touchy-feely," says Kent Krueger, officially VP/Chief Dog Spoiler of SitStay, a multi-million-dollar global business selling high-end dog supplies to consumers online.

SitStay's 18,000 square foot Nebraska warehouse is busting at the seams with 2,000-3,000 SKUs in inventory. The company clearly runs with the big dogs of eretail, but its deliberately folksy email program makes SitStay appear to consumers as if it's the same mom-and-pop business Kent and his wife Darcie launched in their Nebraska home seven years ago.

Kent explains, "We made a conscious decision about the tone of our emails. We didn't want those contacts to be, for example, some boring thank-you-for-your-business thing. We are a fun store. Our goal, whether they buy from us or not, is that after any contact with SitStay, they'll go away with a giant smile on their face."

And the results of that deliberate friendly-small-biz tone are amazing.

The HTML version of SitStay's monthly email newsletter, currently sent to about 30,000 double opt-ins, gets an average 96% open rate. (Note: this is non-unique, so if recipients open the newsletter issue more than once, it's counted as an open each time. This is still an exceptional rate.)

The email program is responsible for millions in sales, with the average customer buying $100 of gourmet dog treats per purchase.
More details on how it achieves...

Four-part welcome campaign

SitStay doesn't just invite you into the circle. It welcomes you right away with open arms (not quite a big sloppy doggy kiss, but definitely a wagging tail).

If you buy something at the site and sign up for the email newsletter using the opt-in box that's included in the check-out process, you'll get up to four emails back in quick succession (link to samples below):

Email #1. An order confirmation that restates what you bought and tells you this about shipping:

"We usually ship within 2 business days of receiving your order, except on weekends. We spend the weekends with our families and dogs." (Okay, that's not's approach, but SitStay's customers are a different breed.)

Email #2. A request to confirm your opt-in that reads in part: "Your email address has been submitted by you or someone who knows how much you love dogs .... Once you click on the link ... the SitStay Dogs will add your email address to the subscription list. ..."

Email #3. A double-opt-in thank-you: "Ruff! The SitStay Dogs have added (email address) to the Newsletter mailing list ... Now throw the ball!"

Email #4. The current month's newsletter issue. "We send it out right away because we went them to instantly decide whether it's something they want," Kent says.

Ongoing monthly newsletter to double-opt-ins

The newsletter is designed to build sales as well as a feeling of community among Sitstay's customer base, by including four specific types of content.

A. An ongoing buyer reward program: SitStay's reward program is much simpler than most we've seen. Each issue of the newsletter reminds readers they can get a Tuesday-only "Good Dog Discount" on orders. Aside from a small graphic at the site, the newsletter is the only place it gets promoted.

The newsletter doesn't link to the Good Dog coupon page, so Kent doesn't track how many people the newsletter drives to it. However, 75% to 80% of sales on Tuesday include the discount.

B. Testimonials: The newsletter features two new customer testimonials about particular products each month. The comments are unsolicited. Naturally there's a link next to each to actually purchase the product. Plus the customer gets the thrill of seeing their name "in print," and readers see that other "real people like myself" buy from SitStay.

C. Product lists: The newsletter includes hotlinked lists of new products, best-sellers, and sale items.

D. Interactive device: Each issue features a monthly, dog-related poll. Readers must click to the site to register their opinion (and perhaps pick up some supplies while they are there). The poll also helps SitStay better understand their faithful buyer demographic.

"In one poll, 80% said they would give up their significant others before they'd give up their dogs. In another poll, 86% said they grew up with dogs. The polls are fun, but they also tell us a lot about our customers," Kent says.

The newsletter gains 500-1,000 new double opt-ins per month, and loses an average 350 names due to unsubscribes and hard bounces.

Extending folksy brand messaging to all email sent

SitStay take their email program a step beyond most marketers by carefully adding a folksy, doggie-tone to every single email sent via automated systems.

Kent explains, "Customers are people who really love their dogs, not just people who have dogs around but who have dogs as a daily part of their lives."

Order receipts have a dog-related note at the end. And if a credit card is declined, the automated note is softened with a dog-reference. If a customer contacts customer service through a form on the site or via email, the quick autoreply "we'll get right back to you" has some dog-related copy built in as well. (Link to sample below.)

List management & broadcasting

No emailer gets high open rates without using best practices in email collection and delivery religiously.

SitStay mails the newsletter only to double opt-in names (not all customers) and doesn't collect pass-along email addresses via co-registration from any of its 5,000 affiliates.

"We want real solid control over who's subscribing and why they're subscribing. We don't want to mislead anyone through a sign-up on someone else's site," Kent explains.

The company got burned several years ago when its broadcast vendor (a big, brand-name company) hosted a spammer on a shared mail server. Result: SitStay got blocked at the major ISPs. The vendor also used its own sending address as the "from" line. Kent now insists on a dedicated IP address and mail server, and each broadcast mailing comes from "The SitStay Dogs."

What's next? A program upgrade that will allow SitStay to add dynamic content to the newsletter to personalize it and permit cross-selling and up-selling.

"But we will keep the same look and feel of the site because our customers tell us they like it that way," Kent said.

Useful links related to this article:

Samples of SitStay emails including newsletters:

See Also:

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