"I just can't begin to explain what torture it was," CSI's Marketing Communications Manager Kim Nichols talks about what it was like when the Company used to publish a printed newsletter for customers and prospects.
"We said we'd do it quarterly and grow it to monthly, but we were lucky to get things out three times a year. We were really struggling to produce these things."
The biggest struggle was due to CSI different lines of technology products, from vibration to oil analysis equipment. Some customers had overlapping interests in several or all of these fields. For each issue Nichols would have to round up at least one article from each different product line manager.
Which proved to be as easy as corralling a herd of cats.
Despite the torture, Nichols did not want to stop producing newsletters because they were undeniably popular, "We have not produced a printed newsletter in almost three years, and even today we still get phone calls and requests for subscriptions. People see old copies in people's offices, and even though we have changed area codes two times since then, they manage to find us and want to get it."
How could CSI continue to benefit from newsletters, without the pain?
Ray Garvey, CSI's in-house oil analysis expert, had long felt that the Company should not just do a printed newsletter, they should do a whole magazine! But the marcom (marketing communications) team naturally said that would be impossible. He channeled his passion for writing articles in another direction; he invented his own email newsletter.
Nichols says, "He just started doing it one day. He had a little personal list of several hundred people he was emailing it to."
This grassroots effort was so popular with customers that the marcom team got together to figure out a way they could both help Garvey with production and also launch a more email newsletters for their other areas of business.
First the team came up with 5 rules for email publishing:
1. Valuable Content
Nichols has always been adamantly opposed to newsletters, in print or email, with content that reads more like a sales pitch than educational information. She prefers Case Studies and educational materials, and only rarely allows articles to be published about specific product features.
She also asks writers to focus on evergreen information (informative articles that have a lasting value). That way content does not get old when it is posted to the site, but rather the site itself gains more and more value for visitors over time.
This educational, evergreen content is perfect for technical industries where people do not stay in jobs for too long before they more onward or upward, so there are always newbies who need to learn the basics. It is also great for this economy because CSI's prospects do not have the budget to travel to trade shows or seminars to learn in person as much anymore.
The marcom team also decided their newsletter would be far more valuable if instead of sending one giant newsletter covering all their product lines, instead CSI offered readers a choice of topics.
Now customers and sales prospects can choose any or all of seven different topical newsletters, from Motor Diagnostics News to Vibration Analysis Bulletin. Each issue may be short (just one single article), but it turns out people prefer to get one article perfect for their needs than a whole bunch of articles which they may or may not be interested in.
2. Frequency that makes sense
Instead of being forced into a quarterly frequency, now each of CSI's newsletters are published on a regular basis (ranging from weekly to monthly), depending on what makes sense for each particular marketplace, and the product manager who is writing the articles for it.
Nichols still has to nudge some product managers when their issues are due (although the evergreen nature of the content makes it easier for them to write a whole bunch of issues at once for extended publication dates). It is a whole lot easier to nudge managers one-by-one than to corral them all onto the exact same writing schedule!
3. Standardized Formatting for the lowest common denominator
While like most marketers, Nichols loves graphics, she and the others on the marcom team agreed the newsletter should be "formatted to the lowest common denominator." She says, "I'd like to do something more colorful, but I have to keep focused. It's the content that's important."
So, issues are plain and simple text-only letters running no more than five inches across, so recipients can read them no matter what type of email they use. Plus, when stories are posted to the Web site, they are posted in straight HTML instead of fancier PDFs. HTML is easier and quicker to download, and that matters to readers, especially those overseas.
Nichols notes, "I have yet to get a complaint that it's not pretty enough, but man will they call if a link doesn't work!" Content rules, in this marketplace at least.
4. Strict double opt-in policies
Although CSI has databases with 100,000 names in them, the marcom team decided against forcing everyone on their database to get the newsletters. Instead, they wanted email newsletters to be strictly an opt-in option.
They also decided to make it a double opt-in (requiring that new subscribers have to reply to a confirmation email before they are truly added to the list), so that overeager readers could not sign up their boss or colleagues without permission. This ensures that CSI's customers and sales prospects do not think the Company is spamming them.
5. High responsiveness to reader needs and questions
Every single issue of a CSI newsletter includes the email address of CSI's expert author so readers can contact him or her directly with further questions. (It astonishes us how few B-to-B newsletters currently do this, despite the fact that it's a best practice. If readers have questions about content, they do not want to wait for their note to wend its way through customer service and maybe reach an expert someday.)
Plus, issues always include a link to a form on the site where subscribers can easily change their email address, unsubscribe, re-subscribe, or change their preferences to get different newsletters. Nichols says this is very important, "I get a lot of response from people whose job focus has changed, or they simply want to change email addresses to start getting it at home or work or both places."
To get the word out about the newsletters when they first launched, the marcom team tried three tactics:
a. Emailing newsletter samples to current customers b. Renting a broadcast email to send a newsletters offer to c. Sending issues to sales reps who could then on occasion forward them to interested prospects or customers
Later, the team also sent out sample issues to prospects who they met at industry trade shows, and added notes to each issue encouraging pass-along readers to get their own copies.
The email newsletters are much easier (and cheaper) than the old print newsletter was. Also, customers and sales prospects love them.
CSI's average sale is $25,000-$30,000 so, as Nichols says, "Nobody's going to buy from an emailed offer." However, the newsletters definitely contribute to the bottom line by selling lower-cost accessory items.
Nichols explains, "We find if you do a newsletter that highlights that item for whatever reason, a new application or something new it will facilitate accomplishing, all of the sudden people are interested in that item. I've had newsletter issues where 60-70% of the readership responded, but that's outrageously high. Probably 15-20% is more in the average range."
She adds, "It's not just a sales message tacked on. For example, a case history went out about our ultrasonic gun, and the guy used these headphones that helped him. The next thing we knew, we were getting requests for those headphones. Normally those are not items we sell on their own."
Plus, the newsletter supports higher price tag sales by growing CSI's corporate image as a company that is a leader in investing in R&D and education. It also keeps CSI's name and products front of mind when customers and prospects change jobs or get bigger budgets.
Nichols explains, "When you're ready to step to the next level, we have those tools and we'll teach you how to do that. At some point the message and the timing is right. Hopefully, a prospect will say, 'I've been reading this from CSI for years, and now it's time for me to call them and purchase stuff from them.'"
Last but not least, the newsletter program has helped CSI raise their internal corporate profile. In the late '90s, CSI was acquired by Emerson Process Management Company (NYSE:EMR), a $15.5 billion company. Naturally Emerson hopes that it's various divisions communicate enough to be able to support each other's sales.
Now the email newsletter has helped CSI make great strides in that arena. Nichols says, "Even in the last few weeks, our sales force is doing a better job of hooking up with sister companies. They tend to be the same people [at sister companies] I see signed up for newsletters. They understand what we bring to the table. When they go into a sales situation, if they see an opportunity they say, 'Hey you know our sister CSI does that' and they pick up the phone and call someone."
Not everything has worked out perfectly, however. Nichols learned some hard lessons from her first three marketing tactics to get newsletter subscribers.
a. The sample issues to the customer list generated a 10% opt-in rate. Nichols feels it was too confusing for people to get a wide variety of samples in the mail; many did not understand they needed to opt-in to get further issues. Others were not interested in newsletters at all.
She says in retrospect that 10% opt-in rate was "probably pretty good." At the time, the team was crushed, "We thought everyone's going to want this! Nobody's going to refuse us."
b. The campaign to the rented list did very badly. "It did not even cause a blip on the radar." Nichols now thinks the problem was that the offer was for six different newsletters, which was just too confusing in a single email.
c. Allowing sales reps to forward issues proved to be another bad idea for two reasons. First of all, a sales rep might send out issues to his whole list each week, circumventing CSI's anti- spam, opt-in policy. Secondly, most recipients who got forwarded copies just assumed they would always get them. So there was no incentive for them to opt-in for their own subscription.
Luckily the two tactics the company uses to get the word out definitely work. Approximately 80% of contacts that CSI meets at trade shows, sign up for their own subscriptions after Nichols sends them a single sample issue. Plus, new subscribers opt-in from pass-along issues at the rate of 30-50 every week. (An impressive number in niche industries.)
Nichols has seen one final benefit from publishing electronically -- now 60% of subscribers are outside the US, when previously none had been. "It's surprising to me how quickly they picked up on it," she says.
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