It all started last year when Steve Kayser, Cincom Systems' North American Marketing & Biz Dev Manager, wanted to save his company a little money.
One of Cincom's product line divisions was spending about $60,000 per year to produce a quarterly print newsletter. "It took tons of time from our sales and marketing folks that could have been better spent," says Kayser.
"The end result was tons of copies that were never being used, as evidenced by the stacks in the supply closet that were routinely threw out."
Kayser had been hearing about email newsletters in the business marketing press, so he got a quick pricing quote from an email distribution vendor and popped his head into his Treasurer's office to get permission to move ahead.
That is when the project got really hairy.
Kayser explains, "He liked the concept so much, he said, 'Great, do it for the whole company.'" Suddenly Kayser who had been planning a short newsletter to interest the clients of a single product line, had to come up with a newsletter that would please executives at Cincom's 5,000+ corporate clients in 93 countries who were in just about every industry you can imagine, from aerospace to utilities.
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Kayser definitely did not plan for the newsletter to turn into his whole job, he could dedicate no more than two days a month to it.
He also did not want to solicit lots of articles from in-house writers. Cincom has loads of experts, but a newsletter featuring too many internal voices might read like an advertorial. It would sound too biased to hold the attention of top execs at important corporations.
Then he had brainwave. Why not invite outside experts to help out with content?
Instead of running a bunch of submitted articles from outsiders (which all too often also can turn into advertorial as we all know), Kayser thought, why not use the power of interactivity to allow readers to ask the experts questions?
He named his newsletter 'Expert Access,' and each fortnightly issue prominently features an 'Ask the Experts' section near the top with a reader's question answered, and a big fat button to submit your own questions. Plus, there are links to a whole panel of additional experts along the newsletter's left navigation column. (Link to sample below.)
Kayser found it fairly easy to line up experts to participate. Some are consultants and others are brainy folks working for companies that compliment Cincom's product offerings.
His pitch was simple. No one would have to work very hard and they would get a lot of glory.
"Experts wanted to know how many questions they'd have to answer. I said, 'Your answers can be 200-500 words and link back to something you published. I'll only publish two questions a month, and how bad can that workload be shared between 17 experts? You're not going to get blown away with writing work, and it's a home run for you. It elevates your status as an expert. Everybody wins.'"
Then Kayser turned to in-house resources to help with potential question overload. Anytime reader questions were too niche or just not fascinating enough to be worthy of publication as Question of the Issue in the newsletter, he relied on in-house experts to help him get an answer to every single person asking a question.
For example when a reader in the Ukraine had an obscure HR-related question, Kayser forwarded it to Cincom's HR department who were happy to help out.
To initially prime the question pump, Kayser made up questions for the first few issues of the newsletter. Then as readers generated them, he often compiled and summarized several very similar questions into one single official Question for an issue.
Next Kayser focused on fleshing out the content of the newsletter so every reader would hopefully find at least one item that interested him or her.
Kayser figured that readers had to be interested in at least one of three general areas of interest:
1. Customer Relationship Strategies: How to find, acquire, and retain customers.
2. Business Process Management: How to integrate, automate, and maximize operations for bottom-line results.
3. Enterprise Content Management: How to deliver critical information to anyone, anytime, and anywhere.
He divided the bottom half of the newsletter into these three topics, and then surfed the Web for a few hours every week to find the best new articles on these topics to hotlink to. He limited the number of hotlinks to just three articles per section per issue because he figured that that is about all anyone has time to read.
Kayser also decided to pick out one article as a "Featured Story" headlining each issue. This is generally an article that crosses several topics, and has a snazzy title Kayser thinks a lot of folks will want to click on.
Although Kayser is himself "a terribly slow writer" he loves to write. Occasionally he would sit down and write a 100% new article for the newsletter to feature as well. Just as with the hotlinks to best-of articles, the newsletter did not feature the whole text, but just a link and very brief description.
Kayser used three main tactics to get subscribers for the newsletter:
Tactic #1 - Asking the customer file if they would like it.
Kayser carefully followed the rule of permission email publishing, which is to never assume anyone, even your paying customers, want a newsletter unless they sign up for it.
He says, "When I originally did it, I didn't know about permission. I just figured if we're going to err, let it be on the side of safety. We'd better not make anyone mad by sending them email they don't want."
He only sent Cincom's customer email list the very first issue as a sample with a note at the top asking them to sign up if they wanted to keep getting the newsletter.
>From then on, just the people who replied in the affirmative got further issues.
Tactic #2 - Prominently featuring a sign-up box in issues.
Every issue includes a subscription box in the upper left corner where nobody will miss it. It is easy to use and does not require anything other than an email address.
Tactic #3 - Links from 3rd party sites
Kayser asked his experts if they would not mind linking to the newsletter from their sites, and he also posted an offer for the newsletter on the FreeTechMail.org Web site.
Kayser's got a stack of happy reader testimonials that would make other marketers doing newsletters intensely jealous. "The subjects are not common stuff and the content is just excellent. The value? Priceless." says one. "Ask the Expert is a great idea! I intend on using that more often," says another.
In reader surveys, 89% rate the newsletter above average or excellent. (How many promotional newsletters can you say that about?)
- A small, unobtrusive link to "downloads" on a bar at the top of the newsletter got so many clicks that Cincom's software sample downloads rose 63% the day the first issue went out.
- Kayser has learned two key lessons of picking articles to hotlink to: Make sure they are not registration-required sites because that annoys people, and have someone else on your team read your choices through before you publish. One time he chose an article that was written by a direct competitor, oops.
- Informal and fun article titles work the best. One headline that got an unusually high click rate from non-tech CEOs read "Warning: For Geeks Only."
One of the most popular headlines of all time was, "Shooting the Donkey in the Complex Sales process... Hollywood style" which linked to a long article of which Kayser himself was the proud author. (In fact, it was so popular that Kayser's since come out with a whole "Donkey" series with titles such as "Veni, Vidi, Tire a Dos Burros. I came. I saw. I shot two Donkeys.")
- On average 38% of readers who open an issue in their inbox go on to click on at least one link.
- Although subscribers have a choice of HTML vs text, 98% have self-selected HTML. That said, the HTML button is pre-checked.
- Each issue takes Kayser just five-to-seven hours to create now that he has got it down to a science (not counting any time he spends sometimes writing his own articles).
- Although readers love the Ask the Expert section, surprisingly few questions actually come in, which is a relief for Kayser who was fearing question overload. He gets about two-three questions per week now generated from a total of about 13,000 subscribers.
- Experts adore the Ask the Expert section. In fact Kayser sent us a stack of testimonials from them as well! In several cases the relationships have turned into unforeseen additional marketing partnerships. For example, one expert now does Webinars with Cincom, another is about to co-sponsor a booth at an important trade show.
- Just over 25% of Cincom's customers who received the first emailed issue, then joined the list right away.
- In the ten months since launch, the newsletter subscriber list has more than doubled in size, despite the fact that about approximately 5% of names go bad each month due to job changers and other names which need to be removed. New names come from:
54% of new subscribers come from the newsletter itself (i.e. people who sign up using the form in an issue a friend has passed to them)
24% of new subscribers come from offers on various Cincom Web sites
14% are from the FreeTechMail site
8% are from co-marketing links with experts
Link to a sample of the Cincom newsletter: