"We have been touring and meeting people around the world for close to 21 years now," says Cirque du Soleil's Chief Marketing Internet Andre Belanger in his charming French accent.
"It's important for us to continue that relationship between our visits." The company launched its email program in 2000 precisely for that purpose.
However, relationships are in their essence personal things. In fact, Belanger credits some of the company's success to the tent-layout. "In a touring show, you have the impression it's unique and small, but it's 2,600 people sitting in a big top."
How can a giant global entertainment brand run a mass-email program that feels equally personal?
Plus, with dozens of activities going on constantly (permanent shows in Vegas and Florida, touring shows on four continents, TV specials, new CDs and DVDs etc), how could Cirque du Soleil avoid overwhelming fans with too much news and activities?
The email team had enough news to send campaigns six-eight times per week, a frequency that would thrill very few fans, no matter how fervent.
The team started by carefully crafting the opt-in process, and have revamped that process on an ongoing basis to keep best practices. Five keys:
You couldn't sign up for Cirque du Soleil's email list. You could, however, join the fan club, which happened to send emailed bulletins. The team hoped that small-seeming difference in opt-in verbiage would make all the difference.
#2. Making the offer prominent
The Fan Club was prominently displayed with a form fill box reading "Your Email Here" on the company's home page. For the undecided, a small hotlink next to that box read "What is Cirque Club?" Plus, much of the rest of the site also featured hotlinks to join the club.
The team also wanted to build a presence for the fan club at the shows themselves to drive curious ticket holders to sign up. Whenever possible, they reserved about 20 tickets per performance for incredibly good seats to be given out as "upgrades" to Fan Club members.
When club members arrived at the show clutching a printout of their upgrade eligibility, they were ushered into a special "Cirque Club Members Here" entrance while other ticket holders watched (hopefully jealously).
#3. Offer loads of preferences
When you have too much news to send, it's better if you microsegment your list so only the people most interested in particular news get that info. So, the team added (and again continually improved) a member preferences center asking opt-ins what sorts of email they wanted to get, including:
- Cities where you prefer to attend shows (limit six cities)
- If you'd like news on any particular permanent-location shows
- General news about the company's TV and other new offerings
- Merchandising offers and special promotions
- English vs French language
#4. Promote whitelisting
The next page of the opt-in form (after the home page form for email and page two for preferences -- see link below for screenshots of all stages) requested that the to-be member add the club's email address to their contacts list *before* they could finish their membership registration.
The page included hotlinks to more specific instructions for AOL, Hotmail and Yahoo! email users, along with a button to click to finalize sign-up.
#5. Require double opt-ins
After jumping through those hoops, new names were still *not* added to the Cirque du Soleil list unless they double opted in by clicking on a personal link in an incoming email.
The email team automated the process. New to-be members would get one email within a few minutes, and then if they didn't confirm, a reminder email seven days later. If that step didn't work, then the name was wiped from the list.
As the list started growing, the team quickly developed creative rules for the campaigns themselves so everything would be on-brand.
Five main creative rules:
o Every email would be sent from a named person who writes in the first person. Some were real people. "Anne-Jose signs the email club. She's sitting right next to me," says Belanger. Some were characters from the show such as 'Madame' who signs letters to the Zumanity-brand fan club with a red lipsticked kiss.
o Emails would look and read like letters sent on Cirque or Zumanity 'letterhead'. "A letter is a story I'm telling you. We're storytellers, so we write you a story."
So, no. There would be no photos of shows, or hero shots of promoted items, or any of the other over-the-top graphics you might expect from an email campaign produced by a circus. Instead, all campaigns would be simple 3-4 paragraph notes written from one person about one particular topic.
o Copy with a French accent. Cirque du Soleil is headquartered in mainly French-speaking Quebec, so all English-language emails include a a few French words scattered through as an accent. For example, a note might begin with "Bonjour."
o Less-obvious click links. Unlike most promotional email, Cirque's rarely (if ever) had a click link in the first paragraph of the letter. The letterhead also did not have any click links or buttons at the top that might distract from the main body of the letter. Click links were reserved for further down and were low-key in nature.
"We rarely do huge mailings," notes Belanger. In fact, the team decided to strictly obey members' preferences. If you signed up saying you only wanted touring show news for Boston, that's what you'd get once a year when the show came to town.
Just as with all offline Cirque campaigns, the tour email promotions were carefully orchestrated into a series of messages, that can be roughly described as:
-> Step #1. The Cirque is coming! Advance tickets available.
-> Step #2. Got any suggestions for our cast while they are in your town? (Restaurants, etc.)
-> Step #3. We're here, print out your upgrade certificate.
-> Step #4. Farewell
These letters were automated as much as possible, but the letters were personalized for each city every year to keep them fresh. Plus, the team set up a "Red Alert" system to receive triggered alerts when an automated campaign was underperforming.
Example: "We were going to East Rutherford, New Jersey. We were sending to the New York database, and New Yorkers don't cross the river." Since responses fell under the expected minimum, the team promptly yanked the promotion and ceased sending New Yorkers any further messages about New Jersey events.
In addition, the team send four quarterly non-sales offers to the entire list (no matter what city you preferred) designed to keep the brand name alive and list cleaned throughout the year so it would be in good shape the next time the show came to town.
These offers might be contests, new site interactive features, or holiday ecards.
"Now we have hundreds of thousands of club members worldwide," says Belanger happily. "And it's an incredible database because it's a clean, clean, clean database. Double-opt-in and all that."
A higher-than-average percent of home page visitors convert to joining the club on the spot. Of those who fill out the online registration form, more than 80% remember to check their email account and click on the link to confirm their double opt-in. 10% of these are initial non-responders who get the second confirmation note that's sent seven days afer opt-in.
The only bad news about Cirque du Soleil's opt-in program is that the site is now fairly well search engine optimized, which means 65% of incoming traffic arrives in secondary pages instead of Home. Therefore Belanger's Web design team are busy on a redesign to add email opt-in forms onto every entry point.
Club members respond to emails at an unusually high rate. "We receive about 9,000 emails a month," notes Belanger. "There are lots of very positive and personal comments. [We get] these amazing letters."
Of show tour email cycles, the very first note "has a very high conversion rate" to ticket sales. The farewell notes tend to get the most personal letters from fans in reply.
The holiday ecards get the highest response rate of any non-ticket-related email. "We had almost 120,000 people send ecards last year and we had 5,000 new members through that activity."
Useful links related to this article:
Creative samples from Cirque du Soleil email campaigns & their opt-in process:http://www.marketingsherpa.com/cs/cirque/study.html
Cirque du Soleilhttp://www.cirquedusoleil.com