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Oct 08, 2003
How To

Keep Your House List Open Rate Above 50%: Lessons from Winery Email Campaigns

SUMMARY: If you mail the same house list month after month, how can you keep people interested enough that they continue to open, click and buy from you?

It's a dilemma that everyone, who started emailing a house list in the past two years, is up against now.

Here's some inspiration from California wineries who are beating the problem. Also includes tips on how your email creative and frequency should differ for your various audiences (consumers, distributors, retailers, etc.)
On the surface, wine doesn't lend itself well to online purchase.

"Say you're going to have a dinner party in a couple of weeks," explains wine e-marketing specialist Jeremy Benson, President Benson Marketing.

"It's not like you're going to say, 'Hey, I should go online and see what wine I should purchase.' You're probably going to buy retail."

But wineries with a house email list and a strong brand are successfully convincing even the most offline-disposed consumer to purchase online. In fact, Benson says up to 80% of wine sold on winery Web sites is sparked by email newsletters and offers to house lists.

For example, Merryvale Vineyards has seen online sales double since they began a monthly consumer newsletter a year ago, with a purchase rate averaging 1-3% of total emails sent and an average order size of $125 - $400 depending on offer.

That dependency on house email has its dangers though - how do you make sure you don't wear out your list?

And, if you sell through multiple channels, as most wineries do, how do you vary your email campaigns to fit each marketplace and end-reader?

We talked to Benson and Merryvale's PR/Marketing Director Jean DeLuca about tactics that work for them, which might apply across many industries.

-> Key tactic #1: Give list joiners unique offers

Give consumers "something that they wouldn't have if they weren't on your list," Benson says. "If a consumer is going to provide you with an email address, they want something good in return."

This might be a wine that isn't available at a local retailer or an event at a vineyard that is open only to list members.

This tactic also encourages viral growth of your list. "I might be on a winery list and I get an email at the office and I forward it to a friend in the next cubicle," to let them know how to get access to special wines, says Benson.

Benson sees a healthy growth rate on winery email lists, which he attributes to this tactic.

-> Key tactic #2. Test and track what types of content work

Benson says the newsletters that work best feature a strongly branded "voice" and style of writing.

For example, for one sparkling wine company, the emails take a formal tone. Other wineries lean toward a humorous voice, while others are more "folksy."

Benson's learned from tests that consumers react better to longer copy from a brand and shorter copy from a middleman. "Wineries can get away with having more copy, they're pretty text heavy," he says. "With wine retailers, the shorter, punchier sales-driven copy works better."

He also recommends that you track results for not only each broadcast, but also by type of content sent (offer, article, etc) with a spreadsheet that includes open rate, click through rate, and number of orders.

"We can look back and say, wow, what did we include on that email that had a 20% click through, and we can see that we talked about the harvest party and a new pinot noir release," Benson says.

By tracking all elements, within just three or four emails, Benson gets an accurate idea of what voice, length, and content should be for maximum ongoing results for a particular mailer. "That sort of work in terms of understanding the result of these is critical."

-> Key tactic #3. Alternate pitching styles on a rotating basis

Although one particular style of offer may work the best for a list, your response rates will drop if you send out that exact same type of thing every time you mail. Consumers need variety to stay interested enough to open.

By alternating various styles of pitches - for example an informational article versus a free shipping offer - you get better response rates over the lifetime of a name on your list.

Sometimes the emails that win are surprisingly soft pitches.

"What we've found is that it works to do things that aren't as sales driven," Benson says. For example, one vineyard created an email about their environmental efforts using ladybugs to cut down on harmful bugs in the vineyard.

The email contained just the 1,000 word article and no pitch at all; it resulted in $16,000 in sales.

Merryvale's DeLuca loves to send articles on everything from what the Napa Valley weather is like to how the grapes are ripening this year, alternating with specific purchase offers. (Link to sample issues below.)

However, Benson emphasizes that to keep open rates high, you should not vary your "from" line (he always uses the brand name) at all, nor vary the beginning-section of your subject line.

You should always start subject lines the same way - preferably with your brand name or a strongly branded newsletter name - and then tack on a bit of varying copy after that so recipients know why they should open this issue in particular, and how it's different from the other messages you've sent.

Consumers, and indeed all audiences, appreciate consistency. Keeping your email easy-to-recognize helps them copy with email overload and sort the must-read from the junk quickly.

Using these tactics, Benson generally sees an open rate of 50-60% for consumer newsletters and alerts. Interestingly this rate has not changed over the past year, even as lists age and junk mail competes for attention in cluttered boxes.

"If we have a 40% open rate, we wonder what was wrong with our subject line."

-> Key tactic #4. Vary content and frequency to suit your different audiences -- consumers, members, press, retailers, and distributors

Merryvale Vinyards sends its five very different constituencies different email content at different frequencies. (See link to samples below.)

Group a: General consumers

These are folks who've signed up for Merryvale news through the Web site or at the winery itself. The emails, sent monthly, include winery hours and location, new wine releases, winery events, and photos.

Group b. Wine club members

These are members of a continuity club who have signed up for a shipment of wine every month or every quarter. "They get a print newsletter in with their wine, but not everyone opens it right away," DeLuca notes.

So, to supplement their print newsletter, she also sends an email version every two weeks. She doesn't replicate the content from print because then people would stop reading. Instead, she pulls best-of articles from her general consumer newsletter, adds in club member-only offers, and also includes timely news such as wine reviews that may have come out too late to get into the print newsletter.

Group c. Retailers and restaurateurs

DeLuca keeps her emails to this group limited to once every quarter or so because she's very aware they're being touched by her messages through many other channels as well - including distributors, magazine ads, etc. So she doesn't want email to feel like an overload.

She only mails key accounts who've agreed to receive information from her. She's not using email for prospecting, and wants to avoid the perception of harassing less frequent buyers. Email is such a delicate thing to get right - and you don't want to take risks with accounts that could result in significant income.

Her quarterly newsletters to the list include what's happening at the winery in terms of wine making production, key staff changes that would affect them, great wine reviews and new releases.

She also always includes an invitation to come by for a VIP tour and tasting if they're in the area.

Group d. Distributors

DeLuca sends her distributors a printed memo monthly that they can refer to as they travel from account to account on the road.

Then she supplements with email in two key ways -- first she naturally sends the distributors copies of the quarterly retailer/restaurateur newsletter so distributors can see what their customers are getting.

Secondly, she's very careful to email distributors news and samples of any new general advertising or marketing campaigns she's running in other media, so they're aware of them.

For example, currently DeLuca is testing running space ads in the national gay magazine, The Advocate. "That's off the beaten track and distributors aren't expecting us to advertise there, so I'll email them and include an image of the ad. Then they can go to wine shops in gay areas and show them where we're advertising," she says.

Group e. Media and concierges

Once a month DeLuca used to fax updates on barrel tastings and other events to local media and to hotel concierges encouraging them to share the vineyard's information with their audiences.

Now, she saves money and increases impact by sending that via email instead, along with links to downloadable photos suitable for printing in newspapers and magazines.

Useful links related to this article:

Samples of three of Merryvale's different types of newsletters: (For consumers, for media, and for retailers)

NPR Story on the May 2005 wine marketing legal changes:

Benson Marketing Group

VerticalResponse, the email tech system Benson uses to create and send campaigns

Merryvale Vineyards
See Also:

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