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Oct 09, 2001
Case Study

Powerful Email Marketing to Sell and Retain Small Business Customers

SUMMARY: This inspirational Case Study reveals how a small software company uses email to start profitable one-to-one relationships with tens of thousands of customers and sales prospects.áPlus, learn how they got 400,000 sales prospects to sign up for their email newsletter!áAnd, how they manage all of this with a very small customer service staff. (Did we already mention that this Case Study is inspirational?á Well, it's worth saying twice.)

Brent Winters, President FirstPlace Software, is very proud of the fact that his privately-held company has been debt-free since its founding in 1991. At just $149, his lead product WebPosition Gold is priced to appeal to millions of small business webmasters who want to use it improve their sites' search engine rankings.

Many larger companies have floundered about, spending millions trying to attract buyers in the broad small business marketplace. Yet, Winters has been able to become one of the very top bestsellers in his category, without spending much on marketing.

Plus, he's been profitable consistently while offering an easy-to-redeem 100% money-back guarantee on all products, and free lifetime product support to all customers.

How does he do it? Read onů


Software companies selling products in the under $1000 category are notorious for having Web sites that are nearly impossible for the non-geek to navigate, understand or buy from. They are filled with technical jargon and a highly confusing plethora of download and purchase options. (Ever tried to figure what you need at Norton, McAfee or Adobe?)

FirstPlace Software's marketing site for WebPosition breaks the mold. It's designed specifically to convert small business visitors into buyers. The site:

- Focuses on just one clear product choice (at two price points)

- Features reassuring testimonials, a ZDNet Editor's Pick award, and Better Business Bureau logos throughout.

- Copy is easy-to-understand, packed with benefits and refreshingly jargon-free.

- Plus, a "Download Now" button appears in several places on most pages so visitors can click on it whenever they feel like it.

The free trial download page continues with Web marketing best practices. Before they are asked to type in their email address, visitors are told openly how their email address will be used (to send product news) and that their email will be kept strictly confidential and not rented. Many companies hide this information in a tiny link to their privacy policy at the bottom of their pages, but Winters knew he would get more downloads if he put it up front.

Next all 30-day trials receive a three-step series of sales conversion email letters (link to samples below):

1. The first email, sent within a few hours, welcomes them and provides some tips on how to use the program.

2. The second email, sent 4-5 days into the trial, extends a special offer if they buy right away. Usually this is a related gift with purchase rather than a discount offer. Winters says, "We normally try to add value to the product. We'll give you another $49 product or two for free. We sell those separately, but we don't sell huge quantities of them, our main goal is to increase the value of our main product offer. Some marketing experts believe if you're always discounting by dollars off, people may feel the product is not worth the price you're charging."

3. The third email, sent about 12 days into the trial, is a quick reminder that the special offer mentioned in the prior email is going to expire in three days.

Now, plenty of software companies have follow-up email campaigns of this nature. What's unusual about WebPosition's is that each trial customer is assigned to a particular customer service rep from the start. All of the trial email letters are personalized and sent from that particular rep. So trials begin a personal, one-to-one relationship, with a rep who can help answer questions, etc. You are dealing with a friendly, helpful human being -- not a faceless corporation spitting out form letters.

WebPosition has in-house technology in place that stops trials from using their downloaded software after the 30 days are up. That definitely brings in some sales. The Company also sends additional follow-up emails to past trials occasionally, although Winters is careful not to become a pest in their inbox. He says, "We don't harass them every week or every month." These very occasional follow-up emails will either contain a special offer for a different free gift with purchase, such as a 110 page eBook on a positioning topic; or, a friendly little note from the original customer service rep saying, "I noticed you didn't purchase, did I do something wrong?"

Winters is aware that not everyone who visits the WebPosition site is ready to purchase -- or even download -- right away. He says, "It may be six months before they are ready to buy." So he publishes a free monthly newsletter in order to collect these sales leads and keep them warm until they are ready to purchase.

Again, the WebPosition site is a textbook case of best practices in generating lots of opt-in newsletter subscriptions. The free offer appears in the upper left corner of every single page of the site as an integral part of the navigation bar. That offer includes an email address entry box right there, so visitors do not have to click to different page to subscribe. However, many Web surfers these days are wary of signing up for more newsletters because their inboxes are already too full.

Winters allays these fears by including a link from the subscription form to a special Web page that features in-depth marketing copy to convince visitors to subscribe, including:

- Quick copy describing the benefits of the newsletter

- A guarantee that you can unsubscribe at any time, and that your name will never be rented or shared

- Links to back issues so visitors can see how valuable the letter is

- Bulleted points explaining what the newsletter covers

- A question and answer FAQ list

- No fewer than 14 glowing testimonials from newsletter subscribers, including their email addresses so you can be sure they are real people

This is fairly long copy -- it prints out to five solid pages -- but it's broken up with offers linking to the subscribe form and/or the free trial download form, so whenever people get tired of reading there's a hotlinked offer right in front of them.

The newsletter issues themselves are also unusually long, often running longer than five pages when printed. Again Winters breaks the rules -- instead of quick articles, or sales messages, his newsletter features in-depth articles that you might expect to find in a paid professional publication. (See link below for sample.)

He explains, "There's just too many newsletters out there that are just fluff -- one-page ad pieces for the company. People quickly stop reading those, and delete, and unsubscribe." His newsletter requires an unusual amount of writing effort and research. But he says, "The time investment is worth it. Your newsletter is a reflection of your company. If you put out a shoddy newsletter, you may have a shoddy product."

WebPosition also uses email to try to save cancelled sales. When customers request a refund via email, they immediately receive a special, personalized reply back from their customer service rep. (See link below for sample.) This note is in a friendly tone. It simply asks for feedback on the problem; reminds customers than when they cancel their software will be disabled; offers a free $39 training video if they reconsider; and tells them that to make the cancellation final (and get their refund) all they have to do is reply.

Winters says, "Some companies will make people jump through hurdles, calling a certain number, waiting on hold, mailing in forms. I'm sure it reduces the number of refunds, but I'm also sure it gives a bad impression of the company. We don't hassle cancels too much."

In order to raise sales and reduce the number of refund requests, Winters offers free lifetime support to all customers. Yet his in-house customer support team is unusually small. A team of less than a dozen reps handles all emails and phone calls generated by tens of thousands of customers and trials! In addition to refund requests and technical support, they also have to cope with responses to the personalized trial series and the jump in email whenever the monthly newsletter goes out. Here's how they handle it:

1. Reduce telephone calls -- Email is quicker, easier and cheaper to respond to than phone calls, so although WebPosition offers toll-free phone support, they try to nudge customers into using email in two ways. First of all customers are more likely to use email support when they have a real person's email address versus a "support@" address. Also customers are more likely to continue using email if their first message was replied to by a human being (not a form letter) within 24 hours.

2. Manage incoming flow -- The monthly newsletter, and periodic marketing campaigns to the list of non-buyers, generate huge amounts of incoming email. So, Winters staggers his drops. For example the monthly newsletter is sent out over a period of five days, and no other marketing campaigns are allowed to go out during that same time frame.

3. Build a response library -- WebPosition's team has built a comprehensive email response library of more than 200 answers to customer questions. Reps can sort through this library quickly for the best response, personalize and alter it to fit the individual customer, and send it out remarkably quickly.

4. Continually get rid of product bugs -- Instead of waiting for the product's next official release date, WebPosition's engineering team are authorized to destroy product bugs whenever they find them. Plus, they even offer a $50 Bug Bounty incentive to customers who report new bugs to them. Winters explains, "If you won't fix bugs or issue updates for six months or a year, you'll be swamped with calls about the same bug."

5. Continually enhance customer tech support materials -- WebPosition's customer tech support materials are never considered finished. Reps are encouraged to constantly think of ways that materials can be improved to eliminate their incoming question load. Winters says, "I continually survey tech support to ask why are people calling in, what triggers that call. We'll change or add a pop-up help message at that point."


For three years in a row FirstPlace Software has been named as one of Deloitte & Touche's Fast 50 growth technology companies in their region, and among the Fast 500 nation-wide. The company currently has tens of thousands of paying customers (27% of which are outside the US), and more than 400,000 opt-in subscribers to its monthly email newsletter.

Some specific results:

- 17% of past trials who receive the "why didn't you buy?" email note reply with a specific answer. Many of these are turned into sales by customer support.

- 20% of cancellations change their mind after receiving the refund letter and decide to remain as paying customers after all. Plus "a lot" of customers who got refunds, turned around and bought the product again months later when they were ready to use it again.

- Sales always peak during the three-four days after the monthly newsletter goes out.

- While Winters can't reveal exact numbers on the success of the trial conversion series, he did say, "One time a couple of years ago, our mail server went down for a couple of weeks and our sales dropped significantly. So outgoing email is pretty powerful."


Samples of three-step trial conversion email series:

Web page that converts surfers into newsletter subscribers

Sample of recent monthly newsletter:

Sample of refund request reply letter (non-personalized version):


I'm truly sorry that WebPosition is not meeting your needs. Most people find the program invaluable for improving their search positions and rate it as the best positioning product out there.

Can you tell me what it is that is not working for you? Perhaps I can do something to correct the issue. Even if I can't "fix it," we'd certainly appreciate any honest feedback so we might improve in the future.

If you want to go ahead with a refund, all you have to do is let me know and I will take care of it immediately. Beware that your license will be disabled on our server after the refund is processed, so the program will cease to function the next time it connects to the Web.

Again, I really want you to be happy and welcome any specific feedback you might have. If you're having trouble learning the program, I can get you a free download of our $39 WebPosition Training Video. This is an excellent product that will walk you through the entire program explaining search engine marketing concepts as well as how to use each screen of the software. If you're struggling with using the software, this video will help you immensely.

If there were additional features or engines that you wanted, I can also put you down for a FREE upgrade to WebPosition Gold version 2.0 when it comes out. It will support a lot of new engines and will have other improvements based on user feedback. It should be a very cool upgrade. I can mark your account that we've extended your money-back guarantee until 45 days after you've tried version 2. That way you risk nothing by taking advantage of this offer and can still get a refund if you desire.

Because I REALLY want to earn your business, I can also throw in a free copy of Meta Magician ($49 meta tag program) and Code Defender (another $49 utility to help protect your HTML source code from pirates, and to reduce the size of your Web pages so they load faster). That means you'll be getting a free upgrade worth $79 or more, plus Meta Magician, Code Defender, and the training video. The best part is you can still ask for a refund when version 2 comes out if you're not completely satisfied.

Let me know if you'd like to take advantage of the upgrade, bonuses, and money-back extension and I'll get them right out to you. Our goal is to bend over backwards to satisfy 100% of our customers if at all possible."
See Also:

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