August 12, 2014
Case Study

Email Marketing: Simplifying email content increases open rates 48% for B2B company

SUMMARY: "Most of our lives we spend not as marketers, but as recipients of marketing," said John Lavey, President and Chief Operating Officer, Hammock.

As consumers, his team was experiencing email fatigue, and knew their newsletter was part of the problem. Read on to learn how they combated this by simplifying email content and design, and renamed the newsletter to represent a refocus on idea cultivation and problem-solving.
by Courtney Eckerle, Manager of Editorial Content


Hammock is a B2B company focused on creating marketing content and media for its customers, and collaborates with clients to develop content strategies. The company's approach to content is "not talking about yourself, but finding ways to authentically help your customers and your clients to serve their customers," John Lavey, President and Chief Operating Officer, Hammock, said.

The question the team had to ask themselves is one they ask clients every day: Is our email content authentically helping our customers?

"Speaking for myself and I think for a lot of other people, I don't think many of us really care about the brands, we just really want help in doing things. We want answers and we want ways to learn how to do things better," he said.

The team's goal became enhancing the teaching aspect of their main newsletter, Lavey explained.

"Showing us how to use things to solve problems, and then, 'Oh by the way, we've got the products or services to do that,' that's really the kind of marketing we believe in."


To help subscribers to solve problems while starting discussions, the team turned their traditional, content-heavy email newsletter into what they refer to as an "un-newsletter."

This provides subscribers with just one helpful marketing idea, alongside suggestions of how to best utilize that idea.

The team simplified email content and design, and customized the email preheader text in order to meet their goal of a more helpful, less crowded newsletter. To bring focus to these changes, they decided to rename it "The Idea Email."

Step #1. Be intentional with email content

With an open office plan, most of the changes to simplify email content came from "just conversation and kind of a fermentation of ideas" among the team, Lavey said.

The team had started some small testing efforts — A/B testing subject lines, for example — but fundamentally, the newsletter content was still the same.

However, Lavey added, "We were still sending out the same kind of content, which was the classic idea of a company newsletter. Let's give you a bunch of stuff and have links to it to drive you back to the site and hope that there's something on there that grabs your attention."

Developing a new way to approach email content was "a hunch on our part, and I think a bit of reflection of our own fatigue with the amount of information that was coming our way."

It was a bold move for the team, he said, and difficult to pare content down to the necessities, but the team discussed the idea that "if you give me 20 good ideas, it's almost a disservice. Give me three ideas I can do something with. We wanted to focus on cutting [copy] down so it'd be more memorable, more valuable."

The idea was for the emails to become more targeted, and less about the product. Hammock needed to "connect to what we think are great conversations that are happening out there."

One of the biggest challenges in this, according to Lavey, was deciding what was worth talking about and discussing.

"We work and spend a lot of time coming up with what we choose," he said, adding that the team makes time for discussing and developing the email to make sure the topic is well-thought-out.

Because of their dedication to an actionable topic, Lavey said the team decided to rename the newsletter "The Idea Email." As part of keeping the email conversation targeted and engaging, the first thing the team did was cut the copy down to 350 words, which Lavey said was quite difficult, despite their dedication to a minimalist approach.

The newsletter was only sent out every two weeks, and is the only current email marketing effort, aside from a few communications to current clients.

"As far as an ongoing marketing to drive leads and generate sales, this is our email tactic," he said.

Step #2. Test the email subject lines and assess necessary changes

In the previous newsletter, the standard was five to seven articles, a blurb and a small thumbnail image encouraging people to click to see more information, Lavey said.

The current version of the newsletter prominently features the new name, "The Idea Email," and is made up of one landscaped image, a headline and the 350 words of copy.

"We try to make it a personal voice and accessible," he said, adding that the team adds a byline to the content for added transparency.

The team writes three headlines for each newsletter, and all three are tested for every send. Whichever one has the highest open rate in the first hour is used for the rest of the list.

The current subject lines are written to be SEO-friendly, Lavey said, but the most important aspect is that they act to initiate discussion about the newsletter.

"Our hope is that they're interesting or provocative enough to open. Then the image, I think, carries a lot of the responsibility because there's usually an interesting image with it," he said.

Make value of changes clear

On "The Idea Email" page on Hammock's website, it is quickly explained why this newsletter is different, and the value subscribers receive:
You're just a couple of fill-in-the-boxes away from receiving The Idea Email, Hammock's "un-newsletter" designed especially for savvy marketers who are so busy, they only open email that makes them smarter. We know your email inbox is already full, so we send only one Idea Email every other week. And it's not filled with hype or gimmicks or promotional messages. It's just one idea and suggestions about how your organization might use it.

Sometimes, the idea will be about a topic, approach or tool very few people have heard of before. Other times, the idea will be a new way to think about something you've been doing the same old way for years.

Did we mention it's free? We thought you'd like that idea, too.

Below that, recent previous email sends are listed for potential subscribers to peruse, and decide if the value is there for them. The headline and image of the email are displayed, and clicking through leads to Hammock's blog, where The Idea Email is published.

This also pushes the blog readers to become subscribers, with text above reading, "Hammock's Current Idea Email was released [today]. Subscribe now to receive your own issue, once every two weeks."

Step #3. Establish a repeatable editorial process

It was important that the process of developing the idea is repeatable, since the newsletter goes out every two weeks "but it's a bit of serendipity" as well, Lavey added.

Usually, the writing process is done by Lavey and Rex Hammock, Founder and CEO, Hammock, and they make sure it is engaging. After the article is written, it's handed off to the other members of the team to edit. The editing process is a lot of cutting down, he said.

"A lot of weeks, we have to cut and cut to get it [to 350 words] but I think that's a good thing to do," he said about the editing process.

The editors cut it down, "tear it apart a little bit, make it better. Then, we have someone on staff who beats us up to make sure it's submitted in time," he joked.


"We're getting a lot more responses to us, it's driving conversations — high-level conversations. I'm getting presidents and CEOs stopping me in town and talking to me about an email that we just put out," Lavey said.

The fact that the emails are producing the kind of high-level conversations that the team set out to achieve is "more meaningful than filling an edit slate to send it out every couple weeks, and crossing our fingers and hoping it was going to lead to something," he said.

Lavey and his team were intentional about reaching a higher-level audience, C-suite and other organizational leaders, a challenge that paid off, he said.

"I think that's a little bit harder to quantify. Anecdotally, we think it's been much more successful at reaching a higher-level audience. We do know it's generating a lot more leads and conversation. Who cares about open rates on some level. What's really mattered is the actual physical, tangible leads that have come out of it," he said.

Although he said they will continue to evolve the newsletter, "we think this is a more meaningful way to market. And more fun for us, frankly, because when we strip away all this, marketing is about helping people and helping them do something."

A key result from this content change is that Hammock has increased open rates by 48%.

The newsletter's clickthrough rates have decreased slightly, Lavey said, but that those clicking through or contacting Hammock are more qualified leads.

"There is a level of fatigue because the underlying purpose here is to really be authentically and truly helpful," he said, adding they want to honor that fatigue by fighting against the tyranny of information in the email marketing space.

"Given that idea that one crisp, focused and brief message might cut through all of that, that might be the thing that would make people want to open it again and again. That's our takeaway," he concluded.

Creative Samples

  1. Previous content-heavy newsletter

  2. Current newsletter

Campaign Team

Rex Hammock, CEO
John Lavey, President, Chief Operating Officer
Jamie Roberts, Director of Editorial
Taylor Zimmermann, Project Manager

Emma — Hammock's email marketing agency
Christopher Lester, Vice President of Sales

Related Resources

Email Summit 2015 Call for Speakers — Have an interesting story to share like Hammock did? Apply to be an Email Summit speaker.

Email Marketing: How a B2B company lifted conversion 200% with personalized email messages

Content Marketing: User-generated content tips from Jimmy Wales of Wikipedia

Lead Nurturing: How intent data lifted a B2B email campaign's CTR 248% and forwarding rate more than 400%

Content Marketing: How an IT solutions company generated $8 million from a thought leadership campaign

Customer-centric Marketing: Cincom's Curveball campaign scores a 236.7% increase in CTR

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