October 09, 2012
How To

Email Marketing How-to: 5 steps to improve your email newsletter

SUMMARY: The newsletter is where two of the most valuable marketing tools come together: email and content. It is a prime opportunity to not only recognize the power shift from marketer to consumer, but also embrace and optimize for it.

Newsletters are an important, but often neglected strategy, with 46% of marketers reporting their email newsletter as staying the course, and 11% having a floundering program, according to the 2012 Email Marketing Benchmark Report. Read on for five steps from two email marketing leaders to help you improve your newsletters.
by Courtney Eckerle, Reporter

"Email is really a place where timeless marketing tactics can be employed. It’s an invaluable tool for responding to your customers’ needs," said Joel Book, Principal, Marketing Research and Education, ExactTarget.

Since newsletters are permission based, the consumer is already interested in what you have to say. The challenge for the marketer is then to sort through the overwhelming amount of information available to provide the consumer with the value they actually want.

Newsletters are often the first stop on the path to conversion, providing a preview of the value prospects will receive from your main site and, eventually, your product.

"The first fundamental aspect is that they provide a lot of value. People love, and interact with, [newsletters] because they are teasers that drive to the full content. They can often provide a service of actually directing people toward the content they are seeking," said Loren McDonald, Vice President of Industry Relations, Silverpop.

Step #1. Create a caring mentality

Even if marketers aren’t able to have face-to-face interactions with consumers, it’s important to create that feeling with content. Creating and utilizing opportunities to connect not only your company and its employees to your customers but your customers to each other can have a big payoff.

"You have to care about the subscriber," Book said. "Email enables a large company to appear small, and a small company to appear larger, because you are creating this community of consumers."

One of the strengths of email -- its efficient nature and cost effectiveness -- is in danger of becoming a major detriment when it comes to applying this more considerate approach.

"Unfortunately, I see too many companies sending large one-size-fits-all ‘email blasts’ to their customers," Book said, adding that some common personal courtesies should be applied in the email marketing sphere.

"You never get a second chance to make a first impression. The impression that the consumer comes away with is, ‘Wow … company A is asking what my interests are, what my preferences are, and company B over here is just blasting away, and I’m getting emails from them that I didn’t even opt in to.’"

Ask how to best serve the consumer

"The really smart and savvy companies -- and I would say even the most respectable and responsible marketers -- are the ones that really give control to the consumers," Book said.

They do this by asking consumers a simple question that should be present throughout the entire process: "How would you like to be served?"

It is vital to understand basic interests and other relevant details of a consumer. However, Book advises that to truly serve the consumer, it is equally as important to know their challenges, as well as their newsletter likes and dislikes. Use whatever information is available to deduce what problems they have, and how your organization can help solve them.

Book suggests having boxes subscribers can check with their own particular interests and giving them a choice on which newsletters they want to receive -- a consideration consumers appreciate.

Along with this variety opt-in preference, Book said, "It is also important to ask, ‘at which email address would you like to receive this newsletter?’"

Immediately show value

"You have to show a potential subscriber what he or she is going to receive," Book said. Value is critical in growing your list, and consumers must immediately see the benefit to them in subscribing. He suggested the following tactics:
  • Create a preview of the newsletter on your website for people to see

  • Figure out what keywords your ideal recipient would be searching for

  • Use the main website to show the value of being an email subscriber

The process of subscribing should be as painless as possible for consumers. You should take care to avoid overwhelming them, or making them uncomfortable with information they are asked to give.

"You don’t have to ask all of your questions at once," Book advised.

Initially, get the absolutely necessary information , and then gradually build up with each interaction. He said this helps to foster the idea that the company is "serving" the subscriber and checking in with them. The ongoing process will "fine-tune" subscriber preferences, and help to avoid losing first-time subscribers with a lengthy sign-up process.

"That’s actually one of the most effective things you can do -- to ask questions along the way," he concluded.

McDonald has a similar vision of the relationship between company newsletter and subscriber, saying, "There is a promise of answers and solutions."

Content should reflect that and become a consistent source of timely and relevant information, "following what’s going on in the marketplace you are in," McDonald said. "People have gravitated to newsletters as one of their key ways of finding content."

Step #2. Personalize content

"There is so much opportunity today to personalize content," Book said, citing dynamic and data-driven content. Both of those, he said, describe how "really smart marketers are now personalizing their content."

Book claims it all goes back to relevancy, "Effective email marketing is all about catering to the needs and interests of individual customers, and now it’s possible to do that on a large scale. The information to personalize is critical. It should be the foundation of a marketing campaign."

However, the quest for personalization can be overwhelming with all of the data available to find use for and analyze.

"We’re in an era now (that) is often described as the era of ‘big data,’ which quite simply means that now most companies have an enormous amount of data that is being collected about current, as well as prospective, customers."

The mistake marketers make, McDonald added, is to, "throw everything in there, cross our fingers and hope that something resonates. Just because it’s a newsletter doesn’t mean it has to be a generic ‘one-size-fits-all’ newsletter."

Book advises that with so much information available, shrewd marketers make it a priority to know "which five or six pieces of information will actually be useful" when personalizing newsletters or email.

Scotts Miracle-Gro

Book cites an ExactTarget client, Scotts Miracle-Gro, a lawn and garden products company, as an example of a company that uses email to deliver locally relevant content to subscribers.

Once a consumer registers on the Scotts’ website, Scotts invites the consumer to become a subscriber to Scotts’ email newsletter, Lawn Care Update, so they can begin receiving expert advice and special offers from the company. The company then uses targeted information to deliver on that promise of value.

"Scotts is about teaching, about serving the consumer. Scotts understands really clearly that most people don’t know how to seed their lawn or apply fertilizer or insecticide. So in order for consumers to get the best results, they need to be taught."

In Book’s estimation, Scotts is best at focusing its newsletter on teaching consumers how to get the best product results. Different areas of the country can affect use in a myriad of ways, such as soil or climate. By one simple request of a subscriber’s ZIP code, Scotts is able to provide countless tips and information that is essential to product success.

By providing specific links within the newsletter, the email can lead the consumer back to the website for further information or help, or even for advice from other customers using that product.

This helps to solidify the connection between company content and solutions in the mind of the consumer, which will keep them reading your newsletter and visiting your website.

By utilizing other assets, such as social media, the company has been able to see, and share in future newsletters, the results of its personalized content: customers who are passionate enough about the company to send a caring message back.

Scotts’ customers share pictures and results with the company, and, "Scotts sends updates; they actually share those photos. This phenomenon which Scotts has taken advantage of is called brand advocacy."

Step #3. Use newsletters to nurture brand advocates

"[Marketers] really haven’t understood well enough, until maybe now, the importance of nurturing brand advocates," Book said.

McDonald refers to brand advocacy as "sideways marketing." The idea being that marketing has moved from push and pull, to most consumers looking to their fellow consumers for brand trust. Brand advocates recommend the brand to their friends or others, and in return, that behavior encourages people, possibly even motivating them to buy the product.

"Marketers’ job is increasingly becoming how do we enable our customers and prospects to become brand advocates, and how do we let them actually do the selling for us? It’s about creating that environment for our advocates to become … part of the marketing team," McDonald concluded.

The best way to bring in personality from consumers is to give it, according to McDonald. Every company has real people behind it and a human connection to offer. Consumers want to care about the person writing the newsletter, and keeping content light and funny can facilitate this connection.

"Whether they are talking about their family or their summer vacation … whatever it is, it’s a way to bring in an engaging human voice."

He advises companies to use their employees to bring in these anecdotes of using the products themselves, or a story of their experience with the company, to give newsletters a trust and friendship that readers may choose to reciprocate.

King Arthur Flour

McDonald cites a Silverpop client, King Arthur Flour, as a prime example of how effective using brand advocates can be. The company designed an A/B split test with one newsletter featuring three brand advocates, each with a short favorable quote and their location.

"The lift was 30% both on actual conversion and revenue on the email that had those three customer quotes." He advises that, "It isn’t this magical thing, where if every company ran out and added in a couple of customer quotes they are going to see a 30% lift in revenue, but you know it can have a significant impact."

Step #4. Design for mobile

Design in general is an area where "you can under do it, but you can very easily over do it, by trying to pack too much in," said Book. "I think that is something every marketer needs to constantly revisit."

Mobile design assessment is an increasingly important step, with the rapid change in how consumers are viewing your emails. According to a March 2012 Nielsen statistic, 49.7% of U.S. mobile subscribers own smartphones. These kinds of numbers dictate how your email will be opened, and marketers are still figuring out how to adjust.

McDonald lists design for mobile as "the single hardest question in the industry today. It’s still sort of early in, and nobody has it all figured out yet, and there are a lot of different views."

One of the most critical elements he believes marketers forget about is context. Marketers need to add into the design discussion the inevitability that most consumers interacting with email on their mobile device are distracted. Whether they are waiting in line at Starbucks, commuting to and from work, or even sitting at home in front of the television, design goes beyond details of font sizes and width.

Every aspect of the newsletter -- from the subject line to the content -- has to react to that limited attention span, and newsletters should be designed simply but dynamically. McDonald offered a few pieces of mobile design advice:
  • Try to find a format that works for many, if not all systems

  • Move into a one-column newsletter format

  • Conduct A/B split tests to determine the most effective design

Step #5. Test to learn about your customers

"If I understand how a visitor to my site is behaving, and if she or he is an opt-in subscriber, I can use that behavior on the site to trigger certain follow-on communications," Book said. "The reason why that is so important is once people are on your website, you can see how they are behaving. How long are they staying? What pages do they spend time on?"

Asking, and using testing to answer these questions, is another way to serve your consumer and to cater to the questions plaguing them or the subjects they find most interesting.

Along with testing on the website, Book advises that, "Subject line testing, offer testing and design testing are all critical. Knowing when and how to use dynamic content to really respond to the needs and interests of the individual is critical."

The most important thing to understand is that email is not a stand-alone tactic, and your newsletter has an end objective that testing can help achieve.

"Email and your website go hand and glove, and we’re learning a lot more now about that relationship. Most successful marketers are the ones who understand that the end game for them using email is to re-engage and re-attract individuals to the site."

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Related Resources

Download a free excerpt from the 2012 Email Marketing Benchmark Report

Email Relevance: 8 tactics for leveraging timing, segmentation and content

Email Marketing: Good preference centers can hold onto subscribers even as they change

Email Marketing: Landing page testing less popular but more effective (via MarketingExperiments)

Mobile Marketing 101: 5 ideas to help you begin a conversation with your team

Email Optimization: How to prioritize your A/B testing (via MarketingExperiments)

Mobile Drives Email List Growth: How to use SMS and relevant content to add opt-ins

Mobile Marketing: Get your audience’s attention – wait till they’re bored

Smartphones Account for Half of all Mobile Phones, Dominate New Phone Purchases in the US (via Nielsen Wire)

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