April 11, 2002
Thom Pharmakis, who writes the Lands' End weekly newsletter, told us why he felt compelled to create something very different from most eretailer's newsletters: "Nobody's going to buy every week, and it could get old really fast to keep saying '20% off on sweaters' or something. We want these people to stay with us for years."
Lands' End's online sales rose from $138 million to $218 million last year, and the company's email newsletter now has half a million opt-in subscribers. Includes samples of seven Lands' End newsletters so you can steal ideas from them.
In the spring of 1999, when Lands' End recruited its new VP Internet Bill Bass from Forrester, he immediately swung the Company's focus from banner advertising to email marketing.
Lands' End had already begun publishing an email newsletter, but the subscription offer was buried below the fold of the home page and only a puny 28,000 visitors had opted in for it. Bass quickly moved the newsletter sign-up to the top of the left navigation bar. Then the entire online marketing team got together to figure out how the newsletter itself could be as powerful as possible.
95% of Lands' End opt-ins chose the weekly newsletter frequency versus the monthly or twice monthly frequencies also offered. Most people get 52 newsletters a year.
Internet Copywriter, Thom Pharmakis, who authors the newsletter each week, describes why this frequency is such a challenge,"Nobody's going to buy every week, and it could get old really fast to keep saying '20% off on sweaters' or something. We want these people to stay with us for years."
He continues, "The difference about email is you have to volunteer to receive a message. With catalogs, you can get a catalog cover under their nose. With radio and TV, you can get a little of your message under their nose and they can decide whether to pay attention to it or not. But email depends on the goodwill of the customer! You have to do everything you can to cultivate that. I don't think anybody wants to sign up to read ads. In TV there isn't a commercials-only channel."
The team decided the newsletter and the site would have seperate functions. The site would be where selling went on. The newsletter would be the site's ambassador, quietly reminding customers to visit the site when they needed that extra pair of chinos, by building a strong branded relationship with them week after week throughout the year.
Pharmakis found his inspiration for the new world of email newsletters in the world of classic advertising from decades past. He is a huge fan of the golden age of advertising when giants like David Ogilvy wrote long copy for print ads that entertained and informed even as they moved product.
In fact Lands' End's original founders had all come from that same background, and in the past the Lands' End catalog had featured articles by world-class writers tucked in between product pitches. "People would look forward to receiving the catalog like it was their favorite magazine."
The Internet marketing team decided each weekly newsletter would feature an entertaining article written by Pharmakis at the very top. His editorial calendar roughly alternates between five different types of articles (actual samples at end):
1. Local Dodgeville Wisconsin Flavor
A big part of Lands' End's brand appeal has always been its location in Dodgeville Wisconsin, a place in America's heartland far from the stress and cynicism of the big city. Pharmakis and his newsletter partner will often poke around looking for a local angle for a story.
He has done features on a tractor auction, an unusual herd of cows owned by a local farmer, the hunt for the last remaining bit of snow left unmelted in the spring, how local folks still wave to strangers driving by in cars, and a tongue-in-cheek article comparing a road construction project in (tiny) downtown Dodgeville to traffic snarls caused by construction in Boston.
Pharmakis says, "People here will say 'Let's do something about the local Shakespeare festival - let's prove we've got high culture too.' But I get letters from customers saying, 'I'm sitting in an office in New York reading about the tractor auction in Dodgeville and wishing I was there.' It fulfills a fantasy of rural life for people."
2. Customer Stories
"We have a big file of customer letters," says Pharmakis. He rummages through it looking for letters from customers who seem to embody the kinds of values that Lands' End itself represents: Honesty, integrity, thrift, together with a dash of adventure. For example, a letter from an Illinois father who had put four daughters though college while wearing his old Lands' End Squall ® jacket inspired the feature article, 'Squall Dad.'
Pharmakis has also written a continuing series of 'Mesh Adventures' -- all inspired by reader letters about extraordinary things that happened to them (such as meeting Fidel Castro or saving orphan chimps in Africa) while they were wearing Lands' End Mesh shirts.
3. Seasonal Notes
Pharmakis has done special issues for Christmas, Halloween, even April Fools Day. Often he adds a dash of extra humor to these so they stand out in email boxes overloaded with straight sales pitches from other retailers. For example, he did a feature called 'Spooky colors' on how to use Lands' End clothing as a Halloween costume and a silly poetic take-off on 'Twas the Night Before Christmas.
4. Product Stories
Lands' End's catalog has always featured long copy on particular products. Pharmakis draws on that tradition to create product-focused issues that are hopefully so interesting to read that you do not feel like it is a straight sales pitch and you are entertained, even if it is a product that would never appeal to you.
For example, Pharmakis told the story of how a visiting sandal manufacturer from Spain was so appalled by the cold weather in Dodgeville that he invented a line of fuzzy warm comfort sandals for them to sell. "I played it straight, and built it up and built it up until you'd be weeping with laughter," Pharmakis says.
5. Product Offers
Occasionally Pharmakis does a feature story that pushes a particular line of products in a more salesy manner. For example, he might talk about this year's swimwear fashions at the start of the season. He has also tested an issue focusing on women's plus sizes, and one on men's suits.
No matter the topic, Pharmakis carefully writes each week's feature article in style that matches the brand itself. He explains, "We have an extremely educated customer base," so he feels free to use words of more than one syllable.
Unlike print products, email can be whatever length you want it to be, so there are no copy length rules. Sometimes this means an article is very short, sometimes fairly long. Whatever it takes to tell the story.
The articles are definitely crafted - not dashed off. Pharmakis spends nearly 100% of his time each week writing a single issue. He notes, "A lot of writing you do never sees the light of day. You work, and then throw away a lot of stuff and rewrite. People like lyrical writing. I do write things a little more lyrically than if I were writing a novel."
His subject lines are also carefully crafted. "We try to make sure it is going to show up in the browser's window, so it is fairly short. Maybe 20-30 characters. Each word is a word you can scan quickly, and it does not look like other words that might cause confusion."
He adds, "My formula is the subject line should peak your curiosity, but once you open the email it makes perfect sense so readers don't feel they've been cheated." Examples: "Some Cows We Know," "Castro," "DO THE WAVE."
Aside from writing his issues, Pharmakis pesters the customer service department to make sure that he gets the chance to respond to all letters from newsletter readers. He explains, "They use some sort of software to sort all this stuff, but a letter sometimes slips though. I've gone out of my way to drive people crazy about this."
He keeps it up because he is inspired by replies he himself has received in the past to notes he emailed editors at sites like Salon and National Review. "Whenever somebody writes me I do everything I can to answer them, even if it's only to say 'Thanks.' I figure if it mattered to me, then it's going to matter to these people too."
Since Pharmakis took over the newsletter in late 1998 opt-ins have grown from 28,000 to about half a million (and still rising). Lands' End online merchandise sales have also grown from $61 million in FY 1999, to $138 in FY 2000, and $218 million in FY 2001.
While Pharmakis can not speak to any specific link between the newsletter's readers and online sales growth, we are willing to bet there is a significant one. He was able to share these interesting results:
- Issues are sent very late Tuesday nights in order to hit people's mailboxes Wednesday morning. About 1/3 of total opens happen on Wednesdays, 1/3 on Thursday and the rest "in dribs and drabs until the weekend."
- Although the Internet team waits two weeks to closely examine the results of each issue, generally they have found that clicks and sales patterns established in the very first few hours of an issue's life will stay true. "If 20% of traffic went to a particular link at first, that percentage will hold whether it's 2,000 people or 100,000 people."
- The worst performing newsletter of all time was the issue focused on the women's plus sizes line, the second worst was the issue focused on men's suits. Turns out these topics were not relevant to a broad enough audience to do well. "I got one letter from somebody saying 'I accidentally received this plus size issue.'"
- Some of the best performing issues have been stories that were completely unrelated to products. Pharmakis says, "The story about the tractor auction was one of the best performers. I think people have a certain pent-up demand. They know what they need to buy. A story about a tractor auction is relevant to everybody whether they're in the market for chinos or jackets."
- Unlike the catalog where focusing on a particular product has helped sales, the newsletter team has learned that people prefer to see a range of products they can choose from online. "It contradicts catalog experience. We discovered if we offer an index of things, if we say 'See our range of turtlenecks', we'll get more traffic than we did when linking directly to one particular product."
- Capitalizing the words in a subject line, sometimes even capitalizing every letter, works better than lower case for Lands' End. "It's the relationship they have to Lands' End versus when you get an email from your grandmother."
- Pharmakis gets about 30-50 letters a week on average from readers. He may only get a dozen or so letters after an issue focused on a straight product offering. However, when the issue such as the Halloween 'Spooky colors' one features a lot of humor, his incoming reader email shoots up to more than 100.
Pharmakis sums up the Lands' End newsletter philosophy, "We're really playing the long game with these people. We care as much about what they do over the next two years as over the next week. I'd rather have them open 50 of these and not buy anything, and then do all their Christmas shopping with us because they love us so much. They're seeing a parade of our brand values over the entire year."
We've posted samples of seven Lands' End newsletter issues for you here, including "Castro" and "Some Cows We Know": http://www.marketingsherpa1.com/landsend/sherpa_le.html