June 23, 2006
Case Study

How to Use Email Autoresponders to Convert Skeptical Consumers (+ Delivery Test Results)

SUMMARY: Gorgeous Web site design, compelling testimonials and pages of scientific fact can only do so much. Many consumers -- especially women researching healthcare options -- won't trust you enough to purchase on their first visit.

But, they might opt in for "10 Tips" via email.

Hear how one marketer tested an autoresponder series for new opt-ins. The campaign worked … until email filters started crushing delivery rates. Next, he tested in-house vs outsourced email delivery options.

See creative samples & discover test results:

"On so many sites, they try to sell you snake oil to lower blood pressure. They promise their supplements can," says Ophir Prusak, Internet Marketer for InterCure Inc., makers of the RESPeRATE device.

When many of your competitors hawk products online as convincingly as possible that may not work, it pollutes the entire marketplace, seeding distrust.

Prusak and the Web team did the best they could to combat this. The site is cleanly and beautifully designed, featuring loads of testimonials, pages of scientific data, and "As Featured In" logos from such publications as The Washington Post, AARP and The Wall Street Journal. Plus, they promoted a "Save $45 Today" discount offer on the home page. Last but not least, the 800 number was manned 24/7.

Also, Prusak carefully restricted his media buys to highly trusted brand names, such as ads in respected mainstream medical email newsletters for consumers.

However, many visitors were leery, having seen nearly equally trustworthy-looking content at other sites.

Prusak figured, if the site couldn't convince consumers immediately, how about an ongoing educational effort via email? The campaign had three stages:

Stage #1. Gather opt-ins

Prusak added an opt-in offer to nearly every page of the site so no matter where you were when you decided to convert, the form was right there. The form used five best practices:

A. Copy: Instead of saying "Sign up for email" (which hardly anyone wants to do on a strange site) the headline read "Get 10 Tips to Lower Blood Pressure", a benefit all visitors were likely to be interested in.

B. Form: The form was a form -- not a hotlink to another page with a form -- so people could sign up right away without any additional steps.

C. Submit button: Instead of saying "subscribe" which has taken on negative undertones for some markets (smells like a longer term relationship than new visitors may want), the nice fat button read "Submit".

D. Usage clarity: Although the main offer was to receive tips via email for 10 days, Prusak intended to also these names a monthly newsletter until they opt-ed out or went inactive. Rather than assume permission for this, his copy carefully detailed it.

"In addition to 10 tips on lowering blood pressure, you'll also receive occasional updates about RESeRATE."

E. Privacy: Although RESeRATE's site had a privacy policy posted at the bottom of every page, Prusak added privacy language and a hotlink to the email form as well so visitors could not miss it.

"Your email address is totally secure and will NEVER be shared, sold or rented. Privacy Policy."

Stage #2. Create compelling and trustworthy content

With help from the rest of the marketing and product management team, Prusak developed the content for the 10 autoresponder messages that would begin the relationship. (Link to samples of all 10 below.)

Key -- Almost none of the content was repurposed from the content-heavy site. "We'd rather give them something valuable than repacking information."

Plus very little of the copy was a sales pitch. In fact, most wasn't about the product at all. "It's practical, helpful tips, for instance are you accurately measuring your blood pressure?" In addition, many of the hotlinks were not to RESeRATE's site! Instead hotlinks were to respected brands such as the Mayo Clinic and the American Heart Association. "We're showing that all of our information is from a respected source."

At the very bottom of each message, Prusak posted the headline for "Tomorrow's Tip" to keep interest high. He also had a simple involvement device with hotlinked "Yes/No answers, "Was this tip helpful for you?"

Stage #3. Fight deliverability battles

"About six months ago, we had a snowball effect," says Prusak. The site had been live since 2002, but now at last it hit critical mass in terms of traffic and email opt-ins. Which was exciting, but suddenly more and more people started contacting RESPeRATE to complain that they had not received all 10 of their tips.

On the one hand, Prusak was thrilled they valued the content enough to care. On the other hand, he despaired that email filters were trashing his mailings.

All email had been broadcast using top-line software run on an in-house server. "Our email systems were very robust." First Prusak signed on with an email certification service to see if that would help with delivery. It definitely did, but wasn't a magic bullet to solve all delivery problems.

"Our core competency isn't sending out email," Prusak decided. "Maybe we should outsource this to a company that focuses on this." However, the in-house systems were highly integrated into Web analytics and a lead tracking CRM system. The cost of time, energy, and cash to integrate an outside ESP into the same systems would be more than the CEO would happily sign off on without a lot of persuasion.

How do you convince a CEO to spend more money on email?

Although he realized he'd need a fairly high-end vendor in the end, Prusak didn't want to invest his time and energy into researching options until he had clear purchasing authority. So, instead he decided to conduct a "proof of concept" test using two less complex email service providers that would allow him to run a test quickly and easily.

"We took a subset of our list and randomized it to make sure it was unbiased." Although both the vendors imposed maximum send limits on new accounts (to prevent spammers from abusing their systems), Prusak was able to send enough email through both systems to get a statistically valid result. "I wanted at least 100 responses from each."

After reviewing measured opens and clicks from both vendors, he was "skeptical" about the results. So, a month later, he ran the test again. This time he split the send between the vendor that had performed the best the first time, and his own in-house email servers.

Prusak says the site's email offer is so popular that he's well on his way to a list size in excess of a million names. The 10 Tips autoresponder has been "very effective" at helping to convert new leads into buyers.

"We have excellent responses. People have called us up and emailed us back that this is great information." The yes/no hotlinks at the bottom of each issue also see mainly positive results. Interestingly, the autoresponders that get the best open and click rates are the first two (which is predictable) and the seventh (which has the most valuable-sounding subject line.)

The fact that a seventh daily email could do as well as a first day email is fairly remarkable, and it speaks to the fact that content really is king.

The delivery test results using an external ESP were far better than Prusak had dreamed they would be. "I just expected they would get a bit better, but one vendor got a 17% increase in opens and a 29% increase in clicks; and the other vendor got a 14% improvement in opens and 53% increase in clicks."

Prusak expected the higher click rates because not all pens are measured, and also perhaps some of the previously filtered recipients would be more interested in the content than people who'd gotten all emails so far.

However, Prusak found the difference in click increase somewhat inexplicable to some extent because click rates should by all rights remain evenly matched (the content is the same once someone's opened it.)

The second test between house servers and the best performer of the two vendors (the one with the best click rate), was won by the vendor. "Compared to internal results, there was a 5% increase in opens and a 35% in clicks."

After convincing an initially skeptical management team, Prusak began his official search for a higher-end vendor for a complete integration. He's narrowed the field to three, and will be making his decision shortly.

(Note: If you are a sales rep for an ESP Prusak has not contacted, please do NOT contact him. He's not interested and a deluge of sales calls are sorry payback for graciously offering your story to MarketingSherpa. Thank you.)

Useful links related to this article:

Creative samples from RESPeRATE's email campaigns

Sender Score Certified - the email certification service Prusak tested:

Vertical Response - The email service provider Prusak tested that got the highest score:

Constant Contact - the email service provider Prusak tested that did better than in-house:


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