October 29, 2008
How To

Follow Zappos' Web 2.0 Steps to Build Email Newsletter Driven by User-Generated Content

SUMMARY: Mixing customer reviews into email campaigns improves response, according to MarketingSherpa. But many marketers still wonder to what extent UGC and email can be happily married.

Check out how Zappos.com created a 100% UGC-driven newsletter that keeps their best shoe buyers engaged with the online retailer at little cost. Their newsletter strategy also drives their Web 2.0 tactics on Facebook and Twitter.
Almost half of marketers now consider exploring the relationship between email and Web 2.0 as a medium-to-high priority, according to MarketingSherpa’s Email Marketing Benchmark Guide 2009. Well, Zappos.com’s newsletter, the Zappos Daily Shoe Digest, should open the eyes for those who remain on the fence about the idea. Shoe Digest consists solely of user-generated content.

“I don’t have exact [match-back] sales stats, but the Shoe Digest audience goes right to the core of our repeat customers demo and keeps them engaged,” says Adam Audette, SEO Manager, Zappos.com. “The number of subscribers has been growing at 8% year over year. It provides a community for like-minded people who are Zappos loyalists. It is not salesy, it provides us with tons of content, and it’s a long-term play that we are very happy with.”

Audette says that the UGC makes the newsletter a completely cost-effective loyalty tool, which has been paying dividends during the economic downturn. In short, the idea has produced an audience of rabid shoe enthusiasts (and possible repeat shoppers).

“It has an invaluable aspect of giving back and getting that personal connection. It generates its own buzz at the same time. We don’t track open rates for the Shoe Digest. But based on the activity we see with people submitting comments and my 10-plus years of experience with email lists, I would estimate the open rate to be greater than 60%.”

Here are the 5 big tactics they used to implement the program and keep it growing:

-> Tactic #1. Build list on order page

They wanted first to let their customers know about the newsletter in a meaningful fashion. So, they included an opt-in checkbox for Shoe Digest when *every* new customer created an account.

It is one of two checkboxes that appears on the page – with the other one offering a chance to win free shoes if they sign up for general promotions from the eretailer.

Once subscribers receive a Shoe Digest, the copy at the top of the message encourages them to send in comments to a Zappos.com email address, which is dedicated to the program. A cautionary note, though: Audette warns against thinking that such an initiative will take off *right away*. People may sign up for the newsletter, but they can be shy about contributing content at the outset.

“At first, they weren’t really talking or saying a whole lot. So, we had to do a little poking and prodding to get discussion going about products and so forth. As it grew, people started writing in more and more. It became a channel for Zappos advocates to start communicating among themselves.”

-> Tactic #2. Keep layout simple

Audette says that the layout for Shoe Digest is modeled on a simple, “listserv” design style. “It’s almost goes back to the pre-blog era. It’s plain text, about 8-15 comments in every issue.”

They send it out every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Audette and his team use straightforward subject lines that include the brand and edition number. A recent example of their subject lines: “Zappos.com Digest 1043: The Practice of Shoe Removal.”

At the top of the layout, they use preview snippets, along with who the authors are (first names only). Then, the information is available as the reader scrolls down the email body. Zappos.com product offers do *not* appear anywhere in the newsletter.

Here are the main types of comments they publish:
o How-to questions about things like foot comfort and shoe upkeep
o Shoe reviews
o Submitted answers to questions that were in past editions

An example of a how-to question from a recent edition: “Do you have a recommendation for sneakers? I just found out through a scratch test about a recent allergy to thiuram mix, but want to keep up my new habit of running…..”

-> Tactic #3. Only use top comments

They get an average of 350 comments per week, but only use about 30 of them. Of course, they had to put in a process to decide which ones make the cut.

Audette has assigned one marketing staffer to the job. She has a regular presence in the newsletter as a moderator. She also pares down the submissions to the most relevant for shoe aficionados.

“We make sure that each post is interesting and entertaining,” Audette says. “There is some editing to make it more readable. But in the end, we look for personality and quality. Sometimes, a comment that is one sentence is good. Often in that case, it’s a really good question or remark. Whatever the length, it has to have substance.”

-> Tactic #4. Beware of negative comments

Audette’s rule of thumb is to allow as much freedom of expression to appear in the newsletter as possible. But they have to be careful with submissions that make negative comments about specific brands. They simply weed out the comments that could get them into any kind of legal hot water.

“About once a month we see something that is not in principle with our brand. But mostly, we let everything we can go through, including links to our competitors’ sites.”

-> Tactic #5. Push Facebook and Twitter exposure

They use the newsletter to promote their Facebook group and Twitter feed. Links to both appear at the top of every issue of Shoe Digest. Audette says it makes sense to incorporate other Web 2.0 aspects into the emails because they are targeting a segment that has already proven to be community-friendly online.

It works. In less than a year, they’ve piled up 4,147 Facebook fans. Also, they have created a Facebook application that immediately sends a note to a friend when someone makes a Zappos.com purchase.

In addition, they have created a network of 14,834 followers on Twitter. CEO Tony Hsieh personally does the ‘tweeting,’ Audette says, and consumers seem to gravitate toward interacting with him.

Useful links related to this article:

Creative Samples for Zappos' Web 2.0-driven Newsletter Tactics

Past Sherpa articles about email and Web 2.0:

Test Results -- PETCO Tries Adding Customer Reviews to Email Blasts
Adding Customer Reviews Increases Conversions -- Dramatically

Special Report: How to Add Web 2.0 to Your Email Newsletter
How Zappos.com Grew So Big So Fast - 10 Strategies Behind Their Success
Zappos uses Perl programming to do their emails in-house:

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