June 21, 2011
Case Study

Email Marketing: Short 'staff selection' posts become most-clicked content, increase offline sales 10%

SUMMARY: Anyone can list a product's features. But how often does a list connect with an audience? Product descriptions that invoke passion and clearly describe how the products relate to your audience can stir engagement -- especially if coupled with a promotion.

See how a specialty grocer further explained the benefits of its products while increasing the performance of its email newsletter and boosting offline sales revenue. Also, find out why passion might be easier to find than you think.
by Adam T. Sutton, Senior Reporter


Provenance Food and Wine is a specialty grocer with two stores in Chicago. The shops sell boutique alcoholic beverages and internationally and locally made foods. Some of the products are a bit unusual.

"A lot of the stuff we have on the shelves isn't really in a lot of other stores. Sometimes people get confused and say 'It sounds great, but how do I use it?'" says Tracy Kellner, Owner, Provenance Food & Wine.

Kellner wanted to feature more information about Provenance's products in her marketing, and she wanted to do it with a touch of passion. Rather than passively listing a product's features, she wanted someone who enjoyed a product to explain where it came from, how it could be used, and how it fit with Provenance's brand.

Kellner thought her company's email newsletter and blog would be great channels to feature the new information. She hoped to increase product awareness and in-store sales while emphasizing Provenance's philosophy and expertise.


Provenance launched a "staff selection" program where, each month, a staff member selected a product to feature in Provenance's stores, email newsletter and blog. The product would also be discounted for the entire month.

Here are the steps Kellner's team took:

Step #1. Plan the content and schedule

Each month, a different staff member selected a product to feature in the program. The product would be discounted 10 or 15 percent for the entire month in Provenance's stores.

After selecting, staff members wrote a short blog post to describe the product, why they liked it, its origin, and several uses or recipes for it. The blog post was then used as a primary feature in Provenance's monthly email newsletter.

- Choose products wisely

Kellner approved all products featured in the program and placed two constraints on selections. First, the selection needed a high enough profit margin to more than compensate for the 10 or 15 percent discount. Second, the selection must be a food product.

"It's only food items, because wine is easy to sell," Kellner says. "And, really, we want to push the fact that we're not just a wine store. We have all these other great products and this is your opportunity to try them [at a discount] if you haven't before."

- Let the staff members pick

Allowing staff members to select their favorite products helped inject passion into their descriptions, Kellner says. It also gave Provenance an opportunity to explain why its products are special and show off employees' expertise.

"When you get your staff invested and excited about what's going on, they can convey that information better to the customer."

Step #2. Write the first post yourself

Provenance's employees were not professional writers. Some were excited about the program but were less-than-excited about writing a blog post for the world to see.

"So, I did the first one," Kellner says. "After they saw that I think they got the idea. Then with each subsequent month, they got better ideas."

Asking team leaders in your company to get the ball rolling on this type of project can be helpful for several reasons:

o First, it sets expectations for the style, tone and length of the content you're expecting from them.

o Second, if you are not a professional writer, it gives employees confidence that they are capable of writing a blog post.

o Third, content from company leaders can emphasize the brand's values from the outset.

Also, since employees were not typically writers, Provenance had a staff editor check the posts for typos and clarity before publishing. Posts typically ranged from one to four paragraphs and included links to recipes.

Step #3. Feature posts in the email newsletter

Provenance maintained a monthly email newsletter to feature upcoming tastings, classes and other news about the shops. As one of the team's primary marketing vehicles, the newsletter was a vital way to promote the staff's selections.

Each newsletter featured a short introduction, often shorter than ten sentences, followed by several articles or blog posts. After launching the program, the monthly staff selection was always the first article featured, which gave them prominence in the email.

Because the staff's blog posts were so short, they were included in the newsletters in their entirety. Also included with the post:

o Author/staff member's name
o Product image
o Headline featuring the discount

A recent staff selection featuring a mushroom growing kit had a headline that read:

"River Valley Kitchens Mushroom Growing Kits: 10% off All Month Long"

Each month's selection was also mentioned in the email's subject line. Here's an example from the same month:

"A Spring Food Drive, Whiskey/Small Bites Event, CLASSES & 10% off Mushroom Growing Kits!"

- Intended to drive in-store sales

Provenance sells very few products online. The overwhelming majority of its revenue comes from in-store sales, Kellner says. For this reason, its email did not link to a product page or further description of the staffs' selections. Interested customers needed to visit the brick-and-mortar locations to purchase.

Step #4. Promote in stores and social networks

Provenance's customers could also discover monthly staff selections by seeing laminated, index-card-sized signs posted in the stores. The signs were posted next to the featured products and at check-out counters. The signs mentioned the name of the product, its discount, and the name of the staff member who chose it.

Two other ways customers could hear about the monthly staff selection:

- Facebook fan page

Provenance maintains a Facebook profile where it posts daily and has more than 1,500 fans. When posts featuring staff selections were added to the blog, a team member also posted a link to the post on Provenance's Facebook wall.

"There might be a lot of people who maybe prefer to see it on Facebook as opposed to another email in their inbox," Kellner says.

- Twitter feed

Provenance also maintains a Twitter feed where it tweets daily and has more than 650 followers. When Provenance published a post on its blog (where all staff selections were published), a shortened URL and description were automatically generated and sent to the company's followers.

The program has increased sales for featured products even after their discounts expired. For each product featured as a staff selection, "the average increase in sales of that item over this time last year is about ten percent," Kellner says.

Since starting the program, average email open rates:

o Increased about 5%
o Currently 23% to 28% on average

Although the posts featuring staff selections in Provenance's email newsletter do not typically link to the company's website, the links to recipes in those posts are clicked about 10 to 12 percent more often than other links in the newsletter, Kellner says.

Overall sales at Provenance are up about 7 percent over the same period, and the number of email newsletter subscribers has increased 15 percent. It is difficult to directly attribute those results to the staff selection program alone, Kellner says, but she considers the program a contributing factor.

"I'm here 60 hours a week," Kellner says. "I know. I'm listening to customers. I'm not like an executive that never steps foot into the store. I am actually hearing the customers mention the newsletter and mention the fact that they read about this, or they loved this post, and such."

Useful links related to this article


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2. Email sample #2
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4. Facebook update
5. Twitter update

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