November 01, 2011
How To

Interactive Email: 6 tactics to leverage the influence of social reinforcement

SUMMARY: As social media grows in popularity and effectiveness, some are predicting the demise of email marketing. But, why kill a channel with two billion regular users? Instead, leverage the influential effects you get from social media within email.

By enhancing your message using interactive technology, with direct and immediate customer feedback, your email campaigns can become a new social media variety. Interactivity lets you dynamically update emails with responses from your audience, or those who influence them. Learn six tactics to leverage interactive technology to add social reinforcement within your emails.
by Jeri Dube, Freelance Reporter, MarketingSherpa

With approximately 750 million active Facebook users, 119 million active Twitter accounts, and 10 million Foursquare members, it’s clear that electronic social reinforcement has wide appeal in multiple formats. With two billion people regularly checking email, some marketers are now using this massive channel to let customers influence each other.

While social media is still fairly new, marketers have found that it helps achieve their objectives. According to the MarketingSherpa 2011 Social Marketing Benchmark Report, 55% of marketers surveyed found social sharing buttons on company branded or managed websites somewhat effective. Another 14% found it very effective.

Similarly, 55% of the respondents found sharing buttons on email content somewhat effective. An additional 10% found it very effective. But, some marketers now find success by moving beyond sharing buttons to make email truly social.

Vivek Sharma, founder, Movable Ink, pointed out that people interact with email campaigns alone, unlike with social media. If the content piques the recipients’ interests, they typically won’t consult anyone, but rather click on the offer to find out more.

Sharma said, "If you can add social signals, they can act as really persuasive elements inside traditional email campaigns.“

Robert Cialdini, author of Influence: The psychology of persuasion, postulated a phenomenon he calls social proof. It means people look to the behaviors of others to determine how they should act. It is, perhaps, one explanation why marketers find social media an effective channel.

Email is many digital marketers’ biggest channel; the following six tactics show you how to leverage it to influence your customers with social proof.

Tactic #1. Choose an appropriate goal

While social reinforcement doesn’t make sense for every campaign or product, it can be quite powerful for the right goal.

Complement your social media efforts

Darren Lancaster, co-founder and president, GroupVine, suggested three reasons for augmenting social media efforts with email that includes social reinforcement:
  • You want more specific targeting and a higher attention span

  • You need to both deliver content and gather insights

  • You want lower risk and more consistent results

Raptor Ridge Winery, located in Oregon, uses interactive email with social reinforcement for only its Flight Club members. These customers have paid to join for special benefits including early information on new releases and discounted prices on quarterly pre-release shipments.

“We learned more about our business and product line than ever before while empowering our wine club members to influence the evolution of their own club," said Annie Shull, co-owner, Raptor Ridge. "I don't at all think about it as a replacement for Facebook. "

Over its eight email campaigns using social reinforcement tactics, 12.3% of the members responded by answering the questions posed by the winery. Of the people who opened the emails, 22.5% responded.

The least effective email yielded a response rate slightly less than three percent. Even looking at only the people who opened the email, the response rate was only 5%.

The most effective email yielded a 33% response rate. Of those who opened the email, 50% responded.

Speed the customer learning curve

For a technical product, using social influence within the welcome email might lessen the time it takes for customers to get productive and prevent frustration.

By allowing people to ask questions or share their early experience with the product, the email resembles an online forum. This kind of welcome letter’s advantage is that new customers don’t have to bother searching online. It shows up in their inbox and whenever they open it, they see any new comments added since a previous view.

Customers can compare experiences and learn from others’ mistakes. The company should continually monitor this kind of email in case someone posts a question or complaint requiring a response.

Increase conversions

Social reinforcement results from both explicit persuasion and implicit influence. Explicit persuasion would include Twitter updates in an email, or customer reviews from your website. Implicit influence is letting the actions of those your customers care about -- or to whom they relate -- do the talking for you.

Groupme, a service that allows users to text multiple people at once, adopted the implicit approach. The company notifies people they have a request to become part of someone’s group via email. As each person accepts the invitation, the email is dynamically updated.

Although the person joining the group is not explicitly encouraging anyone else’s participation, the simple act of accepting tends to influence other people’s decision making.

Tactic #2. Mitigate the risk

Unlike social media, email is a channel where marketers control the conversation. Deciding to include social reinforcement is a decision to become more transparent. And with transparency comes risk.

Sharma advises marketers to not control the conversation. He tells them, "You are a participant in the conversation." As a participant, you want to understand what’s being said about your brand or product.

Lancaster echoed this sentiment, saying, "Before you venture into transparency, you need to have a pretty good sense of where the conversation may go in advance."

He also notes being transparent within emails lessens exposure, since it’s not a wholly public channel. You only have to republish the email’s content if it serves your purpose.

Actually opening up a conversation within the email channel can fend off any backlash that may occur when people see a customer quote with which they disagree. Instead of reacting with an attitude such as, "That’s not how I feel, but they didn’t ask me …" everyone in the audience gets an opportunity to express their opinions.

One other control point is whether to allow anonymous responses. Often, anonymity lets people speak a little too freely (and often inappropriately) with their comments.

Tactic #3. Choose the method of social reinforcement

This list of ways to dynamically include social proof in your email campaigns isn’t exhaustive, but it demonstrates three disparate approaches.

Integrate Facebook contacts

From a marketer’s perspective, Facebook is so much more than a collection of pages authored by individuals and linked together. It is a broad set of information about people, available for syndication to any website or service. This syndication gives you access to demographics, social graphs and user behavior.

For example, if you send out "daily deals" via email, you can include code that allows recipients to see which of their Facebook friends have purchased the deal. Each time recipients open the email, they can view the latest information.

If recipients open the email 10 minutes after it was sent, they may see that none of their friends have taken advantage of the offer. But, when they open it six hours later, they may see 20 who have signed up for the deal.

Incorporate live feeds

You can connect email to live commenting from your website, Twitter or other source. When there is a lot of activity around a particular topic, recipients can read different comments each time they open the email.

Sharma said, "A publisher we are working with dropped live Tweets inside their email, and over two and a half months, they increased their Twitter followers by 54%."

Update content with responses to the email

When you ask recipients to respond to questions or RSVP to an event, you can dynamically update the email as each person responds. Not only will the content show any comments, it will also display statistics around your questions.

The statistics can be as simple as the number of people who replied "yes" to an invitation, or as complex as a bar graph displaying the number (or percentage) of people who responded to each option in your question.

Lancaster feels this kind of content gives the authentic voice of your customer a medium, and gives companies considerable social currency. "You’re not repackaging the customer voice," he said. "It’s out there organically. "

Tactic #4. Encourage participation

This tactic only applies to updating content using direct responses to questions posed within the email.

Seed the responses

People rarely want to be the first to respond to a request for comments and feedback. Lancaster often has his customers pre-send the email to people they know will respond. This way the general population receives it with a handful of comments already in place.

"This helps people get over the lack of familiarity with the idea that email can be a conversation and participation channel," said Lancaster. "After the community is established and used to this, it’s not necessary."

Street Yoga, a nonprofit organization, serves less than 10 cities; yet its supporters hail from across the United States. Wanting to build a community and understand why people donate even without a local chapter, the staff sent out their first interactive email.

The response rates over time show how momentum builds as more people add content.

Results six hours into the campaign
  • 17% open rate

  • 1% response rate

  • 5% opener response rate

Results 14 hours into the campaign
  • 20% open rate

  • 7% overall response rate

  • 35% opener response rate

Final results
  • 31% open rate

  • 9.7% overall response rate

  • 31% opener response rate

Start with simple, no-risk questions

Lancaster has found that people are less likely to respond to a controversial question than something more routine such as, "Where did you hear about the event?" They are also more willing to answer multiple-choice questions than come up with their own verbiage.

The goal is to make recipients comfortable with responding and offering their opinion in this new forum. Lancaster suggests that once they have fielded one or two closed-ended questions, they should be more willing to answer an open-ended one that includes personal feelings and opinions.

Monitor and respond

As people answer your questions, send a thank you message back to them, encouraging their continued participation in future emails. This isn’t only polite, but also demonstrates you’re paying attention, and that you care about their responses.

Tactic #5. Take action based on responses

In one of its eight interactive email campaigns, Raptor Ridge asked members which of its wines they cared about most. One of the three options was a Cuvee blend. This opened up a whole new direct sales product line in for the winemakers, who had previously assumed that their wine club members favored single vineyard designates rather than Cuvees.

The winery then invited its members to an event where they could taste three different Cuvee options. They videotaped the tastings and conducted interviews, then sent that out to the community, allowing people to vote for the blend they wanted most. Raptor Ridge will bottle the winning wine and ship it to its members as one of three November 2011 selections.

Tactic #6. Resend the email

While resending an email is often unwarranted, it’s justifiable when you include social reinforcement. Even if you don’t make any changes, the content differs from what you initially sent.

Lancaster calls it "republishing with a purpose." The resend gives people a second chance to participate in the conversation or see something relevant that someone else shared.

Lancaster offered three examples of how his customers have approached resends:
  • Include one or more of the questions (and the widget) in a different email

  • Resend the exact email and subject line to non-openers

  • Resend with tweaked subject line and intro copy to non-openers

Raptor Ridge resent one widget from its first interactive email in a completely different email. With a 49.6% open rate, and 16.2% of the people who opened it answering the question, the overall increase in responses (compared to the original send) was 58.7%. These additional answers comprised 37% of the total responses.

Street Yoga resent its interactive email to non-openers with an updated subject line: "Did we miss you? Tell us what connects you to Street Yoga." The nonprofit also added an intro paragraph. Almost 12% of the recipients opened the email and 34.1% of them responded. This yielded a 29.4% increase in responses, while the resend comprised 41.7% of the total responses.

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Useful links related to this article:

1. The first interactive email sent by Raptor Ridge
2. Original Interactive email sent to Street Yoga supporters
3. Raptor Ridge Winery interactive email seeking feedback on the favorite Cuvee blend
4. Resend of Street Yoga’s interactive email

MarketingSherpa 2011 Social Marketing Benchmark Report

Six Scientifically Proven Ways to Succeed in Office Politics (for more information on Robert Cialdini's research on Social Proof)

Chart How Effective is Social Media in Achieving Target Business Objectives?

Crafting Relevant Email Messages: How to learn from your audience

Email Marketing: Double-send strategy boosts donations 55%

GroupMe – Leveraged implicit social influence

Movable Ink – Interactive email solution provider to GroupMe

Street Yoga – Sent first interactive email out to better understand its supporters

Raptor Ridge Winery – Deployed 8 social reinforcement campaigns

GroupVine – Interactive email solution provider to Street Yoga and Raptor Ridge

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