Stephanie Miller’s Engagement Matters: Email Storytelling Sells

Combat the fatigue from crowded inboxes by embracing the role of storyteller. Telling a story, rather than just announcing a fact or blasting out an announcement, is a more engaging way to share information. The storytelling approach weaves a relationship through a cadence of touchpoints. Any nurturing or loyalty program is built on the same concept, and many B-to-B marketers are very good at telling stories to move prospects through a buying process.

Gone are the days of the passive email subscriber. Consumers and business professionals tire easily when publishers and marketers broadcast to them. It’s the online equivalent of shouting. Your customers and readers want meaningful conversations — and they know they have other options if you don’t deliver.

Combat the fatigue from crowded inboxes by embracing the role of storyteller. Telling a story, rather than just announcing a fact or blasting out an announcement, is a more engaging way to share information. The storytelling approach weaves a relationship through a cadence of touchpoints. This isn’t complex. Any nurturing or loyalty program is built on the same concept, and many B-to-B marketers are very good at telling stories to move prospects through a buying process.

It’s simply a series of stories about use cases, cool new features and real-life implementation of your editorial, products and services. So invite your subscribers to the proverbial campfire and build their anticipation with a question, “How can I help you today?” Email marketing is great for providing the answer.

Invite subscribers on a story journey
Instead of sending a generic newsletter or “special offers,” invite website visitors to accept a two to five message email series on a particular topic. Make it about how your products, services or content will help them: “Five ways to be beautiful this summer,” “Three strategies for impressing your boss,” “Doctor’s advice on buying contact lenses online,” “Ten things your CEO wants you to know,” “Five great summer games for kids under 10.”

Make it easy to sign up by putting invitations in prominent locations on pages that have related content. And be sure permission is clear. If the offer is just for two to five email messages over the same number of weeks or days, then say so. You’ll likely find a higher sign-up rate and higher response and engagement because the content is so targeted. If you’re also signing them up for your ongoing e-newsletter, be clear about that. There’s no reason you can’t encourage a further subscription after you’ve delivered the series, too. Earn their trust first, then sell. Consider the following strategies:

  • Make your story interactive.
  • Tap the socially connected nature of today’s digital experience.
  • Integrate opportunities for subscribers to share with their social networks or forward to others.
  • Invite subscribers to take a poll or survey or give you feedback.
  • Offer a page where subscribers can upload their own stories or photos, and then share that user-generated content back to the group in your series.
  • Ensure your customer service team monitors these pages so that you can quickly respond to any questions or direct prospects to your sales team or e-commerce site.

Why does it work? An email series strategy is based on a fundamental truth of marketing: Provide something of value and customers will continue to engage. A series makes it easy for you to customize messages to the interests of subscribers at that moment. The topic is top of mind for them, and that creates selling and relationship opportunities for you.

Another benefit is that when your email messages are more relevant, you won’t have as many people clicking the “Report Spam” button, which registers as a complaint at internet service providers like Yahoo or Gmail. Even a small number of complaints can result in a poor sender reputation and a block on all your messages. Make even some of your messages more relevant, and the response rates for all your messages will go up and complaints will go down.

For content, consider the following four options:

1. Make it easy to learn more. Offer website visitors a two- to three-part email series rather than a whitepaper. Most downloaded content never actually gets opened or read. Once a whitepaper is downloaded and saved, it’s out of mind. An email series forces marketers to package up content in bite-sized pieces (you can always link to more detail on your website), and gives them several opportunities over a few weeks to engage. Advertising CPMs for these targeted messages can be at a premium, as well.

2. Comparison shopping. Advertisers know that readers are researching and want publishers to help them shorten sales cycles. Use a series of email messages to help subscribers compare competitive sets — the more honest/nonadvertorial you are, the longer they stay on your site! — find testimonials and bloggers, and make a strong business case.

3. Move free-trial subscribers to paid circulation. A series can give prospects confidence in your content or technology. Help them actually use your service during the trial — help them find the best reviews or product feature comparisons, or let them download tools that help them forecast productivity, revenue or cost savings as a result of making a decision to buy. Test if increasing incentives as prospects move through the cycle helps or hurts your conversion (and margin).

4. Educate. Send one great idea each week, and include ways to practice or implement. The next week, ask for input or a story about how that idea worked or didn’t work. Then, the next day, send the next idea. This interactive cadence will build value for subscribers and let them engage repeatedly over time.

Storytelling lets you retain control over the content while giving subscribers the freedom, choice and interactivity they crave. Successful email marketing is built on a very simple concept: Give subscribers what they want, and they’ll give you what you want. Subscribers want you to help them. When you do, they’ll reward you with higher response and sales, positive buzz and sharing, and stronger brand loyalty.

Let me know what you think by sharing any ideas or comments below.

Nurture Your Subscribers to Higher ROI in 2010

Email subscribers want only one thing from us: help. They want to be more informed, more beautiful, given raises, be heroes to their kids and make better business decisions. Given the amount of poorly targeted messages in my inbox, however, it seems many of us have forgotten this central tenet. Generic is boring; custom is compelling. Response goes up when messages engage and nurture subscribers.

Email subscribers want only one thing from us: help. They want to be more informed, more beautiful, given raises, be heroes to their kids and make better business decisions. Given the amount of poorly targeted messages in my inbox, however, it seems many of us have forgotten this central tenet. Generic is boring; custom is compelling. Response goes up when messages engage and nurture subscribers.

The inbox is essential in 2010, but it’s also fiercely competitive. Social networks drive their businesses through the inbox, and more and more marketers are sending more and more promotions. Your message must stand out amid this noise.

Sending the same message to everyone is the opposite of nurture — it’s numbing. It has the opposite effect, driving disengagement and dissatisfaction. Too much email in short time periods will not only depress response, it’ll increase complaints (counted by ISPs like Yahoo and Gmail) every time someone clicks the “Report Spam” button. Even a small number of complaints will prevent your messages from reaching subscriber inboxes — all your subscribers, not just those who complained.

It’s painful enough imagining the slow death of your email response rates when subscribers are bored week after week. Even worse, imagine the drop in revenue if all your messages are blocked by Yahoo due to high complaints. Ouch! It’s worth taking the time to nurture instead.

The ideal is to offer subscribers what they need before they realize they need it. Luckily, you can get pretty far even without deep resources. Test a few of the following “baby step” ideas now; then integrate the hardest-working into your ongoing calendar this year. Since not all subscribers have the same value, focus on those with the highest potential.

1. Educate prospects. Many marketers have both prospects and customers on their house lists, each receiving the same promotions. Probably neither are inspired by something watered down for the masses. Never assume prospects know anything about your content, editorial personalities, products or benefits. Consider a series of messages or offers that move prospects through the sales pipeline.

2. Treat customers better. Email is a great way to treat your best customers special. Certainly VIPs are easy to find and celebrate, but also take that same approach down the line. Identify your cusp customers, and invite them to participate at higher levels while showing them the benefit of doing so. Every once in a while, just thank your customers. You’ll be surprised at the response you get.

3. Listen. Let subscribers tell you what they need through their actions. Even if you can’t overlay behavior and demographic data, use the data you have. Customize transactional emails based on purchase. After a click, trigger a context-specific email with content recommendations — which could be sponsored advertorial — or premium services. Replace static landing pages with deeper microsites focused on particular topics to capture more page views or present more detailed offers when prospects are “in market.”

4. Test subject lines. Many campaigns go out without any optimization testing. Yet even simple A/B testing of subject lines can improve response by 5 percent or more.

5. Customize by age. Watch response by vintage (the length of time the subscriber has been on the file), and determine when subscribers go “inactive” — defined as no open, click or conversion/response activity in the past three months.

Quickly send out a “win-back” campaign to those who may be on the verge of going inactive. Don’t wait two years to send a win-back. Once subscribers start ignoring your emails, it’s difficult to re-engage them.

Audit your past 90 days for a “nurture appeal.” Are you blasting or engaging? Broadcasting or customizing? Talking or listening? You’ll likely find a number of points of vulnerability where you’re not optimizing your nurture potential. The payoff is real: Satisfied customers click more, buy more, and engage frequently with advertising and offers.

Let me know what you think; please share any ideas or comments below.