We've discussed the automations that form the main support of an email-based customer acquisition and conversion system. Automations depend on the constant, consistent, and pre-qualified acquisition of new names for the main list of the online business.
If everything goes OK with your acquisition program outside of email (your print, social, search engine, and digital campaigns), and you get a lot of names going through your automations, you may be satisfied with your results and that would be the end of your work with your email setup.
However, if you find yourself wishing that you could do more with email, then you open the door to email campaigns.
Automations are designed to be 'fire, optimize, and forget' types of things. There is no rule that states you cannot constantly tinker with your email automations. However, the main idea behind email automations is to generate 'free revenue' that comes into the store without you having to worry about it. Of course, reviewing the performance of automations every quarter (or every month) makes sense. You can catch problems as you find them and fix them. But overall, automations are meant to run year-long in the same state so you worry about other things.
Campaigns, on the other hand, are your 'email act of will.' You send them when you want to, to as many or as few profiles in your list as you wish, and with whatever message you decide.
When you have an email automation properly setup, there are several cases where campaigns make sense:
These are very specific areas where campaigns can complement email automations and provide real value to an email marketing strategy. This approach also provides a structure for email cadence, which depends, in great part, on the number of SKUs and on the ability of the brand to have a story to tell about its products.
A store with a large number and variety of SKUs can maintain a cadence of weekly emails by highlighting individual areas of the catalog that are either in need of a boost or which have received new additions. If you are constantly adding new products to your catalog, then your weekly email is your communication to your customers of those additions. Depending on what you sell, your chances of getting sales from those communications is high.
If you have a small number of SKUs (less than 20 products) and your catalog does not increase on a regular basis, then a weekly newsletter would not make sense if it is focused only on the specifics of the product: if you highlight how your main product solves problem Y to the profile list that is already convinced, then you are wasting your effort.
If a segment of your list is simply not engaged with that problem or the solution you provide, then you need to be very creative about how to present the problem and its solution so the emails have value in their ingenuity and presentation as much as for the actual value of the product.
In other words, if the only message your brand can generate is related to the actual qualities of the product and nothing more, then weekly campaigns will be repetitive and will likely lead to unsubscribes. Unless you can come up with a story-based approach that builds on the product to be more than the product alone, then you are better off relying on automations than weekly newsletters and can use campaigns for the purposes outlined above when they suit your email calendar.
What's a story-based weekly campaign like? Ask yourself: is your product like a screwdriver, or a swiss army knife? If it is a Swiss army knife, you would have little difficulty showing all the situations where your product would come in handy. Each one of those situations would be the subject of an email, for example. You could even ask your customers to show you how they are using the product, and put their contributions in your weekly newsletter.
But what if the product is more like a screwdriver? Then the number of situations where a screwdriver could be used (these may be humorous or just plain silly) may allow you to tell more stories about the product and highlight its features. They may not be real situations, but the idea is to engage people in the act of purchasing your screwdriver (which has only one function).
It's easy to abuse email campaigns. The need to enhance revenue every quarter is a huge driver for sending repeated, unwanted emails. If you have a small number of SKUs, you may be tempted to hammer the same point over and over every week or every month and hope that customers will finally 'see the light' about your product.
Maintaining the email campaign stream within the guardrails outlined above provides a useful story to tell about each email you send, and depending on what you sell, they should carry value for your customers. And they will complement your email automation setup.
However, not everyone in your entire list will respond to these emails in the same way. This is where segmentation plays a part. Campaign strategy should involve incorporating purchasing behavior and email response behavior into your segmentation. This will improve your deliverability numbers (your open and click rate) and if your message resonates, it will also deliver more sales.
And of course, the emails should be sent with an awareness of each other, so they do not pile up in the customer's inbox. Smart Sending your campaigns helps keep the customer's inbox uncluttered and your messages top of mind when they arrive.
What is the role of automation in email marketing, and how (or if) should you use campaigns to reach out to our email audience? On this article, we discuss the uses of email marketing automation for an e-commerce business and how it can be complemented by weekly or monthly campaigns.
What is email automation and why should you use it?
The promise of automation in email marketing is 'free money.' By setting up a series of automations that catch your influx of customers as they come into your online store, you can, in theory, provide enough points of contact via email automation to manage the customer journey from 0 purchases to 2 or more purchases. Automations, as the name implies, are triggered when a subscriber meets a specific condition and is added to a pre-designed series of emails.
Pre-Purchase Automated Flows
The automations you can use to manage the customer journey usually are described below. These flows work together to turn customer interest into customer purchases. These are Pre-Purchase flows.
The flows described below tend to the relationship with the customer after a purchase. They are Post-Purchase flows.
The 7 flows outlined above would, in theory, take care of customers who are brought into the store via external advertising, SEO, word of mouth, social media, etc. To make the automation successful, the brand has to constantly provide a flow of new names into the system. Since the automations only work when someone becomes a subscriber, either via a purchase or via newsletter, the more emails are added to the system, consistently, the better chance of getting regular conversions from the collection of flows.
Naturally, there are standard automations like shipping and order confirmation emails, but those are assumed to exist separate from these 7.
Adding Campaigns To The Mix (for the win)
Once you have setup, and tested, your automations for an online store, you should be good to go. The next question is: what do you do with all the names that are accumulating in your database once they have gone through your automations? The automated flows can only activate if the customer does a specific action. Once they are used up, you will end up with profiles in your database that could be doing nothing if left on their own.
Targeted email campaigns are designed to solve this problem. They bring individuals from your database into action so they can be managed by the flows again, in the case of a purchase, or the Winback, in case they have fallen out with the brand.
What are good ideas for targeted campaigns? That depends on the number of SKUs in your store. If you sell 4 items, then constantly reminding your list to buy one or all of the four could be annoying. If you can realistically expect them to purchase more than once, then a monthly newsletter with anything new about the items, or selected social media driven stories about the use of the items, might make people purchase again.
If you have a large store with hundreds of SKUs, the newsletter's task is to offer a selection of SKUs to the people who are most likely to purchase them. Segmentation is the tools for selecting who is likely to purchase the items again. The success of these campaigns is heavily dependent on the correct assessment of how your customer views the product. If you sell items that are really meant to be purchased only once, then constantly asking people to buy them again will not work.
Repeat purchases are the result of need or desire on the part of customers, and using email campaigns to generate them and bring people back to the flows is one of the best uses of email campaigns that complements the 'free money' generated by the automated flows.
5 Ideas To Bring Your Wholesale/Retail Product Business Into E-Commerce
The current business landscape is wrecking long-established direct-to-physical retailer and physical retailer-to-consumer relationships. Both types of relationships are affected because consumers are reluctant to shop in physical spaces, either because they are concerned about crowds, or because it involves a considerable amount of thought consideration that, before, was not even a blip on their radar. The situation is uncertain: no one knows when the current physical retail environment will recover, and what shape that retail environment will take once the situation, as eventually will, stabilize, and the ‘new normal’ is established.
What we do know today is that many consumers, because of lockdowns, uncertainty about facemask rules, and a general desire to avoid crowded spaces, have turned to their phones and computers to do the kind of casual shopping that would normally support a group of stores in a physical retail environment. If your business depends on selling products to wholesalers, who then resell them to physical stores, or if it relies on physical locations, then your revenue is likely to be lower than it used to be at this time of year. And you need to go where your customers have gone.
The Role of Online Wholesale Retailing
The answer has been to complement the physical business by moving or kick-starting the business online. Some brands have responded by creating a space on Amazon or similar large online retailers. These double as digital wholesalers, with the advantage that you are likely to regain sales, but your business does not gain any of the advantages of digital sales due to individual online marketplace restrictions and marketing constraints. Inside one of those marketplaces, your business is also faced with a large amount of one-click-away competition, automatically generated by the Amazon or similar algorithm that places different sellers side by side for comparison. This usually leads to price competition that drives profitability down to its lowest sustainable point, and sometimes below.
This situation is different from what is encountered in physical retailing, where the appearance of similar stores within a restricted physical area (a street, a boulevard, an open air mall), has the effect of keeping a customer interested in a purchase through the exploration of multiple physical locations about that particular product. One retailer’s approach has a good chance to find its mark through the random distribution of individuals physically circulating through a shopping street without having to worry (too much) about the pricing or setup of a neighboring storefront. The randomness involved allows for a fair distribution of purchasers, over time.
Online marketplaces provide ‘naked competition’ that comes down usually to brand recognition, pricing, and convenience. The intangibles about the brand, if they are not supported by large advertising campaigns, are lost in this kind of transactional environment.
Beyond Wholesale Online Retailing
In contrast to focusing only on the sales that a large online retailer can provide, with their attendant limitations, some brands have decided to open their own online shops by building websites and establishing a relationship with their customers, one-to-one. In terms of long term sustainability for the business, this approach - which uses all the tools available for digital sales and focuses them all on your business and its customers - offers the best opportunity to not just survive the current difficulties, but to provide a springboard for consistent, profitable growth into the future. This approach may not exclude the use of a large online marketplace as a ‘home base’ for sales. Instead, it complements it because it makes a brand smarter about its customers and their connection to the products on offer.
An example is the ‘old’ Apple Computer Company, the one that existed prior to the current incarnation. That company had a close relationship with its customers. In the days before social media and the internet, Apple customers literally had a face-to-face opportunity to talk to people inside the company via the MacExpo in San Francisco, at least once a year. Not only did the company get to connect directly with people who purchased their products, but they had a rich environment that, if studied properly, provided excellent clues as to what the purchasers of Macintosh equipment would likely want next in their products. The same can be said for the days when Apple’s products were the object of discussion in specialized magazines, where editors well-versed on the products provided excellent criticism and offered (unpaid) ideas that could find themselves incorporated into future product plans. This was the method behind the ‘go where the puck will be, not where it’s gone’ idea that sometimes surfaced in the discussions about Apple’s direction with its products.
You don’t get the sense that the current version of Apple Computer has a two-sided relationship with its customers. Not through their online presence, their phones, or their online stores. Individuals may feel connected to the products as they use them, but this is on their own - an empty connection unsupported by the company itself and its customer management system. It is a fandom, not a symbiotic relationship. Apple is not learning from its customers anymore (unless it is through loss of sales due to failures of equipment - as with their ill-fated attempt to ‘innovate’ on keyboards that backfired). Apple now is like many other companies, working through a process of imitation of other companies like itself in a competitive environment, but without a path of its own.
It is a behavior similar to the murmurations of bird flocks. Each bird looks to the one next to it for guidance while flying but none of the flock is aware of the overall shape of the flock itself in the sky and no individual bird contributes to the outlines of the shape except during the process of following the others around it.
Carving Your Own Path For Your Brand
You carve a path of your own for your brand by engaging, listening, and learning from your customers, and taking that environmental information into your company to tweak your products, their presentation, and messaging, and transforming them, little by little, into something unique that may not be predictable from day one - but that as a goal, has a better chance to stand up to any competition into the future because it cannot be easily imitated: people may imitate the externals of your brand, like knock-offs of famous brands you see selling on streets in many cities, but they will not feel right to the consumer you want to have as your regular brand user.
You don’t have to be a guru about your brand and its products - but you do have to care about the people who will spend money to obtain them. That expression of caring, of being willing to understand why people purchase what you sell and how they use it, holds the key to what made the old Apple Computer special, while the new Apple Computer just feels mundane.
Steps to Avoid Being Mundane - First: Interact With Your Customers Non-Transactionally
To avoid being mundane, the crucial thing is to find a way to be relevant to some decision that someone is going to take during their day. It might be almost every day, as a grocery store does, or it may be occasionally, as a computer maker does.
To avoid being irrelevant, you need to understand the decisions that are important to your customers - about your products, and about your brand presence, and their timing in taking those decisions.
A well structured, set of automated email flows that can track specific customers either browsing or purchasing products on the site and then (with subtlety), tease out their reactions after several transactions, can help in this type of situation. This is usually supported by a strong survey-based system that is segmented and structured to appear at different moments during the customer journey.
If you already have a list of individuals in your email system, then building this approach requires careful segmentation based on product and other parameters that can be added, slowly and steadily, to the customer profile as they move through their journey. The parameters and the particulars of the journey are individual to the brand, even in transactional environments. Some brands may require customer education, and so a parameter that indicates their level of engagement with relation to that education would be helpful in segmentation, for example.
Second: Test Your Merchandising on Email
Another way that helps you be relevant to your customers is merchandising your products in a manner that is relevant. What makes a presentation ‘relevant’? If you get customers to react to it, share it on social media, and/or share it with their close circle of acquaintances, then you know that you are on the right track. You may use some of the information from the previous step to begin this type of exploration. However, a website may prove to be too inflexible for that kind of work, and a landing page, too ‘salesly.’ Instead, a flexible testing mechanism based on multiple email layouts, merchandising messages, and presentations can yield valuable information that can then be translated into the more permanent environment of the website both in terms of copy and images. After all, email delivery mechanisms have been designed from the start to yield data on everything their user touches, from clicks to views to engagement via open rates.
Three: Expand Your Learning To Multiple Channels
As information is coming into the company, and it is being put to use in everyday communications via email and the merchandising on the website, it is important to use the knowledge for testing on third party platforms as live presentations, videos, or series of related-theme postings. This need not be done via paid advertising, but using the relevant information gleaned from the ongoing activities to find another non-transactional way to connect to customers online via social media channels. This can be giveaways, or live demonstrations of the product, or any other activity that can be delivered only by the product-owner. Every product has a story to tell and you as the temporary owner of that product can tell that story in many ways and find an audience that is interested in them. This is how the search for relevance in the consumer’s life can take shape.
Four: Tell Your Product's Story But Focus on Its Relationship To The Customer - And The Testimonials That Back It Up
As much as you may be internally fascinated with all the ins and outs of your company's process, chances are that customers, existing and potential, may not share the same type of fascination. Customers like to know that you have thought about them when you are working on your products: how will they feel when they use the product, how will they react when they receive the packaging, how will the product make their lives better. Content marketing that is focused on benefits and the process of delivering them makes for a solid bridge between your brand and your customer base. The existing customer base will be reassured that they have 'backed the right horse' vs. the competition, while the potential customer base will be tempted to take a chance on you based on your content. This is where testimonials play an important part in your product's story: as the last chapter in the product's promise. Any brand can state whatever they want about their product (within legal limits), but only customer testimonials can validate those claims through impartial user opinions. Your content marketing, communicated through all channels, but especially through email flows as part of a 'conviction flow', enhanced by testimonials, has a good chance to open doors for your brand via referrals and relinking.
Five: Keep An Open Mind - But Focus On The Ultimate Goal
Regardless of how much time we put into the discovery and analysis work, there is no replacement for the process of learning how to apply it to the individual audience involved. There are no shortcuts. True, there are some problems that are already solved - for example, instead of creating an entire e-commerce system from scratch, you can use Shopify to create a perfectly suitable store that you can then customize as you need it to make it your own. You don’t need to worry about many elements that used to be cause for concerns for people like me when the internet just began to be commercialized, where nothing was known, and you had to create your shopping cart from scratch for your store. Your particular design problems can be resolved as the store takes shape and you have more income to better manage the details.
Your ultimate goal will likely be to create customers who enjoy using your products, come back for more of them, and tell people about them. But not every customer you gain will hit all those notes. And not every customer you gain, even with all the effort to connect to them, will be open to a non-transactional connection to your brand. People compartmentalize, and you have to make sure that you understand when they don’t want to connect with you, as much as when they do. Keeping an open mind and continuing the learning process will ensure that your brand pursues the ultimate goal of establishing itself in a crowded marketplace with a self-replenishing pool of customers coming and going over time.
The myth of Sisyphus tells the story of a man punished by the gods to forever roll a boulder up a hill only to have it roll down again once he got it to the top.
Rather like looking at your email every day.
The most important real estate in an email is not in the email itself. It is the recipient’s inbox, where your email subject line will take its place among many others that arrive every day, for many reasons, fulfilling many purposes. The success of your email campaign depends on your successful management of your place in your recipient’s inbox.
If you are old enough to remember the 1990’s, you may remember that, prior to the advent of the commercialized internet, the printed catalog ruled the physical mailbox. Imagine if every Shopify or boutique store on the web was delivered to you as a semi-large print magazine, with glossy images, itsy-bitsy copy dedicated to telling you a story about a product or summarizing the features of the same for your entertainment.
For a while, mailboxes all around the US were flooded by prospecting catalog companies that had purchased lists from one another or from list brokers and were trying their luck to expand their audience to meet ever higher business goals. In those days, physical mailboxes were considered an amazing expanding infinite space, capable of taking in as many catalogs and selling publications as could be crammed into them by a mail person.
A physical mailbox has one clear advantage over a digital one. If the mailbox owners are likely to clear the mailbox, entirely, every time they open it. You end up with Mailbox 0 every day, and you don’t have to worry about leaving stray letters or magazines in the mailbox. Normally, you take them all out and you make decisions about them: this one comes inside the house, this one goes straight into the recycling bin. Which selling pieces survive the tired decision making of the mailbox-owners and avoid a trip to the recycling bin is usually determined by three primary elements: whether the mailbox owner knows and expects the company that sent the catalog and whether they consider the selling piece important to them at the moment they look at it. This could be triggered by a headline or an image.
The third element is the mental state of the person while dealing with the mailbox-clearing task: If the person had a lousy day, or been fired, or is having a day where they’ve been contradicted by everyone they’ve talked to, or are simply tired of making decisions all day, chances are, regardless of the brilliance of the images and headlines available in the catalog, that the desire for simplifying life, for making the decision making process as simple as possible, leads the person to take one decision: unless it is a check, or an essential notification of some sort, or a personal letter, everything is going into the recycling bin.
The eyes glaze. The headlines go unread. The beautiful images are unseen. Only the minimum engagement is needed to make that decision.
Who sent it? Is it important? Is it personal? No? Then out it goes.
There may be a bit of a thrill in rejecting all the calls to your attention embedded in the pile of physical mail.
Buy. Read. Watch. Wear. Do.
Not today. (Ha! Owned you!)
Digital mailboxes don’t have the luxury of providing a catalog cover with multiple headlines to increase the chance of a single one grabbing the attention of the inbox holder. You only get one line. And perhaps you get to display your secondary text below it, if the inbox is set up that way. And while most people deal with their physical mailbox only once a day, dealing with an inbox is a constant task during the day and night, a task that is repeated, day after day, like Sisyphus pushing his rock up the hill until the end of time.
This means that you are more likely to find yourself at the wrong end of the same impulse that a physical mailbox owner experiences when decision-exhaustion hits. In the trash bin. Or worse, in a fit of anger, labeled as Spam.
Establishing a relationship cannot be done ‘top down’, with the business taking the ‘top’ and directing the customer to have an enforced relationship with them on the basis of consent to email. Establishing this type of relationship, on a remote basis, with email, requires consensus on both sides on the boundaries and benefits of it.
As customers scan row after row in their inbox, day after day, their eyes glaze over the beautifully thought out subject lines, the emojis crying for attention, and they stop seeing you. They stop looking for you in their inbox.
How can the customer see you in their inbox? How can you get them to seek you out there and smile when they see a message from you?
By treating the recipient’s inbox real estate as a scarce, not infinite, resource.
This isn’t simply a matter of cadence of messages. There are times, as when a purchase has happened, where a customer is happy to receive progress reports of the purchase completion and delivery. The messages received are understood to be like passing road signs that don’t require additional attention or action, but that by appearing in the inbox, help transform a remote purchase into something real.
The problem appears after the first purchase, or the first newsletter signup. Most email marketers assume that because there’s been consent to receive email, there is a relationship there, and they gleefully start piling messages into the inbox like someone who can’t believe their luck that anyone would agree to pay attention to them and now that they have successfully ‘breached your defenses’ they are going to take advantage of that situation until told to stop.
That’s how emails in the inbox get to be ignored, deleted and/or labeled spam. The assumption that consent to email is the establishment of a relationship between recipient and business is simply incorrect.
The relationship still has to be built. Step by step. And it is up to your email marketing to do it.
How do you build that relationship? It is a combination of the number of messages and the approach the messages take. It is possible to test the cadence of messaging using tools to establish how a delivery schedule can be optimized beyond the basics. That is relatively straightforward.
The tougher part is where no tools exist to assist you. The part where you as a business has to build and nurture a relationship with someone who may or may not want it.
The first step, then, is to assume that you have no relationship with the customer, even though you have consent to email. The second step is to assume that consent to email really means consent to test whether a relationship between the two parties could exist. From that point of view, you have to create messages that aim to build that relationship and put it on a solid footing so both sides understand where they are in relation to each other.
One way to do this is view your prospect or paying customer as another version of you. A more evolved version of you. One that you are curious about and want to learn more about simply because you feel that you still have to understand them.
Use your email to greet them and talk to them as that more evolved version of you. The You that you would like to be.
The Zulu greet each other with the word Sawubona. It literally means “I see you, you are important to me and I value you”.
By thinking of your email recipient as a more evolved version of you, you can make your messages carry the Sawubona feeling that you see and value the recipient and that you want to learn about them and understand them better.
Email messages provide the opportunity to demonstrate this state of affairs via text, copy, images and the description of your business actions. By exploring this situation from your side, you may find that the relationship has a good chance to exist and survive over time.
And by using the concept of focusing your emails on a more advanced version of you that you want to learn about and understand, you may find yourself respecting their inbox and modulating the cadence of your messages to meet the shared mutual importance between the two members of the relationship.
It may not always work. Not everyone wants to be close to you. But you improve your odds of success by treating the potential of a relationship as just that, instead of assuming that consent to email means you can fully deploy the tricks to trigger a sale.
Some observations on Content Marketing derived from visits to San Francisco's Chinatown.
When I used to live in the United States, I used to travel to San Francisco for conferences and meetings once or twice per year. I arranged those trips so I would have time to enjoy the city a bit. I like to travel to cities and explore neighborhoods via walking and public transport, whenever possible. San Francisco offered those opportunities, so I had a chance to enjoy many of the things ‘the locals’ enjoy, plus some of the more touristy areas that have a charm of their own even though the majority of visitors are from out of town. One of these areas is the San Francisco Chinatown.
There are a lot of shops in the SF Chinatown. Many of them sell the very same items and Chinese-style ornaments, statuary, toys, small gifts, and other items. Often, these stores stand side by side or across the street from each other. The target audience for them is composed of ‘people from out of town, visiting for a few days or perhaps hours, who want to take home a little ‘something’ from Chinatown so they can talk about it to their friends and/or remind themselves of their time in San Francisco.’ For many of these visitors, San Francisco may be a stop in a ‘trip of a lifetime,’ part of a ‘bucket list’ item for a trip to California, or simply part of their ‘get to know America’ from places like China itself and other parts of Asia.
The competition among shopkeepers to attract customers, one would think, is fierce. Since the target audience is not exposed to their wares on a regular basis, the only part of their business that is likely to win a customer is how the store presents itself: what ‘vibe’ it projects, and whether it feels accessible. The purpose of the arrangement is to inspire trust for the visitor who is browsing a store to check it out.
This situation is very similar to what we find when shopping online. A search engine results page reduces our entire online presence to a ‘bazaar’ setup that makes all of us shopkeepers in a tight environment, struggling to entice someone to click through to our store and engage with us.
Content marketing is the tool we use to stick out in the ‘bazaar’ of search engine results and a way to make it count for us is to ensure it is helpful in the task of creating a leads magnet while at the same time contributing to the overall value of the store’s presence, the ‘vibe’ that can bring people into the shop and have them leave with a purchase and a story, which create an experience that they want to tell others once they have returned home.
In the case of the physical stores in Chinatown, this ‘content-driven marketing’ is done via decoration and interior design (or merchandising, if you want to use the precise term): certain stores just look and feel more interesting and attractive than others. How do they do it? Some bring unusual wooden sculptures, that are not for sale, into the store. These could be dragons, or special images of the Buddah, or some type of large flower arrangement that is striking and serves as the ‘lead magnet’ to bring people exploring into their space. The authenticity, strong detailing, and just impressive character of these unique items bleeds over the other items in the store that are for sale, therefore creating an aura of value for a visitor. The presence of unique items is also an invitation to photograph, or learn the story of the item, which helps cement the experience for the visitor.
Other stores take the time to write explanatory notes about the cultural aspect of the items for sale, to help create a ‘buy something and take it home together with its story’ situation. Patrons who have a chance to read something and perhaps chat with someone at the store about it are more likely to not just purchase, but also remember and mention the experience to their friends.
Yet others use their merchandising literally and cleanly with the mission of delivering items for sale for people who are just curious to come in: These stores feel like a clean and easy to navigate bazaar of merchandise, properly arranged and priced, and inspire confidence via transparency. They try to emulate a store a visitor would find at home, and by bridging that gap with familiarity, they hope to entice those who want a small ‘something’ to take back home but don’t want to work too hard to get it.
For some stores, like a Chinese apothecary, the intention will be to show as strong Chinese culture as possible with as little ‘give’ toward the clientele from out of town as they can get away with. Transparency is the last thing they want to project. They need to project authenticity as their main value: If you are looking for a Chinese herbalist, you want one who is steeped deeply into Chinese culture and whose shop has all the signs in Chinese, without translation. Not only does this feel a little intimidating to a casual visitor, but it enhances the thrill of a visit for someone who is willing to let themselves be challenged by the experience. Not everyone will be willing to buy herbs or potions at a Chinese apothecary, but those who venture in will experience a unique, well coordinated, ‘content-marketing’ approach that will feel authentic.
As with the stores that sell more ‘visitor-friendly’ products, a Chinese apothecary creates value just by having someone walk through it once. The number of interesting unique items, even those not for sale, the interaction with a ‘culture’ that is not your own, and the small thrill of exploring a commercial situation that is very different from what you normally find at home, all contribute to make the ‘content driven’ expression for each type of small shop a valuable part of the business. They help make sales by making each store explore and present a unique angle and so feel authentic. Most shoppers associate ‘authenticity’ with ‘honesty and veracity,’ so these are good goals for the ‘content marketing’ approach.
There is another type of ‘content marketing, however, that is also on show at some stores in the San Francisco Chinatown. That would be the eternal ‘going out of business’ sale.
If the target audience for a shop is composed of people who are unlikely to come back any time soon, then one way to entice people into the shop is with a ‘bargain of a lifetime’ approach. One way to project this out onto the street is via a sign that says: ‘Going out of business.’ This automatically implies to anyone passing by that the store will have discounted items inside to avoid having inventory once the store finally disappears.
For many visitors, even those who walked through Chinatown without any clear intention to buy anything, the potential ‘bargain of a lifetime’ is a difficult gamble to resist. They may be able to find something big and obscure that they can buy relatively cheaply, take home, and tell others about how they took advantage of the opportunity when it presented itself. Every time they look at the object, they will reassure themselves that, not only did they purchase something they can be proud of (vs. a useless trinket from any seller out there), but they did so under circumstances that cannot be repeated: the store is going out of business, after all. No one can go back to San Francisco now and repeat the experience they went through. In other words, by being time-sensitive, it acquires an authenticity of its own.
However, if you, like me, happened to return to Chinatown on a regular basis, but many months apart, you may have noticed that the very same store that was going out of business last year, is still going out of business this year...again!
The ploy is exposed: if you were to know the detail about how the store keeps going out of business all the time, then the purchase, for a visitor, loses all the trappings of authenticity as part of a ‘purchase with a story.’ It merely becomes a transaction, and not a very good one at that, since the ‘discounts’ you can get from a ‘going out of business’ sale are usually the same ones you can get at any other store that is less time-challenged to move its inventory.
Worse, if someone a purchaser knows also buys something at that store, and they share stories, the obvious will come out: no one was going out of business, and they both fell for a pitch that just wanted their money. The item they bought will now not reflect their savvy or their ingenuity. It will represent to them something that was part of a cheat. Likely, the purchase will end up in a basement, or sold at the next garage sale. Out of sight, out of mind.
That type of ‘content marketing’ works as a sales driver, but it depends on single purchases, not repeat business (you can hardly expect repeat business if you say you are going out of business).
This is a risk shared by using time-driven marketing for online stores. It works for certain types of customers, usually, single purchase customers, but does not encourage multiple purchases simply because the target audience would not invite that kind of approach: they derive value from being opportunistic, not from being steady purchasers with a relationship with a brand.
If you rely on limited time sales or coupons to push forward business, you are encouraging opportunism as the main driver of a purchase which is not conducive to regular business and may harm your prospects over time (your customers tell each other to ‘wait for the sale’ to come before you purchase anything). The regularity of the discounting is what they end up looking for, and they abandon you if they find something else that is similar, may cost more, and provides them with a different type of story to tell.
Consider these items when you think about content marketing for your online store, and particularly, with email messaging, which is one of the best ways to bring out your ‘vibe’ to your customers on a regular basis.
Two Questions to Build a Business-Relevant Context for Email Metrics
An integrated digital marketing strategy is certain to include an email component. Email is still one of the most effective ways to create or maintain a prominent place in the minds of your customers or subscribers.
A question that is always top of mind for email marketers is how to make the email investment count toward the overall results that are expected from the digital marketing effort.
As with most digital marketing tools, email gives you access to a wide array of metrics. The variety of numbers can become a burden. There is a temptation to create complex reports that aim to impress with a considerable number of metrics, charts, tables and timelines that claim to interpret and explain every aspect of an email campaign to whoever is paying for the report.
The idea behind this post is to propose a business-friendly way to evaluate your email efforts so you understand their purpose and how email is helping you reach your goals.
Metrics with a context
One way to ensure that your email reports are clear and understandable as part of your marketing effort is to provide them with a solid, business-directed context. The numbers themselves do not provide a context that is business-friendly. They reflect only the activities within the email channel, not their meaning within a proper business-context.
Weekly or daily numbers can be evaluated on their own against a benchmark: sometimes the open rate may up, or down, or the bounce rate may have moved in some direction one week, and then back down again. It is important to understand the mechanics of why these movements may be happening, but the answer to those questions does not provide a business context for the value of the email marketing effort. It focuses on the measurement of the activities in email channel delivery. Not its business contribution.
We are trying to look beyond reporting email activities that are internalized departmental reports. We are trying to look for business-relevant meaning for email metrics.
Building a business-relevant context for email channel metrics
At its most basic level, email marketing is a two-way communication channel with a customer or potential customer. With that in mind, one can begin to evaluate the effectiveness of the email effort by establishing how well the channel is working as a communications tool.
For example, within that context, the metrics need to answer one question:
Is our message reaching customers?
The answer, yes or no, needs to be supported by the reporting and the benchmarking within the account. This is the difference between reporting on activities within the channel as if they mattered on their own, and establishing a useful, business-relevant context for the email channel.
One question is not enough
The answer to the question, is our message reaching customers? Encapsulates the business needs, the reason to use email, and the method for evaluating its success. But one question, though powerful, isn’t enough to create the context needed.
Since we are trying to establish the effectiveness of the email channel as a communication tool between existing and potential customers, another question needs to be added:
This second question establishes the necessary understanding for the business-context events that email is generating. If your report says that most customers are ignoring emails by not opening them, then that requires specific actions to resolve. If the report says that most customers are looking at the messaging and doing nothing with it, then that points to a different area of improvement.
The power of business-context metrics
The answers to these two questions establishes the usefulness of the email channel as a communication tool within a business-friendly context.
Naturally, to support the answers to the questions you have to have a well-connected metrics system that can deliver the kinds of relevant numbers that can be used to build answers to these questions and supports items like segmentation, data transfers, Google Analytics tracking, etc. Most email systems like MailChimp, Klaviyo, Aweber and SendInBlue, to name a few, provide the activity numbers that can be used to support the answers to these questions.
Following this approach puts a common floor under email efforts and provides a simple way to evaluate, on their own, whether each activity within the channel has a good chance to succeed or not beyond what the activities numbers may say. The numbers are no longer talking email-speak. They are now talking business-speak, and by doing so, can effectively communicate their results to other groups in the business that will appreciate the effort and provide insight that can help, in the end, improve the way to make email count.
Here are 6 checkpoints you can use to evaluate your current digital marketing strategy and establish whether it is still on track. Most of the time, Digital Strategies require adjustments over time. Messages may need to be refreshed. Images may need to be changed. New challenges may have appeared in the competitive landscape that need to be addressed. There are many changes in your business environment that require adjustments in your digital (and offline) strategy.
Here are 6 important signs you can track that will tell you what kinds of changes are needed:
An important thing to note is that, as you can probably tell from the descriptions above, each tactic of your digital marketing strategy supports the business and all have internal links to one another. Understanding these links, and learning how to manipulate them to improve results over time (via testing and changing tactics and elements within them for optimization), will lead to overall better results for your digital marketing spend. It will also lead you to make reasonable decisions about the future of your spend, and which channels really help you connect to your customers at every stage of your product/service life cycle.
A thorough, impartial Digital Marketing audit is a good place to begin so decisions can be based on data, balanced by the knowledge and experience of your staff and your customers.
I have just finished reading Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now by Jaron Lanier. I recommend the book for digital marketers, although, of course, it isn't a 'transactional' book, like most digital marketing books that sell you 'Ten Ways to Increase your Profits RIGHT NOW.' It is a relational book, discussing one single topic from several angles and bringing a very interesting polemic out into the open. Mainly, what kind of a world are we building with these 'social' tools on the internet? Mr. Lanier believes, as should be obvious from the title, that the direction the software world has taken is not conducive to a human world where dignity, individuality, choice, and critical thinking are valued. He believes that social media platforms, and almost all advertising-driven platforms, are complicit in the process of dehumanizing people.
He is right, of course.
This is not to say that his arguments are without problems or that one should uncritically accept everything that Mr. Lanier discusses in his book. For one thing, this is a shorter book where only one side of the argument is heard. Mr. Lanier does not offer possible counter-arguments to his own positions. This is usually a red flag when it comes to reading these kinds of books. However, in this case, it isn't a 'showstopper.'
The reason it isn't a showstopper with this particular book is that, as internet readers, we are submerged in a constant flotsam and jetsam of discussion about the goodness or 'badness' of social media networks. There are arguments floating back and forth about this topic all over the place, in part because it is the fad right now, and in part because there are genuine causes for alarm.
The noise of the discussion disguises whether we have a real problem in our hands or not. However, cutting through the noise, which this book might help you do in your own mind, is a solid first step toward acquiring a 'beginner's mind' to the problem that can help you evaluate and re-establish your own opinions about it without having to refer to endless websites to check what you think.
Mr. Lanier's discussion, and the fact that it is presented in a book form, allows the reader to acquire well-presented arguments for paying attention to aspects of internet-life that most users simply gloss over, in the same way that you gloss over the view from your window after you've looked at it over and over after a few months, or years. You are used to it, and you don't see it as a threat, so your mind ignores it.
Mr. Lanier's position is that, on the internet, there is no such thing as 'the view is not a threat,' because, by design, the internet as it is growing and shaping up as of this writing, is a danger to the kind of human development that encourages independence of thought, creativity, choice and individuality. The claim is that the organic growth of the current social media platforms, and the decisions these platforms make about how they are going to 'monetize your data' create a format that is mentally and socially toxic and that it is likely to tear down the interactions that individuals have used to create community over time without replacing them with anything that can provide similar results. Instead, replacing them with money-driven, transactionally-oriented, interactions that replace 'free activities' like friendship with money-intermediated activities like 'friendship on Facebook.'
This is the same as if a soda company executive would state that their main competition is the municipal water supply and that they wish to replace it with a constant supply of 'paid for' cola dispensers in the home.
Some people would jump at the chance to replace their water supply with this kind of service. To others, the idea may seem repellent. Mr. Lanier falls squarely on this latter camp.
Mr. Lanier's biggest contribution to the discussion is his ability to explain what an alternative to the current model might be, and, without going into all the details (his is not a policy book, but a polemic), he gives enough of a reasonable explanation to make it plausible to consider alternatives to the current, advertising driven model.
As a digital marketer, the advertising-driven model provides me with several advantages that are quite normal when it comes to diffusing a message through the noise of every day life. You get access to a tool that allows you to scale. The efficacy of the messaging, of course, is derived from the quality of the message and the budget behind it: the ability to repeat it over and over again for a relatively long period of time to create a mental habit in the eyes of the viewer, who is perceived as a passive recipient.
Once we stop looking at the viewer as a passive recipient, then we have to decide what kind of message has the best 'optimized' chance to successfully break through the barriers of attention. This messaging is usually of a 'negative bent,' and has been used for years on television commercials for products such as deodorants, fresh-breath mints, and the like: you have a problem, we sell a solution. Or, we've made up a problem and we are selling you a solution.
With social media networks, the ability to modify the perceptions of the viewer, and create some sort of addictive behavior independent of the individual's choice, are the elements that Mr. Lanier points out and that, as marketers, we should be concerned about so we can make decisions about our own desire to employ such tactics or not.
As marketers, this is our choice. Are we willing to make everything we do entirely transactional in nature, like our fictitious soda company executive, so we can intermediate it via a financial transaction to a third party, which in part could be manipulating our minds to make decisions they like?
You only have to look at magicians to see how the human mind can be manipulated into using concepts that the magician chooses them to have. That's an okay thing to do for an entertainment show, one that has a beginning, middle, and end, but do we want a world where every relationship we have is manipulated in this manner by individuals unknown to us (at least with the magician, he is on stage playing with us and it is an unwritten contract that we provide consent to have our brains scrambled during the act, do we give that kind of consent to social platforms every day, and every hour of the day when we use them?).
A revealing detail in all these discussions is that social media executives seldom allow their children to use the tools, and platforms, that they have created.
I think that the answer to the kinds of questions Mr. Lanier poses, and the kinds of questions that we, as marketers, pose for ourselves, lies squarely on this particular detail in the lives of the executives of Facebook and the other platforms.
Mr. Lanier's book is a solid read, flawed in places, but solid nonetheless and a good way to maintain a 'beginner's mind' on topics that otherwise would fly past us on our day to day activities. Reading it is the equivalent of catching your breath after a long run up a flight of stairs.
The work that I do allows me to come into contact with different types of companies in terms of products and organization. It is a point of pride for me to learn about the clients' business, their interests, goals, and particularly, their ways of working.
My clients find me when there is a need for structure and organization in their digital efforts. They've likely already had consultants telling them to put money on every channel, particularly social, and watch the results 'roll in' into the future. There's of course Google and Bing, and, depending on the type of product and customer, Instagram and some of the other, less well-known networks.
Their efforts look coherent, but they are not. Most of the time, once you look into them, you see that their messaging is 'off' in some networks and 'on' in others, while the timing of the messaging has fallen apart under pressure to keep up artificially urgent schedules.
I've learned that one of the most important messages my clients give me is that the stuff they've been doing does not seem to be working the way they thought it would and that they do not understand why this is the case.
This is the main reason why, when I engage with a new organization, I have some questions that need to be answered to make the engagement worthwhile for the client. Particularly as to what's been tried in the past and whether it has worked.
Sometimes, clients will tell me that they've already spent all their budget on this or that network effort and that it did not render any results worth looking into. Usually, the Network is to be blamed for the failure.
In those cases, it is helpful to look back and understand precisely what the client sees as 'unworthy' about the effort, and perhaps learn from the first attempt at attacking a particular network. A good post-mortem for a campaign is a way to open everyone's eyes as to what a success will look like in the future.
I like to guide those efforts with management and with the relevant members of the organization.
My clients find that those discussions open the way to more structure, improved marketing within their limited resources and that the work that we do together improves their odds of success.
And those are some of the things that get me out of bed in the morning and keep me interested in working with multiple organizations.
Just replace the world 'pinball' with the words 'digital marketing' as you listen to the people describe their experience. I am sure you'll be able to relate to the discussion. I enjoy explaining digital approaches to business challenges as clearly as this video talks about pinball. Enjoy.
Daniel Loebl is an experienced Marketer focused on expanding the recognition of customer value inside a business and keeps a 'beginner's' mind approach to business problems.