No one reads the newspaper anymore.
There’s a now-familiar source of anguish in the marketing industry—whenever we get comfortable with a medium, people’s behaviours shift and we are forced to tear down and rebuild what we communicate with our audience.
That behaviour shift has only been accelerated by the global pandemic, which forced us all indoors and onto our devices. Happy hours turned into Zoom calls, wine tastings tuned into live streams and even the ubiquitous Facebook newsfeed seemed to lose people’s attention in favour of more engaging platforms like YouTube and TikTok.
Media consumption shifted for every platform, except one despite a billion+ reasons that it should have.
Email is pretty much the same as it was back in 2010. Features have been added here and there, and we consume a lot more of them on our phones, but even though companies like Slack, WhatsApp and Basecamp have raised many billions of dollars in an explicit and collective effort to revolutionize email, it remains the one communication channel that has stubbornly persisted.
“Our inboxes are consistently one of the most used apps on our phones.”
Maybe it’s the simplicity of the technology, or the fact that the much-maligned email message has become so pivotal to our professional lives, but whatever the case, our inboxes are consistently one of the most used apps on our phones, and the most personal way to communicate at scale.
A Powerful Opportunity
It’s that last factor that makes email such a powerful opportunity for small businesses. There may not be a single other opportunity that allows us to create a connection with as many individuals as we like, to craft messages they’re going to find valuable, and then distribute those messages without technical skills, with very little cost, and directly to people’s personal devices.
Regardless of how compelling the case for email may sound, the fact remains that very few small businesses are making an effective use of the channel, which raises the question: Why? If email is such a powerful, direct, and (presumably) profitable marketing tactic, why isn’t everyone taking advantage?
The answer starts with misconception and ends with execution.
Ask a group of 100 people how they feel about email marketing, and you’re likely to get at least 90 rants about unwanted spam and phishing scams.
Ask those same people about their favourite media companies, or digital services, and they’re likely to tell you about the great content that they serve up and the ways that they make their lives easier.
“Many of the services that we use are largely powered by email.”
The fact is, that much of the content that we receive, and many of the services that we use are largely powered by email. No one minds when ESPN sends updates about our favourite team, or Uber lets us know that they’ve introduced a new service in our area.
Email doesn’t need new technology, what it needs is a PR campaign because a few bad apples over the years have tarnished this massively useful tool that we all use every day.
Unfortunately, the idea that email marketing has little or no value has become so widely accepted that it’s embedded itself all way into the very marketing departments that are responsible for developing messaging, thereby creating a self-fulfilling prophecy of content that no one wants to see.
When we look around and see nothing but spam and scams, then it can be difficult for us to imagine a better way. Fortunately, there are a few brands out there that have taken a minute to re-think the email opportunity and are delivering the type of content that is valuable, not only for their subscribers’ faces, but for the business’ bottom line as well.
One prominent example of high-value email marketing comes from an app company that is likely on most of our phones: Vivino.
The wine-identifying app has become a market leader by scanning, rating, and recommending wine for its users, but most often when we’ve got the app open, we’re in the process of pouring, not buying wine. While some commerce happens in the app, Vivino has become incredibly effective at gathering user preferences, then matching them with special releases, seasonal recommendations, and curated discounts. Vivino closes the loop on their customer relationship by knowing what people want, when and where they want it, and then using their various channels to match those.
A little closer to home, there is a small winery in BC doing some really creative things with their wine program. The company is appropriately named Niche Wine Co. and the winemakers send out regular messages that tell stories about their wine, shout out local small businesses, offer seasonal recipes, and even give behind the scenes looks at the winemaking process. What makes the email so compelling is that it’s not a standalone marketing tactic—it’s a reflection of everything that they’re up to. If you subscribe to their wine club, you’ll find products from those same small businesses as thoughtful little surprises tucked next to your bottles, and if you follow them on Instagram, you’ll get to dig just a little deeper into the stories that they’re telling.
“We never have to ask anyone’s permission to communicate with our audience.”
When the content is valuable, people don’t just tolerate email marketing, they look forward to opening it. And the impact for our businesses is that, when it’s time to tell a story to our community, we never have to worry about the latest algorithm update, or who’s paying attention to what media channel. We’ve built our own media, and we never have to ask anyone’s permission to communicate with our audience, as long as we can keep their trust and attention.
Keeping Trust and Attention
The only question that remains to be answered is: How? It sounds wonderful to own a media channel, but the fact is that, like everything in marketing, we must first break through the noise to capture people’s attention. Following are a few techniques that email marketers use consistently to build, grow, and receive value from their email marketing strategies:
- Give Them a Reason to Sign Up
No one gets excited about a box at the bottom of a website that says “Sign up for our e-newsletter”. In a media landscape that’s screaming for our attention, and in a world where the majority of people think that they don’t like email marketing, we’re going to need to do better than that. A common technique is called a lead magnet, which involves developing a high value piece of content, then driving traffic to a page where people can get access to it for free, but only after they give you their email address. Lead magnets often consist of online recipe books, a how-to video, virtual wine tastings, or restaurant guides. The right fit for you, and for your email marketing program is going to be unique to you and your audience.
- If You’re Going to Be Your Own Media, Act Like It.
Create emails that are newsworthy. That doesn’t mean that you have to become a journalist, but it does mean asking: Why will my audience care about this message? Will they learn something? Will it make them laugh? A good test that you can apply to your emails before hitting send is by asking yourself: Why would my best customers forward this email to their friends?
- Deliver Consistently.
Sporadic emails get unsubscribed from. Once people learn that they value your content, they like to be able to rely on you. You don’t need to send it every week, or even every other week. However, if you take a month off, a number of your subscribers will have forgotten who you are and they’ll unsubscribe.
- Have No More Than One Call to Action Per Email.
Since you’re in the media business now, you don’t want to overwhelm your readership with ads, but at the same time, you do want to make it easy for them to get what they want. If you’re hosting an event, that’s a great opportunity to invite your email list. Did you just publish a great new video on your Facebook Page? Let them know about it and ask them to comment on the post. The more that you are clear and intentional with your calls to action, the more impactful that they’ll be, and that means limiting yourself to just one objective per email.
- It’s All About the Subject Line.
Before we can do anything with our email marketing, we need to get people to click open. Write subject lines that clearly communicate value and have fun with them. One technique that email marketers use is to imagine that they’re sending a short text message to a friend about the email that they’re about to send—that may allow you to relax and write the way that is going to connect with people.
- All Roads Lead Through Email.
Email list growth is not about tricking people into signing up—it’s about authentically using your various customer touchpoints to let people know about this high-quality content that you’re putting out into the world. When you’re producing emails that you’re really proud of, promoting it gets a lot easier, and you start to find opportunities in-store, on your website, and in your social media content to let people know why they should sign up.
- Know the Laws.
In recent years, many jurisdictions have passed laws that regulate or restrict the ways that we’re allowed to use electronic communication for advertising and promotion. The impact of those laws has been a big boost to high-value marketers because they’re the ones who are happy to attract legitimate subscribers, to email people respectfully, and to manage their lists responsibly. In Canada, our government has created a simple website that lays out the guidelines for us. It’s a highly recommended read for anyone who’s planning to hit send on any form of business email: www.fightspam.gc.ca.
There are many more tips, tricks, and techniques that email marketers use, and if you’re going to take your program seriously, you’d be well advised to learn as much as you can about them (recommended source: www.reallygoodemails.com), but as with every form of marketing, the brands that have the greatest success are the ones that understand what their audiences want, that deliver great content consistently, and respect the reader in the process. The best part is, so few brands are fully taking advantage of this opportunity, that it’s ripe for your brand to create something that’s going to surprise your community.
Conner Galway is the President of Junction Consulting. He publishes a weekly email about digital marketing and business called The Brief that’s read by business leaders at many of your favourite brands. To get the latest updates, opinions, and stories in your inbox every Monday, go to www.brief.wearejunction.com.