Email & Social Marketing for Brands: Why Most Get It Wrong

Email marketing is still king of the hill:  The USA’s Direct Marketing Association conducts an annual review of the ROI (Return on Investment) delivered by all forms of direct marketing. Email marketing is a consistent chart topper. For 2009, they predict an ROI for email of US$43.52. That’s over $43 returned for each dollar invested in email marketing.

Within those numbers are a lot of qualitative aspects, but it’s clear that the low cost of email marketing makes it a very smart investment for most businesses.

I like to classify or at least group social media in with email because they are very similar in form and function.  SM marketing usually amounts to your feed posts being consumed in the same way as emails.  Everything from becoming a fan (subscribing to the list), to reading a post (reading the email), to viewing less of or ignoring (opting out or marking as spam) is functionally equivalent.

Based on the email campaigns I’ve seen in the past decade or so, it’s safe to say that in a range of good (effective) to bad (useless and ignored) the majority of them are poorly executed and only achieve a fraction of their potential. Why? This article discusses how you can avoid rolling the dice and create a campaign that could become your most effective method of long term marketing.

Different business models require different approaches

Email marketing for a retail business selling products seems pretty straightforward right?  Just talk about your product and offer promotions every so often — easy enough!  For example, if you sell electronic equipment, you send out a mass email advertising a big sale on GPS devices with a teaser price in the subject line – that’s a tried and true technique.

GPS Systems- 40% under retail this week only!

Yes, people respond to teaser prices!  But let’s face it, very few American companies these days are dealing with simple products and commodities – many offer complex services or are simply there as a “hands free” service like investment, insurance, or they might be a service you only hire once in a lifetime, like a divorce lawyer.

For service companies, the ol’ tried and true approach of attracting business with teaser prices is best left to winning NEW customers using ads on search or on billboards.  Email and social media are about something more elusive: building a relationship and positive association in the minds of your existing customers over a long period of time to win referrals and repeat business.  The most successful companies in the world have built their empires on repeat business, even to the point of losing money on the initial sale or point of contact.

Let’s step back and consider an alternative approach:  brand building through establishing your campaign as a quality information source.

The People Love You

I don’t know why anyone in their right mind would volunteer for junk mail.   Most of the time lists subscribe you deceptively, or obscure the opt-in during a purchase or consultation.  You agree to have a stranger send you an email every so often, with no obligation to read it.  So how do you justify this sly little agreement?  You accept this relationship when the email proves valuable to you at least once, and proves to be potentially valuable in the future.

As an advertiser, how do you prove this value? How do you win a subscriber’s trust and get them to not only accept and not cancel your mail, but OPEN it eagerly each time you send it?

Make it interesting in it’s own right – not as means to an end between two parties.  Show them something that they will like.

Some businesses have it easy: you might service and sell to a very specific hobbyist market where your readers “geek out” over anything related to the subject.  But what if you are a construction contractor, insurance agent, or real estate company?  People don’t care about today’s interest rates, or your reduced prices, or limited time offer.  The average person is so inundated with that kind of “marketing speak,” that it goes in one ear and out the other.

So my advice is simple: don’t talk about yourself, your company, or your products at all.  Attract people’s trust and attention through interesting stories, facts, information, jokes, or anything that’s worth sharing.  Talk about people that use your service who have interesting stories.  Share successes of your clients and promote your community — ask yourself, would a busy person actively find an interest in this?

The masters of this art create a story of compelling human interest, and tie your product or service into it in a way that is favorable.  Instead of:

Low prices and interest rates mean great investment!

do something that is worth reading:

Tales of the Jonesboro real estate kings

Option one above is a boring circular that people have seen a thousand times, that your average “marketer” will put together for you.  Option two is a creative story about some select local families who took advantage of the current real estate environment and made money — with well placed name drops to some of your key people.

Which would you read during your morning coffee?

Use the most creative people you can hire or find and keep them away from the sales & marketing staff

I’m not saying that marketing professionals can’t be incredibly creative people, and there’s a breed of marketers out there that really get that the new marketing is all about being fun and popular, but there’s a good reason why newspapers and magazines draw a line between the business and creative side.  People in sales and marketing get caught up in the bottom line, and it has a tendency to make them use words like, reduced, discount, best, lowest, act now, offer, limited time, ROI and other marketing speak.

Your customers really don’t care about this. Keep them out of  your email and social media campaigns. Your email marketing and social media are aspects where every business should “have a creative side” – even if you sell trash bags.

Also, don’t make the mistake of using an uncreative, overworked, or grammatically incompetent member of your staff to be the spokesperson of your brand.  You’d be surprised how often executives tap the wrong person on staff for this job.  Just because Bobby is good with computers doesn’t mean he’s your guy.  Find the closet creative writer with a good social sensibility and challenge them to create interesting and appropriate content at regular intervals that will inspire awareness in your brand and become a positive voice to your community, or hire out a pro.

I’ve noticed a trend with my clients when it comes to discussing solutions for Email and Social Media marketing.  It goes something like this:

“So have you considered using direct email or social media for marketing?”

“Yes, absolutely.”

“It can be time consuming, do you have someone who is handling this?”

“Yeah, I’ve got a friend who’s a stay at home mom who is really excited about helping for cheap.”

“So what are her qualifications?”

“Oh, she spends hours on Facebook daily and knows everything about it.”

Sorry folks, that’s the wrong answer. The correct answer would be, “she was a staff writer for the Washington Post for 10 years before she started her family.”

Selling The Dream, One Message At A Time!

The success of your social media campaign depends on your ability to create a strong, repetitive, positive association with your brand by being a source for creative information.  In other words, your email and social media marketing is like running a mini-newspaper where your business is the sole sponsor.

The company that builds daily content by “selling the dream” through human interest stories and great news is going to win the hearts and minds of the public.  Over time you create a strong awareness of the brand, so when the time comes to think of your market sector, you will be the first that comes to mind.

The wrong approach is to build an email and social media campaign that blindly attempts to win friends through gimmicks or sheer persistence- the result will be more useless information clogging our pipes.  The worst approach is to talk about “us, our sale, our company, our this and that.”  Dude, nobody cares.  Go away.

The right strategy is to build a great online information source with  stringent editorial guidelines:

  1. Never blatantly promote your brand
  2. Only post or talk about great things that people would love to know about – not your company.
  3. Avoid marketing speak at all costs
  4. Sell the dream of community and lifestyle
  5. Talk about real people with real stories

I didn’t talk much about technology here or plug some brilliant system.  Why? because content is king in this business of propaganda, and it’s not easily quantifiable. If record companies could quantify what makes a hit song, they wouldn’t need to spend the earnings of the top one percent of their artists on the other 99% of their misses.

Invest in talent and it will pay off.  Find the right content producer(s), get them metrics and analytics systems to show their progress (scoreboards) and set the goals each quarter.  It would be better to send out one really well crafted monthly newsletter by a talented creative storyteller than weekly promotional junk talking about your brand name, your discounts, and great service.  BLAH BLAH BLAH.

You know the guy that always blathers on incessantly about himself, what he’s doing, and all his successes or failures whenever you hang out?  Don’t be that person.  Be the one who shares a heartfelt story, an interesting statistic, or joke.  That’s the key to winning the hearts and minds of people from cocktail parties to 1 million user media campaigns.