Company e-newsletters: Much ado about … what? (Part 2)

This post is a continuation of a topic I wrote about several days ago. That column focused on the (lack of) reader engagement with customer e-newsletters and what may be the root causes of it.

This follow-up post focuses on what marketers can do to improve their newsletters’ worth to readers. It boils down to addressing four main issues:

Too much e-newsletter content is “full of it” – People don’t want to read about how great the company is or other navel gazing-type content that’s completely company-focused.  Instead, offer soft-sell (or no-sell) content that’s truly of value.  Simply ask yourself, “If I weren’t an employee of this company, would I care at all about this topic?”  This exercise applies equally to B2B and B2C newsletters.

Tired writing – There’s nothing more tiresome than a newsletter article that’s filled with corporate-speak or comes across as a patchwork of language from multiple sources.  But this happens all too often.  Sometimes it’s because the writer is overworked and hasn’t had sufficient time to source the article and create a compelling narrative.  Perhaps the author is a non-writer.  Often, it’s simply that the people inside the company love how the copy reads – tin ear or not.  Regardless of the topic of your story, newsletter copy should have personality, and it needs to move.  Otherwise, it’s your reader who’s going to move on.

Gaining an audience – Too many newsletters are playing to an empty house, whether it’s because of an opt-in audience that doesn’t care about you anymore, or from a total lack of visibility in search results or on social media.  Build circulation through in-house databases, optimizing copy to draw in new readers via SEO, and promoting article content through social posts.  Again, these prescriptions work for both consumer and business marketing, although the individual tactics may differ somewhat.

Neglect – It happens way too often:  An e-newsletter initiative begins with great fanfare, but it doesn’t take long for the novelty to wear off.  What starts out as a bi-weekly turns into a monthly or a quarterly, with gaps in between.  Eventually the only thing “regular” about it is its irregularity.  It’s surprising how many corporate websites show links to archived newsletters all the way up to 2016 or 2017 — but then nothing more recent than that.  And we all know what that means …

Wrapping it all up, it’s worth asking this basic question every once in a while: “Is our newsletter any good?” The answer should be unmistakable — if you read your content with a completely open mind.

If you’re involved in your company’s e-newsletter initiatives, do you have any additional insights about what makes for a successful program? Please share them with other readers here.

 

Company e-newsletters: Much ado about … what?

One of my clients is a multinational manufacturing firm that has published its own “glossy” company magazine for years now. The multi-page periodical is published several times a year, in several regional editions including one for the North American market.

It’s a magazine that’s full of interesting customer “case histories” accompanied by large, eye-catching photos. The stories are well-written and sufficiently “breezy” in character to read quickly and without strenuous effort.  The North American edition is direct-mailed to a sizable target audience of mid-five figures.

And I wonder how many people actually read it.

The reason for my suspicion stems from the time we were asked to produce a survey asking about readers’ topic preferences for the magazine. The questionnaire was bound into one of the North American issues, including a postage-paid return envelope.  The survey was simple and brief (tick-boxes with no open-ended questions).  And there was an incentive offered to participate.

In short, it was the kind of survey that anyone who engaged with the publication even marginally would find worthwhile and easy to complete.

… Except that (practically) no one did so.

The unavoidable conclusion: people were so unengaged with the publication that they weren’t even opening the magazine to discover that there was a survey to fill out.

In the world of company e-mail newsletters, is the same dynamic is at work? One might think not.  After all, readers must opt-in to receive them – suggesting that their engagement level would tend to be higher.

Well … no.

A just-published study titled How Audiences View Content Marketing, finds that company e-newsletters are just as “disengaging” as the printed pieces of yesteryear.

The study’s results are based on a survey conducted by digital web design firm Blue Fountain Media. Among the findings outlined in the report are these interesting nuggets:

  • One in five respondents completely ignore the e-newsletters they receive, while more than half scan headlines before deciding to read anything.
  • Two-thirds of respondents admitted that the main reason for opting in to receive e-newsletters is to take advantage of special offers or discounts, while only around 20% expressed any interest at all in receiving information about the company.
  • More than half of respondents (~52%) feel that newsletter content is too “commercial” (as in “too sales-y”). Other complaints are that the e-newsletters are “too long” (~21%) or “boring” (~19%).

Even more alarming is this finding: Approximately one-third of the respondents felt that e-newsletter content is so lame, it actually leads them to question using the product or service.

That seems like marketing going in reverse!

What Blue Fountain has uncovered may be indicative of another challenge as well:  the diminishing allure of content marketing. Over time, readers have become cautious about accepting online content as the gospel truth; this research pegs it at two-thirds of respondents feeling this way.

At the same time, only about one-third of the respondents think that they can distinguish well between fact-based content versus content with an “agenda” behind it. And therein lies the basis for suspicion or distrust.

On the plus side, the research found that readers are more apt to engage with video content, so that may be a way for e-newsletters to fight back in the battle for relevance.  But it still seems a pretty tall order.

I address the topic of company e-newsletters in a second blog post to follow.  Stay tuned …

Consumers continue to grapple with what to do about spam e-mail.

Over the past decade or so, consumers have been faced with basically two options regarding unwanted e-mail that comes into their often-groaning inboxes. And neither one seems particularly effective.

One option is to unsubscribe to unwanted e-mails. But many experts caution against doing this, claiming that it risks getting even more spam e-mail instead of stopping the delivery of unwanted mail.  Or it could be even worse, in that clicking on the unsubscribe box might risk something even more nefarious happening on their computer.

On the other hand, ignoring junk e-mail or sending it to the spam folder doesn’t seem to be a very effective response, either. Both Google and Microsoft are famously ineffective in determining which e-mails actually constitute “spam.”  It isn’t uncommon that e-mail replies to the personal who originated the discussion get sent to the spam folder.

How can that be? Google and Microsoft might not even know the answer (and even if they did, they’re not saying a whole lot about how those determinations are made).

Even more irritating – at least for me personally – are finding that far too many e-mails from colleagues in my own company are being sent to spam – and the e-mails in question don’t even contain attachments.

How are consumers handling the crossed signals being telegraphed about how to handle spam e-mail? A recent survey conducted by digital marketing firm Adestra has found that nearly three-fourths of consumers are using the unsubscribe button – and that figure has increased from two-thirds of respondents in the 2016 survey.

What this result tells us is that the unsubscribe button may be working more times than not. If that means that the unwanted e-mails stop arriving, then that’s a small victory for the consumer.

[To access the a summary report of Adestra’s 2017 field research, click here.]

What’s been your personal experience with employing “ignore” versus “unsubscribe” strategies? Please share your thoughts with other readers.

Promo emails: What’s the right length … What’s too long?

email lengthI’m sure all of us receive some promotional e-mails with content that just seems to go on forever.

There’s no way that’s accomplishing the company’s marketing and sales goals.

But just what exactly is the right length of content in a promotional e-mail communiqué?

Assuming that “the wisdom of crowds” can get us pretty close to whatever that sweet spot is, looking at findings helpfully collected and aggregated by research firm and direct mail archive Who’s Mailing What! provide some pretty good clues.

WMW! tracks nearly 225 business categories, looking at the word count of e-mail messages deployed by companies active within each of them.

The average e-mail length for nearly all of the categories that WMW! tracks is substantially below 300 words.

[To compare, that’s shorter than the length of this blog post, which is around 300 words.]

And there are very few exceptions – fewer than ten, according to WMW.  In those seven categories, customers and prospects are used to encountering more verbiage in order to remain interested in the message.

The few business categories with the highest average content length (350 or more words on average) turn out to be the following:

  • Business/financial magazines
  • Newsletters
  • Political fundraising
  • Religious magazines
  • Seminars and conferences
  • Social action fundraising
  • Special interest magazines

Incidentally, the two categories with the absolutely highest number of words are social action fundraising (nearly 650 words) and seminars/conferences (around 620 words).

… Which for those two categories makes complete sense.  Donor prospects are going to need to read a good deal about a cause before opening their pocketbooks.  And people are going to need details about a seminar’s content and quality before agreeing to pay the typically high fees charged to attend.

But for everyone else, short e-mail promos are clearly the name of the game.  If word counts go much above 200, it’s probably getting a tad too long.

Tripping the E-Mail Spam Alarm

Today, it’s more than just the “usual suspect” keywords that are landing e-mails in the junk folder.

se-mMost of us are aware of the kinds of words that trip spam alarms and cause e-mails to be sent straight to the junk folder – or not to be delivered at all.

How about these for starters:

  • Cash
  • Congratulations
  • Discount
  • Free
  • Income
  • Make Money
  • Urgent
  • Viagra
  • $$ / $$$

But research done by MailJet, an international e-mail service provider, looked at more than 14 billion e-mail communiqués and found that a bunch of other keywords are setting off alarm bells nearly as often as terms like “Urgent” or “Viagra.”

… Especially when considering the business categories that are so active in e-mail communications — retail goods, pharmaceuticals, providers of personal services, and the like.

Some of the other terms MailJet has found to be nearly as “toxic” are these:

  • bdcstDear Friend
  • FedEx
  • Increase Sales
  • Increase Traffic
  • Internet Marketing
  • Invoice
  • Lead Generation
  • Lose Weight
  • Marketing Solutions
  • Online Degree
  • Online Pharmacy
  • Order
  • PayPal
  • Search Engine Optimization
  • Sign Up
  • Trial Offer
  • Visa/Mastercard
  • Winning

… And there are more, of course – including various permutations of the words and phrases above.

The inevitable conclusion:  It’s becoming more difficult all the time to use the most common phrases in “subject” lines and “from” lines that’ll land your e-mail in someone’s inbox successfully.

And getting into the inbox just the first step, of course.  The next is motivating the recipient to actually open your e-mail and engage with it, which are additional hurdles in themselves.

What words or phrases have you found to be surprisingly problematic in getting your e-mails delivered to your customers’ inboxes?  How have you dealt with it?  Please share your experiences with other readers here.

A Bombshell Forrester Finding? Brands are Wasting Time and Money on Facebook and Twitter

Forrester logo

This past week, marketing research firm Forrester published a new analytical report titled “Social Relationship Strategies that Work.”

The bottom-line conclusion of this report is that brand marketers are generally wasting their time and money focusing on social platforms that don’t provide either the extensive reach or the proper context for valuable interactions with customers and prospects.

In particular, Forrester’s research has determined that Facebook and Twitter posts from top brands are reaching only about 2% of their followers.

Engagement is far worse than even that:  A miniscule 0.07% of followers are actually interacting with those posts.

Much has been made of Facebook’s recent decision to reduce free-traffic posts on newsfeeds in favor of promoted (paid) posts.  But Forrester’s figures suggest that the lack of engagement on social platforms is about far more than just the reduction in non-promoted posts.

Nate Elliott Forrester
Nate Elliott

Nate Elliott, a Forrester vice president and principal analyst, believes that brand managers need to make major changes in how they’re going about marketing in the social sphere.  He notes:

“It’s clear that Facebook and Twitter don’t offer the relationships that marketing leaders crave.  Yet most brands still use these sites as the centerpiece of their social efforts, thereby wasting significant financial, technological and human resources on social networks that don’t deliver value.”

With Twitter and Facebook being such spectacular duds when it comes to social platforms, what does Forrester recommend that brand marketers do instead?

One option is to develop proprietary “branded communities” where fans can hang out in zones where brands can be their own traffic cops, instead of relying on a giant social platform to do the work (or not do the work) for them.

e-mailEven better is to return to greater reliance on an old standby tactic: e-mail marketing.

If this seems like “back to the future,” Forrester’s Elliott reminds us how e-mail can work quite elegantly as the centerpiece of a brand’s social marketing effort:

“Your e-mails get delivered more than 90% of the time, while your Facebook posts get delivered 2% of the time — and no one’s looking over your shoulder telling you what you can and can’t say in your e-mails.  If you have to choose between adding a subscriber to your e-mail list and gaining a new Facebook fan, go for e-mail every time.”

I can’t say that I disagree with Nate Elliott’s position.

Now it’s time to hear from the rest of you marketing professionals.  How successful have you been in building engagement on social platforms like Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn?  Have your efforts in social paid off as well as in your e-mail marketing initiatives?  Let us know.

Consumers complain about marketing-oriented e-mails — yet they still read them.

e-mail ambivalenceFace it, there are always going to be complaints about marketing-oriented e-mails. Just as in the “bad-old-days” of junk postal mail, consumers are conditioned to pass negative judgment on the volume of promotional-oriented e-mails that flood their inboxes.

True to form, according to a new study by global business, technology and marketing advisory firm Forrester Research, consumer attitudes about e-mail marketing are pretty negative.

Here’s what a sampling of U.S. respondents age 18 or older reported on the “minus” side of the ledger:

  • I delete most e-mail advertising without reading it: ~42% of respondents reported
  • I receive too many e-mail offers and promotions: ~39%
  • There’s nothing of interest: ~38%
  • I have unsubscribe from unsolicited lists: ~37%
  • I wonder how companies get my e-mail address: ~29%
  • It’s difficult to unsubscribe from e-lists: ~24%

There’s far less to show on the “plus” side:

  • It’s a great way to discover new products and promotions: ~24% of respondents reported
  • I read e-mails “just in case”: ~19%
  • I forward marketing e-mails to friends sometimes: ~12%
  • I purchase items advertised through e-mail: ~7%

I wasn’t surprised at all by these finds.

What’s interesting, however, is that the attitudes of consumers are actually trending a bit better than they were in previous Forrester field studies.

Specifically, respondents exhibited improved attitudes in the following areas:

  • Fewer respondents are deleting most marketing-oriented e-mail promos without reading them (~42% vs. ~44% in 2012 and ~59% in 2010).
  • Fewer respondents report that marketing e-mails offer “nothing of interest” (~38% vs. ~41% in 2012).

The percentages are also slightly better for the consumers today who consider e-mails as a good way to discover new products and promotions.  Additionally, the percentages are lower on complaints about receiving too many e-mail offers.

The bottom line on these results:  It looks as if consumers have come to terms with the pluses and minuses of e-mail marketing. As they once did with postal mail, they recognize the negative attributes as a fact of life — something that just “comes with the territory” for anyone who is online.

Click here to view summary highlights from the Forrester study, or here to purchase the full report.