The Answer to Marketing Email Overload


I don’t know if you noticed, but marketers are in a tizzy: GMail’s new tabbed inbox has thrown everybody who does email marketing for a loop. GMail now automatically sorts incoming email into four categories (primary, social, updates, promotions), which makes everything that’s not marked primary a lot harder to find and less likely to be read — by about 25%, according to Tomasz Tunguz of Redpoint. And Tunguz points out that the GMail change is just one of two big changes underway. Look at how much of the action in web apps happens on mobile now:

When you combine the new GMail with the move to mobile, Tunguz estimates that standard lifecycle emails see a 48% drop in conversion. Wow.

As a product marketing guy, I want the flow of messages that my users receive to feel relevant and useful, not random — and I want it to arrive on whatever channel they use (which might or might not be email). I’ve been writing about this topic recently, and there are several pieces to this puzzle that I won’t get into here. In this post, I want to focus on one powerful idea: when you send messages that relate to what your users already do in your product, you’re in a conversation with them, not a marketing pitch.

Do you want more marketing email?

Over the past few years, there’s been mass movement toward setting up marketing email streams as a best practice to call inactive users back into the product. And for good reason: Wired reports that email is crushing Twitter, Facebook for selling stuff online (see data below).

Marketing email is indeed going strong–but this best practice has become standard practice, and the result is that we all end up with cluttered inboxes full of messages that are rarely relevant. The new GMail interface is a direct response to inbox overcrowding, and email service providers like MailChimp are keeping a close eye on it. already affecting open rates for marketing email.

There’s still a place for marketing email. But when Google redesigns our inboxes specifically to help us cope with the overload, it’s time to think about other options.


Activity-based messages are hidden gems

The standard lingo for activity-based messages (i.e. receipts, account updates, confirmations) is “transactional,” but I’m going to argue that this term misses their real value.

Why are they hidden? Because you need business logic to trigger a transactional message, companies tend to bucket these messages as engineering projects. The problem is that when a message is treated as an engineering project, the focus is on getting the job done quickly: implement a workable solution and move on. After all, these are messages to customers who are already active–shouldn’t you focus on the people who have dropped off?

Why are they gems? The 80-20 rule applies here: you’ll get a better return on retaining current customers and improving your relationship with them than from chasing after the unresponsive ones. There’s a good reason for this: when you send an activity-based message, you’re closing a psychological loop that your customer already initiated. When you send a marketing email, you’re trying to convince someone to open a new loop and take a new action. These are very different! People like conversations much more than they like to be shouted at.

Where are they hidden? Everywhere! Anytime a user takes an action that demonstrates interest in your product, you have an opportunity to engage with them. Don’t engage every time on every activity–show restraint–but opportunities abound, from abandoned shopping carts to profile changes.

How do you use activity-based messages?

Here’s the key thing about activity-based messages: you can’t come charging in with your marketing hat on. Think of the action that your user or customer took as the conversation opener. Your job is to continue this conversation. One reliable way to do this is to follow the confirm-reinforce-inform pattern:

  1. Confirm: This is the focus of the message, and it should claim at least two-thirds of the real estate. People appreciate a confirmation of an action they took, and the main goal of the message should be to present that action clearly and concisely back to them, making it clear that you noticed.
  2. Reinforce: Tie the action your user took back into your brand. What kind of company are you, and what does that mean for them? Let the design do the talking here.
  3. Inform: Notice I didn’t say “sell.” Tell your customer what actions she might want to take next. This might include a purchase, but it might also be an answer to a common question or tool (like your app) to make the transaction easier next time.

How much better are activity-based messages than marketing messages?

There are two distinct categories of marketing email: permission-based (the recipient has explicitly subscribed to a list) and blind (lists that are cobbled together–and often purchased– without explicit permission from recipients). MailChimp, which powers millions of double opt-in, permission-based email marketing campaigns, reports that its open rates hover around 30%. Open rates for lists with lower standards are about 11%. Transactional emails, on the other hand, are opened about 50% of the time. That’s a massive boost!

But I still need an engineer, right?

Au contraire! We built Outbound so that non-developers–people who focus on product marketing, not engineering sprints–can create, edit and test their own activity-based messages using email, SMS or push. And if you need some ideas on how to structure your activity-based messages, you can always give me a call.

Message well!

About the Author: Josh Weissburg is the founder of Outbound, smarter and easier cross-channel messaging to customers. His experience includes marketing at Getaround creating and capturing rapid growth in the P2P car sharing market.

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