Brands Use Content as a Marketing Tool

But you already know that brands use content as a marketing tool, because I’ve been talking about it since April 2009.

Kudos to David Carr and the New York Times for finally arriving to the party.

Carr just wrote this excellent article in the Times about luxury brands publishing content and downright getting into the media business. And it’s true, brands are creating content and using it to drive engagement across a variety of vertical markets, both B2C and B2B. They’re shifting dollars of out publishing ad spend to do it, and they’re delivering content in the form of print magazines, digital mags, blogs, content-rich websites, and more. Plus, they get better tangible metrics than publishers offer, because they drive traffic to their own content, URLs and places where they can track and analyze deeper.

Yet Carr’s article comes almost a full two years after I wrote a series of blog posts that described how marketers have a role in the future of content (the other two posts in the series are here and here…the second one even takes a journalist to task for not seeing the shift).

I think the mainstream media are finally starting to notice since, as Carr’s article highlights, some high-level journalists and content experts are making the leap to direct content on the brand side.

Andrea Linett, the former creative director of Lucky, has gone on to become eBay’s fashion creative director, while Melissa Biggs Bradley, the founding editor of Town and Country Travel for Hearst, is now the chief executive at the travel site Indagare. And many journalists who were pushed aside as publishing withered are now finding that brands in search of an audience are still interested in what they do.”

Well now that the Times says it, it must be true, right? So take a good, long look at what kind of content your customers consume, and charge ahead in terms of providing it to them in a way that creates engagement with your brands and products. I’m not saying you have to hire editors and build a media empire under your roof — but hired experts are clearly an effective way to do it. You also have other ways to create and provide content, like social media, whitepapers and even Twitter.

Once you make the leap to content provide and educator, you gain trust and credibility, and you gain an incredible amount of context that you can use to market your products/brands.

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Reduce Volume, Reinvest in Relevance

The following post is a re-post of an article recently published on Directmag.com, and you can read the original article on that website — which, by the way, is a great source for insights to improve your campaigns.

Rx for Ailing Email Response: Reduce Frequency

Certainly email is still one of the most productive and powerful tools in the marketer’s arsenal of tactics. Recent research shows there’s no falloff in usage even with the shift toward social networks; in fact, studies from Nielsen and others show an enhanced level of email usage among those with high participation in social media.

That said, some of the main challenges we face with email—volume, relevance, and engagement—become more problematic when people use email more. When a user is in his inbox all the time, it’s easy to get tired of senders, even trusted ones, who send too frequently. And marketers need to be diligent to ensure that their email messages and offers remain riveting and relevant in order to create engagement.

As a marketing director at Reed Medical Education, where I promote continuing education programs to healthcare professionals, I have the typical email issues to account for and test against: inbox clutter, frequency, deliverability, optimal send time, etc. There’s also an additional challenge: My recipients also receive a lot of messages that rank higher than mine—emails about patients, medications, procedures, new research, and countless other things that are critical to making people better.

This fall, when rolling out a campaign for our largest conference, focusing on mental health on behalf of Massachusetts General Hospital, I decided that less is more.

For the 2009 conference, during a six-month campaign we sent out 12 marketing emails plus four transactional emails based on actions, such as purchase confirmations. Most of the messages were in a standard HTML template we have for the brand, and two were text-only, personalized emails. Open rates were down to less than 5% across the board, and we barely hit our attendee goal.

In 2010 the goal was not only to exceed our attendee target but also to markedly improve our email metrics. A better campaign should deliver a better overall result, right? I decided to cut the number of emails we’d send for the campaign by 50%, down to six. In cluttered inboxes, I bet that fewer total messages from us would actually stand out more and give us more opens—and I knew that if we put extra time into developing a better message, the clicks would follow.

First we redesigned our HTML email template into a cleaner layout with shorter, punchier copy and highly visible calls to actions. For three of the emails, we focused on key deadlines to deliver time-sensitive, action-oriented messages.

For the other three emails, we crafted personal, text-only messages from key speakers and leaders of the conference. We segmented the campaign to our internal database based on purchase history (2009 attendees, pre-2009 attendees, never attended, etc.), and we customized the message based on that history. For last year’s attendees, we emphasized what was new in 2010. For those who had attended prior to 2009, we focused on why it was critical for them to come them back. And for those who had never attended, we highlighted key unique selling propositions and benefit-oriented messaging. And again, all versions were sent as a personal message from a key figure.

Also in these text emails, we linked to a five-minute video recorded with the chief of psychiatry at Mass General. He directly addressed some of the cost, time, and other objections we frequently hear from attendees and tied it all back into the positive impact to their clinical practice they’d gain from attending the conference. He said it much it better in the video than we ever could have said it in an email, and it provided a deeper level of content that users could access with just one click.

The results of these changes were exactly what the doctor ordered. Campaign-wide open rates more than tripled over the previous year’s to 15.4%, and average clickthrough rates were up over 2.6%, with some segments having rates as high as 9.7%. The personal emails had the best performance, as expected, with open rates all over 16%, yet year-over-year the HTML emails did considerably better as well. And the ultimate win was in our performance against our attendee goals: We converted far more registrations via email than in 2009, and we exceeded both attendee and revenue goals by 15%.

In summary, here’s my prescription for your email woes:

· Worry less about how many emails you send. Less is more when the message is right.

· Put the extra time into developing better quality messaging. Relevance and personalization matter.

· Segment, segment, segment — and leverage the information you have about your customers.

· Make your emails interactive. Link to video, integrate with social media, and provide compelling content or offers that make the click worth the time.

· Sanitize your data. We scrubbed out some long-inactive records that depressed metrics and messaged those users separately to reactivate them.

More than anything, don’t settle for the same old thing. Just as a doctor does with a sick patient, if one approach doesn’t work, try another to get better results. And remember, relevance trumps frequency to win engagement.

Mass Personalization

We see it all the time, yet we don’t always do it. It’s a critical part of building relationships with customers.

I’m talking about personalization. It really makes a difference.

No, not a simple “Dear Marie” at the start of your email. I mean real personalization that creates relevance. Relevance that leads to great things — engagement, relationships, sales, upsells, etc. Some studies in retail show that as many as 77 percent of consumers report they have made additional purchases when they encountered personalized product recommendations. And there’s no arguing that a significant percentage of customers now expect to be communicated with on a personal and targeted basis, with personalized messaging based on what they’ve done, bought or told you they want.

A significant percentage of consumers not only welcome but expect…personalized experiences and product recommendations.”

Plus, we all know it’s easier and less expensive to reactivate a current customer than to acquire new ones. So why wouldn’t you leverage what you know about your customers to differentiate what you say to them? Each one of them.

To reinvigorate your email campaigns, start by either adding in a personalization element, or better yet supercharging the personalization you already use.

  • 1. Take a look at your data. What do you know about your customers, and how can you organize it to help customize your messaging to them?
  • 2. Reformat your templates to allow for simple personalization like first names in an introduction and meaningful mentions throughout the email. Make it sound genuine and not contrived, however.
  • 3. Begin to add in more relevance-based personalization like purchase history, recommendations and content. Stuff like “since you bought this item last month, you may be interested in this to complement it” or “since you clicked on this article link, you may be interested in this new content too.”

It’s easier than you think. It doesn’t take alot of time. Change your process, organize your data, and put the thought into what makes the most sense from your customer’s perspective. Then charge ahead.

In Email, Engagement is Key

I want to think that by now, most marketers are advanced in their use of email. We all test incessantly, make everything personalized and relevant, and leverage customer data to drive strategy and messaging.

Sometimes, it gets busy though. Other problems and needs take the forefront. Your email languishes. Next thing you know, a big chuck of your email list is inactive and your metrics are lower than opinion polls on the TSA.

So I’ll get right to the point — it’s critical to segment your list and message inactive customers differently from active ones. Many times, you likely segment and message based on other things like job title, location, etc. However, engagement is arguably the most powerful metric to leverage since it signifies activity, recency, endorsement and interest. Or, as it will, non-interest. There are certainly different ways to define “engaged” today — for now, start simple and define it as someone who interacts with your email (opens, clicks).

If you’re not currently segmenting your emails using this approach, stop you’re marketing machine right now and re-do it all over again. Build in the time and capacity to do the following three things:

1. Accurately define what “unengaged” means in a way that lets you meaningfully frame and solve a problem. For example, it may mean someone who didn’t spend a dime with you in 2010, or it may mean someone who didn’t open or click on one of your emails in the last 6 months.

2. Accurately define what “reengaged” means. It has to mean something achievable and realistic. For example, if a user didn’t spend a dime with you in 2010 it may be a challenge to get him/her to spend $1,000 in 2011. You may need to define an easy entry point(s) and/or multiple levels of reactivation. For someone who hasn’t shown any level of email activity, a simple first step may be to get them to open and/or click on one of your emails again.

3. Look at what you know about each customer and leverage it to create relevance. You can customize messaging based on whatever you know: purchase history, location, profession, click behavior, age. Anything you know about them. Look at what theyve done, and suggest something that has relevance as a benchmark for reengagement. For example, one approach I used in my current role was saying stuff like “We noticed you’re a primary care physician and we havent heard from you in a while, did you know we just released a new webcast that’s really relevant to challenges in primary care? Check it out.”

I guarantee that if you start to segment by level of engagement, and then leverage customer behavior to personalize and customize messaging, your campaigns in 2011 will markedly improve.

An Email Resolution

Many, many marketers are not sad to see 2009 leave. A tough year to say the least.

Looking for ways to improve is an important thing to do as we move into the new year. Certainly it’s always an important thing to do, not just in January. Yet the turn of the calendar typically provides a convenient checkpoint for marketers to revisit our plans and practices. On that note, check out this MediaPost column on email metrics. It’s full of suggestions on how to use those metrics to find a deeper level of guidance and strategy-changing perspective.

If you’re one of those who uses the turn of the calendar to seek new life for marketing plans, maybe this will help you find it.