How to Reform an Enewsletter

There’s so much to stay up-to-speed on nowadays, it’s easy to get passed by.

That’s what happened to me at one point last year, when one of my email campaigns got stale real quick.

Something can always fall through the cracks, even if you put alot of time into planning and strategy. So when you’re stuck in a bad email situation, get refocused quickly, take a good, long look at best practices, and make some changes to your email program to turn a bad campaign into an opportunity to re-engage customers quickly.

I just wrote the following article for Chief Marketer (access the original piece right here) that summarizes how I switched up the sitch and turned that stale campaign into a winner again.

Healthcare Enewsletter Reform Perks Up Response

With email marketing, there’s more to stay up-to-date on than ever before: integrating social and email, reactivating inactive customers, personalization, accounting for mobile users, deliverability challenges, testing, using content and relevance to drive engagement. Add all that to the day-to-day tasks of your job, and it’s inevitable that something may fall through the cracks.

That was the case for one healthcare client I worked with. I certainly spent a lot of time on testing and solid planning, yet a period came up where work volume skyrocketed and I lost sight of performance on one of our email campaigns. So what had started out as a great member newsletter turned into a stale email that lacked engaging content, with increasingly poor metrics as a result.

I needed to change the system and implement some real healthcare reform to get this email program back on track. Three simple steps led the way:

  • reducing frequency
  • investing saved time in creating better content
  • refreshing the template to align with best practices.

The problem
The client was Massachusetts General Hospital, for whom I managed marketing strategy for its live and online educational programs directed to clinicians in mental health, oncology, and other specialties. As I mentioned in an earlier article, a big challenge in the healthcare market is the huge number of critically important emails that healthcare professionals receive every day—emails about patients, medications, procedures, new research, all of which take priority over marketing messages. And then, of course, healthcare providers are also affected by the other issues regarding email marketing, such as inbox clutter and deliverability.

Last year, a bimonthly newsletter for the Massachusetts General Hospital Academy went from average open and click rates in January (based on all my email campaigns for that client) to open rates of less than 5% in August and click rates of…well, you don’t want to know. It was that low.

Part of the reason was content. During that busy time I mentioned, there was less time to dedicate to content development for a biweekly newsletter. So copy blocks became longer, the content became less informative, and some of the articles and announcements mirrored what we sent in our more marketing-oriented emails. Without unique content, the newsletter no longer compelled recipients to open or read it.

Mass General Newsletter Before

Mass General newsletter before reform

The solution
The first step in the solution was to pull back on frequency from bimonthly to monthly. We did have other email campaigns, and the target audience receives all those other important emails I mentioned above. So I believed that sending fewer emails—at our highest-performing send times—would create a greater impact and help our emails stand out amid the clutter.

The second step was to take the time saved by sending fewer emails and invest it in developing better content. With more time I was able to better leverage content that was already created by the hospital’s various service lines and treatment centers. Because it hadn’t appeared in the other newsletters that subscribers received, this content was new to them.

Indeed, you don’t have to create all-new content for your newsletters. It can be just as valuable to link to important content already out there that your audience may not know about or to provide your own analysis on important news and research.

Third, I had someone on my internal marketing team redesign our HTML template. We moved away from the image-heavy header area to a small, HTML text header with a right-column logo as the only image. We include “Massachusetts General Hospital Academy” in the from line, because it lifts open rates, so we no longer needed the logo to occupy valuable upper-left real estate.

We added a brief table of contents in the top 300 pixels that linked down to short copy blocks. The copy was written to entice clicks rather than tell too much of the story, and we used small images to liven up the template and create visual points of interest. We ensured that the images, however, would not damage the integrity of the layout if a recipient’s email client blocked them. We fit key links in an unobtrusive location opposite the table of contents and in the upper right, and added in a few profiles of key hospital thought leaders in the right column opposite the copy blocks.

Mass General Newsletter After

Mass General newsletter after reform

Overall the redesigned template was much easier to skim and engage with—and was exactly what the doctor ordered in terms of results. In just the first email, sent out in September, the open rate went up 13%. Further subject-line testing and content testing increased the open rate by 30% by the end of the year. Click rates also jumped significantly, and while they were certainly skewed toward the most interesting content, they were also spread out across the entire template, which clearly showed users were reading past the scroll.

Based on these results, when it comes to refreshing a stale campaign, here’s a prescription for the problem:

  • Consider decreasing volume, even if for a short time. Give your customers a minute to breathe. You’ll find that less is more when the message is right.
  • Make sure those fewer messages have better-quality content. Spend the extra time you have on creating relevance and personalization that matter.
  • Ensure your templates are optimized for today’s email clients and user habits. Rely less on images, use HTML text for key action points, optimize for the mobile channel, etc.
  • Provide numerous ways to engage, by leveraging interactivity, linking to video content, and integrating with social media, among other ways.
  • Sanitize your data. Subsequently we scrubbed out some long-inactive records that depressed metrics and messaged those users separately to reactivate them.

So don’t panic if you get distracted and your email campaign comes down with a case of bad metrics. Refresh your strategy, optimize your design and your approach to content, and in a very short time your emails will be healthy again.

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Earn Clout with Social Influencers

Do you current acquisition campaigns include social influencers? They should.

Social media is lauded for its high engagement value, yet many marketers are struggling with how to measure it, never mind how to use it to move the needle on sales. Hell, many marketers and companies have yet to commit the time or the resources to leverage SoMe effectively for engagement — despite the benefits.

That’s why I love the great examples out there like this article on how the Sacramento Kings used Klout to tap into the power of social influencers. There are tons of articles out there that discuss all the reasons you have to use social — this blog alone offers up a bunch. Yet this article touches on the true viral power of brands tapping into social influencers who are capable of shaping behavior across their whole social networks.

Nothing like other people doing your job for you.

Think this approach has merits? Take a good, long look at it’s application on the micro-local level, where community-based doctors, restaurants and other local business could reach out to prominent local influencers — perhaps members of social programs, sports leagues or PTA boards. Give them a good experience or an offer, and the word spreads fast and drives local business as soon as those influencers tell their social networks about it via Facebook, Twitter or other means.

Think of it’s application to healthcare, where innovative academic centers and community practices could reach out to prominent patient advocates and community leaders. Work with those influencers to create events in the facilities and practices or host Twitter chats, and the social impact spreads to core consumers of healthcare services in those networks. Recent studies show a “graying” of social networks due to the huge number of older Americans flocking to them, and one of their most popular online activities is searching for and sharing healthcare information. One of my blog posts for Oncology Times discuss this phenomenon. So the opportunity is definitely there to make an impact among healthcare consumers with the right outreach to social influencers.

How do you identify and reach social influencers? Well, you can work with experts like Klout, or you can set up an effective social listening station of your own and begin to closely monitor and filter the conversation in your markets or areas of interest. Many tools out there set up those powerful filters that can be as granular as you need, and you can build your own dashboard to analyze and rank influencers. Radian6 and Alterian are two of the better products available, and the cost is not significant.

Need another example? During an online demo of Radian6, I tweeted about it. Less than 10 minutes later, I had a tweet back from Alterian acknowledging my interest in social listening software, with an offer to access information about their product. Now here I sit, virally spreading that experience and education. It’s a whole different and more meaningful way to influence customer behavior.

We’ll discuss more about social listening in an upcoming post, yet in the meantime I recommend you charge ahead and become more familiar with it starting right now.

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.

More Info on Do Not Track

I saw this today, and in the spirit of socially-sharing news, I think you should take a look too. USA Today ran a good article from Byron Acohido and Jon Swartz on the implications of the Do Not Track movement and what it could mean for the online advertising business.

The key point is to note is that, for brands and online marketers, the benefit of tracking is knowing who to target with what messaging. And for users, it’s being reached with content and ads that are relevant to your interests. I’ll debate with whoever wants to debate about the value in the concept of serving relevant info to those who demonstrate patterns or take certain actions. Hopefully the Do Not Track movement is balanced by common sense and isn’t over-regulated to water down any aspect of targeting.

Certainly I’d rather receive info that’s most relevant to me — as long as they don’t misuse my information. Does simply sharing my info constitute misuse? We can debate that too.

Implications of the “Do Not Track” Movement

Just when you were starting to figure it out online, leave it to potential legislation to ruin it.

Well, maybe not totally ruin it, but at least make it harder. That’s my take on the potential for FTC policy and future legislation on an Internet “Do Not Track” list. While I agree that consumers should have every right to raise their hand for privacy whenever they desire, I think it also raises the bar alot higher for marketers who don’t want to be covered by their customers’ “Do Not Track” blankets.

I’m hoping that policymakers take a good, long look at arguments like David Greene’s post on why the Do Not Track line of thinking may be misguided. While I like and agree with that line of thinking, the Do Not Track movement may have too much momentum to be stopped — Microsoft already announced that when Internet Explorer 9 is released in 2011 it will have a feature included that allows users to restrict sites from tracking them. In reality it’s just an enhancement to features already present in IE 8 and it requires some user effort to take full advantage of the feature, yet the big announcement by Microsoft (which some argue is just posturing to gain an edge) certainly added fuel to the fire.

Essentially, here’s what this functionality means for you as a marketer: Want to be able to track customer data? Then earn their trust with top-notch messaging, content and experience. Then maybe they’ll let you in.

The one sure thing is that if you don’t make an effort to earn trust, you certainly won’t be let in. So my recommendation is to address the issue now.

  • Start improving the quality of your messaging so it’s personalized and relevance-based.
  • Engage customers in dialogue that builds trust.
  • Set high standards for process integrity and data security.
  • Explain to customers what you do with their data and why it helps you help them.

Those proactive steps will help you charge ahead and become an oasis for customers in the desert of online trust.

Is This the Browser of the Future?

Sometimes it’s the little things.

In this case, the little thing may turn out to be a big thing. It’s been fun to take a good, long look at and play around with Rockmelt, the new browser that integrates a variety of social elements to make browsing a true social experience. At first playfully called the “Facebook browser,” it’s built on Chromium, has Facebook integration, and certainly has an interesting feature set.

Now, instead of having a variety of windows, tabs and programs open, you can have full access to major social media sites as part of your one browser window. At various points around the window there are toolbars and icons that provide rollover and/or one-click access to your information streams from Facebook, Twitter, blogs and other places. You can also perform the standard set of functions like share, retweet, like, etc. There’s also a search bar for access to dynamic type-to-search results and a navbar listing your most important friends on the left, with mini-window access to detailed info, wall commenting, etc.

It is definitely a highly social experience, yet I expect a slow adoption rate. There are still a ton of folks who just want to search for things, do research and read online — without the omnipresent stream of information from the socialsphere. I think that eventually the overall ease of monitoring your socialsphere at the same time you’re doing whatever you do online will be something that’s inevitably hard to refuse for most. It’s certainly gotten mixed reviews, but I think Rockmelt has something here, even if it takes time to grow in adoption.

For marketers, it means not necessarily having access to fans and followers in the confines of your fan page or a Twitter client. Your fans or followers may now see your updates and offers in a small window in a nanosecond.

All the more reason to make your social strategy built upon solid content, so you have engagement and your customers find value that lets you stand out from the crowd.

What do you think about Rockmelt — fab or flop?