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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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.

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.