I saw "Toy Story 3" (again) last weekend, and was struck by a scene in the film where one toy-character complimented another toy on his acting abilities. An odd choice of compliment, since neither had choice of expression or movement -- while their owner, a little girl, spun disjointed fantasies.
The same is true for marketing emails. We may aspire to "conversation," lead "nurturing" or any number of euphemisms that imply an engaging back-and-forth communication between brand and customer, but the reality is, we can't handle a discussion. (Witness the large number of no-reply email addresses companies send from). And so our "conversations" are little more than a one-sided romp where we spin our stories while our customers have few options for expression.
Yet none of us really enjoy being talked at. I regularly tune out people who talk "at" me, rather than "to" me. So what is an email marketer to do?
1. Stop pretending it's a conversation. I'm all for aspiring to stretch goals, but this goes beyond stretch and into the realm of the impossible. Just because your customers like your product and love your brand doesn't mean they want to talk to you -- any more than they want to be talked at. If we keep trying to have a conversation, we will miss out on the real opportunities to make our customers happy.
2. Start segmenting your audience and your offers. Whenever your data allows you to target, segment, or approximate 1:1 marketing through dynamically assembled emails, do it. Whole-house offers tend to be weak because they are trying to appeal to too broad an audience. Focus on a target or segment, and the smaller audience size can help you afford a better offer -- or at least a more interesting one.
3. Follow up on expressed interest. When I get an email responding to something I've done on a particular company's website, I sit up and take notice. It may not be a conversation, but it is a very good reminder that this company has something specific that I'm actually interested in. It's a good idea to assume your customers lead busy lives that don't revolve around shopping. Under that assumption, a reminder that they've nosed around your content or products is a nice way of asking for more of their time while making it worth their while. These types of emails are known as Browse/Re-marketing emails and can be small annuities for your business.
4. Make sure your offers don't insult. Customers think they can tell when your offer is supposed to be specific to them (and not a general whole-house offer). Do them the courtesy of trying to make the offer worth their time. This is best illustrated by example: for a year after Kindle 2.0 came out, I groaned every time I went to amazon.com and saw "Hi, Gretchen" along with an offer for the Kindle I already owned. Doesn't Amazon.com have a better use for that space on its home page? Nearly everything else on that page is customized to me. It hurt my marketing sensibilities to see such large real estate squandered. Another example: a well-known retailer keeps sending me online-only offers to get me to return to their website. The emails even feature items I've recently browsed. But their best offer so far is a paltry 10% discount, which doesn't offset their exorbitant shipping fees. I'll pass, despite the 1:1 marketing approach.
Recognizing that your customers aren't having a conversation with you is the first step toward getting them some engaging content that will make them raise their hands for better reasons -- maybe even to buy from you.