Charts and Blather

Those of you who have been reading this e-mail column for a while now might realize that I write two basic types of columns. One is editorial, which this specific article would fall into, where I blather on about some subject or other. The other is more "case study" focused with charts and graphs and data and very little editorializing on my part.

Which type is more successful and to whom? That is the subject of this week's column since I think it goes to the heart of line that e-mailers, especially newsletter e-mailers, must constantly walk when developing their content.

An obvious fact is that most e-mail newsletters have two customers: the reader and the sponsor. Make either unhappy and you don't have a newsletter for long. But each "customer" has very different needs and balancing those needs can be very tricky.

For instance, in this newsletter, when I blather on and editorialize, I usually get a lot of response to what I've written. People write me e-mails telling me how they liked the column and those who like my writing recognize my name when I meet them. They associate the subject of the newsletter with me, the writer. This makes the readers happy, the publisher happy, and is personally satisfying for me as well as boosting my personal brand.

The opposite occurs when I put up charts and figures. I get no response, none. When I'm in a meeting and start talking about some case study I had just written, people will often say: "Yes there was a column yesterday about that very thing," and they are surprised when I tell them that I wrote it. In other words, they don't associate the subject of the article with me the writer. They are focused on the content which someone probably forwarded to them. And here is the other interesting thing: even though I receive very little to these columns, the sponsor reports a much higher response rate to their ads on the days I put up charts and graphs. Why?

My guess is that people print these types of articles out, pass them around, and forward the info on to their colleagues, many of whom are not regular readers. More people get exposed to the ads as a result, especially those focused on improving their e-mail marketing ROI, and so the response rate goes up. The reason I don't receive any responses is because there is nothing to really respond to: it's just the facts, ma'am. So in judging the success of these articles, I regard them as a failure because the readers don't respond. But from the perspective of the sponsor, they are the most successful of the articles I write.

So why not just write the charts, and jettison the blather? Quite frankly they are easier (although less fun) to write and they work better for the sponsor. This is a question that many e-mail publishers face. But the reason I don't do that is because in the end it would eventually undermine the success I have with both my "customers." This is a fatal mistake that I think most publishers make: catering to one group over another and abandoning those that brought you to the party. It also speaks to the whole question of optimization.

There is an old story from the computer game world: a publisher of a computer war simulation would send out a disk every month with a new war simulation on it. One day they started asking their readership what they liked in the games and what they didn't. They got lots of suggestions and they started optimizing the game experience by including things people liked and dropping things people didn't. Pretty soon, they readership optimized itself to virtually nothing and they went out of business. As it turned out, the most vocal of the readership were not the majority, and by not "mixing it up" more, the games only appealed to a small subset of the overall audience.

In my case, my base of readers has been built up by people who enjoy my ranting and raving and who read my columns just to see what I'll say next. My guess is that it is this group who passes on the more case-studied articles to their co-workers, who are probably not regular readers. It is also my guess that this core group would grow tired of a case-study-only approach in short order and would eventually stop reading if that was the only diet I provided. Thus, my core base would dwindle, fewer articles would get passed along, and response rates on all my articles would begin to diminish across the board for the advertisers who support the column.

Optimizing for the peaks can lower the whole mountain. When it comes to content, it pays to keep them guessing.