The first and most difficult step is to make sure your company's stakeholders "get it." They need to understand that e-mail content cannot be focused solely on the message the company wants to send; it must be blended with content the recipient wants to read.
Try this exercise when you have your stakeholders assembled: ask each to name a commercial e-mail that they value and why. You'll get a variety of answers, but you won't hear anyone say that they read XYZ Company's e-mail to get a sales pitch on their products and services. More likely, the answers will fall into these categories:
Education--If you're reading this column, you are either my mother or you subscribed to stay on top of thinking in our field. What expertise do you have that your customers want to know? The story of how and why a new product was developed may be more interesting to your customer than a sales pitch. For service industries, e-mail tips and ideas are a great way to give current and potential customers a sample of your know-how.
Information--In this age of information overload, we value concise, targeted, timely information--what we want to know when we want to know it. I want to know the daily special at my local lunch spot, the upcoming shows at my favorite venue and the national news headlines. What information do your customers want?
Entertainment--I worked for two companies that developed Intranets. One company had to bribe people to log on; the other was every employee's home page. Why? In the second case, the Intranet had "food alerts" when treats were available in the lunchroom, and allowed humorous and other posts by employees, in addition to the business-focused content. People enjoy a quick workplace diversion, whether humor, music, an interesting visual or witty copy.
Offers--Who doesn't want a great deal? An offer is not your basic value proposition, but rather that little something extra that gets people to overcome their tendency to procrastinate and do nothing. The best offer makes your customer feel that they will miss out if they don't act. Consider a gift-with-purchase, free shipping, complimentary service, discount, etc. If you are selling products via e-mail, what can you offer that has a high value to your customers and a reasonable cost to you?
If you can get stakeholders to put on their "customer hats," they will see how their own preferences fit into these buckets, and that the sales pitch bucket remains empty. Further discussion will yield good ideas to fulfill the customer's desire for education, information, entertainment and offers while meeting your company's goals.
But as anyone who does User Experience testing will tell you, as an insider you cannot completely put yourself in the customer's shoes. That's why you should ask your opt-ins to rate the value of current and potential e-mail content. Also include open-ended questions like: "What other e-mail content would you like from us?" and "What would you like to tell us about the XYZ e-mail program?" When you consider the expense of maintaining an e-mail program, the cost of a survey is just a drop in the bucket. And why maintain an e-mail program at all if it doesn't create a positive interaction with your customers?