Making Email Delightful

I was going to write an article about having a good time at the DMV, but decided to tackle a more challenging topic instead: How to make email delightful. Before I tackle the how, however, it may be necessary to spend some time on the why. Delightfulness is not currently recorded in most email ROI analyses and is a seldom-addressed objective, so why even bother?

The reason is that email is suffering from an image crisis right now, one that it rightly deserves. There is a rising consumer sentiment that email is overwhelming, burdensome and out of consumer control. When consumers feel they have lost control over a permission-based channel, the brands that depend on that channel have a problem. The most popular apps, websites, videos and other digital experiences are all delightful. Email has more reach than any of these and is not delightful at all. In fact, the user experience in the inbox positively sucks.

The silver lining, though, is that brands that start to move the needle on inbox delight could see sizable gains in attentiveness and engagement, which is quickly becoming critical with the increased adoption of inbox management tools and services. While it requires a longer view of email ROI, the pursuit of delight should nevertheless be on the email marketer’s list of objectives. Here are some thought-starters:



Anticipation. You know what would be delightful? Waking up and heading into the kitchen first thing in the morning and finding a hot cup of coffee already poured and waiting. That would mean that somebody anticipated what I wanted, and saved me the trouble of having to do it myself. Or it would be magic (which is also delightful).

Many digital experiences rely on anticipation to delight, like a travel site that publishes the forecast temperature for a destination on the dates you’re considering travel there, or a news site that wraps a story with layers of context to create deeper understanding of the topic. In email, is it taking advantage of anticipation to send someone a message a week before Mother’s Day with a list of things to consider as gifts? It would be, if 30 other messages hadn’t already done that. Email has to try a little harder to find use cases where a consumer is going to request something from a brand, and then beat consumers to the punch by sending it first. Look for opportunities in customer service to pre-empt an inquiry and show consumers you were focused on their needs before your own.

Selflessness. While we’re on the topic of putting consumers’ needs before the brands’, do more of that. Imagine how a subscriber would react if, after receiving a couple dozen emails from a brand trying to sell this product and that, one arrives in the inbox and actually rewards that subscriber’s attention instead of trying to harvest it. While email marketers have to work harder for anticipation in the inbox, precious little selflessness could go a long way since it is so unexpected. I would posit, however, that a 20% discount coupon sent on a subscriber’s birthday is not a wholly altruistic act. Similarly, cause-related marketing is also suspect. Supporting a charity is great, but using inbox real estate to brag about it is more narcissistic than selfless.

Instead, find or create content that enhances the brand and makes your subscriber’s day a little better, or job a little easier. Be creative, yet disciplined. If you come up with an idea that is exciting because it could delight consumers and somehow tie back to immediate sales, table it and find another. Selfless is – by definition – not about you.

Surprise. The concept of surprise is almost inherent in delight, as the more unexpected something is, the greater its opportunity to create joy. Frankly, I have no idea how you would surprise with email. Maybe by sending less of it, though that sort of defeats the purpose. But I bet someone out there has already done it, and many more of you are capable of it. So surprise me.

Personality. Brands are not delightful. Some people are. Like your website or your product packaging or your call center, your emails have the opportunity to convey a personality -- even a delightful one. In fact, because emails compete for attention with messages sent to your subscribers by actual people, there is almost an imperative to infuse them with personality so that they meet the expectations of the channel. Here’s a wild idea: In B2B, many marketing emails are not mass-distributed, but sent individually from an account manager to each subscriber. Could some B2C business adopt the same practice for certain messages, so that the personality in messages is genuine and not manufactured and mass-produced?

Will delightful emails sell more than rigidly tested and optimized ones? Probably not, but that’s not where I would apply my analysis. The question instead is whether delightful email programs contribute more to a business’ overall objectives. Because email plays such an enormous role in the user experience for some brands, I would be willing to bet that delight pays notable returns.

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