"Our Emails Are So Pretty, Our Messaging So Consistent … I Wonder Why Everybody Ignores Them?"

Many associations spend a lot of money and time developing what they call “consistent branding.” They have a look, they choose a stylebook, and everything they send out — print, email, online — follows the guidelines to a tee.

Unfortunately, it’s completely irrelevant. It may sound good in a meeting, it may make a nice checkbox in a strategic plan, but it doesn’t mean a damn thing. The point of sending something out is not to make you look good — the point is to get someone else to do something. (And a logo, an email template, a stylesheet are NOT a “brand” or even components of one.)

Take email, for example. Associations build nice templates and stick with them. Yes, this makes sense for a regularly-produced newsletter. But for other messages? Not so much. Many associations forget that click-thrus matter a lot more than consistency.

For example, a certain association holds a lot of webinars and classes, and they send out a lot of marketing messages about them — each of which follows the exact same template, with the exact same look, written in the exact same style. I get them and before I even read them, I know exactly what each email is about.

And I delete every single one.

Despite what some people have been claiming for years and years, email to an opt-in list is still the best way to reach an audience and get it to do something, right now. But only when you do it right. Doing it right means —

1) Knowing what you want the audience to do.

2) Getting them to do it.

Based on many years now of using email successfully, the one thing I’ve learned is — there’s no one way to do it. Trying to always do it the same way may be a lot easier on you, but it doesn’t get maximum results. When it comes to email marketing, you should —

  • Send really short one-sentence emails.
  • Send really long three-page emails.
  • Send plain text emails.
  • Send emails with no text and one catchy picture.
  • Send emails with imperfect grammar and run-on sentences.
  • Send emails that include coupon codes or special offers.
  • Send emails with no coupon that make a point of saying there’s no coupon.
  • Send emails that come from real people, not the association. (Actually, you should always do that.)
  • Send the exact same email to the same list three times over the course of a few weeks.
  • Send a series of emails that are related, but different.
  • Announcing something big? Send an email that says you’re going to announce something big and offer a sign-up link for people who want to be the first to know what it is.
  • Send an email promoting something you’re not charging for.
  • Send a one-question survey about something that your audience is interested in and tell them you will send them the results. (As opposed to a survey about something you want to know about your audience that’s of use only to you.)
  • Send an email that contains info you forgot to include in a previous message, or corrects a link. (Use that one sparingly.)
  • Launching something new? Send a teaser email with a quiz or puzzle that is related to what you’re going to announce.
  • Send lists — done right, lists are damn near irresistible. Don’t make them lists of 10 or 5 — make them lists of 4 or 7 or 12. Like “Top 4 Questions We Get About…” or “7 Ways People Are Solving X Problem.”

Now, this is all off the top of my head, but my point isn’t that you send out all these different kinds of emails every week (heaven forbid), or about every single thing you are trying to do. The point is — for every single thing you want people to do, you should approach it individually and craft an approach that will get people to do it. Don’t say, “This is the template we use to promote classes so since we’re going to promote a class, we will use it.”

And of course the most important thing here is who’s getting the email — stop sending emails out to everybody. Use your data to figure out who is most likely to be interested in something, and who is least likely to be interested in something. Don’t bother the people who probably aren’t interested. They will not feel grateful for the chance to marvel at the consistency of your branding.

Remember — consistency, hobgoblins, etc. Get people to read, push them to click, move them to do. The rest is noise.

11 comments on “"Our Emails Are So Pretty, Our Messaging So Consistent … I Wonder Why Everybody Ignores Them?"

  1. Brilliantly creative list of things to try when sending out a new email to customers. I’m going through the process of establishing my first series of emails for newsletters and “other” communication and this will be on my wall as a reminder to do a bit of zagging at send time.

    My favourites from your list:

    Send emails with imperfect grammar and run-on sentences – I love doing this in my blog posts, and it makes sense to cross it over to email to further humanize it.

    Send emails with no text and one catchy picture – you have to hope people using web mail (Gmail etc) are getting used to clicking that little “show the images already” link – as this is a great way to communicate with style. A meaningful image or just a blank canvas with powerful graphic typography will be much more powerful than 4 paragraphs of 12pt Arial.

    Thanks for the list Kevin.

  2. Oli, thanks for the comment. Re imperfect grammar — the need of some organizations to perfectly scrub every automated communication so it sounds like it comes from a literal automaton makes me laugh. Never mind push messages, even auto-replies — I don’t care if you’re from a huge bureaucracy or a small start-up, which of the following sounds better to the person receiving it?

    This one:

    Dear so-and- so,

    Thank you for registering for X event. We look forward to seeing you there. For updated schedule information and news updates, please visit http://www.domain.com. If you haven’t already reserved your hotel room, please do so by calling 1-800-555-1212 and mention “XYZA” for our discounted rate, which is only available until Dec X. If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to contact me by replying to this email or calling 703-555-9999.

    Or this one?

    Dear so-and-so,

    Wanted to let you know we got your registration for the X event. Everything processed a-OK and we can’t wait to see you. We’re going to be announcing even more cool stuff about the event, and updating the schedule, at http://www.domain.com, so bookmark it and keep checking it out. Also — if you haven’t booked your room yet, we have a special discount rate if you call 1-800-555-1212 and tell ’em XYZA sent you. You need to hurry, though, the rate’s only good until Dec XX or our room block sells out, whichever comes first. If I can be of any help or if you have any questions, please let me know — if you’re on Twitter, you can also DM me @twittername, or call me at 703-555-9999. I’ll get back to you as soon as I can. Thanks again and look me up in City at the opening reception!

    Both of these could be set as auto-replies. Neither are works of art, and are just off the top of my head, but my point is — how hard is it to make our communications with humans sound like they’re coming from a human?

  3. Kevin, I’m clearly an anachronism, because I very much prefer the first email to the second.

    Maybe it’s an occupational hazard, but I really dislike “overly-familiar” messages that are clearly automated. It makes me think of HAL and that the machine is trying to befriend me. (I’m thinking “The machine said ‘a-OK’? Really?”)

    The auto-reply (especially order confirmations) should use appropriate grammar and pleasant tone, but overly-friendly is too much. I think your first example fits this bill nicely.

  4. You ask, “How hard is it to make our communications with humans sound like they’re coming from a human?”

    Based on what I usually read, the answer must be majorly hard!

    It would be interesting to know, in this challenged economy, which organizations are doing better… ones with a friendly, human voice or the sterile corporate writing?

    I know where I would put my money!

    As a fellow folksy writer, I applaud your examples. Well done Kevin!

  5. I talked to an association exec recently who noted that in the last wave of lay-offs the communications person who served the role of email coordinator was lost. Now they are in the scramble to figure out how to assure consistency, messaging etc. across the association. Seems like they have an opportunity perhaps and I’m sending this post to them because it underscores that we don’t need a template we need guiding principals and clearly stated purpose.

  6. Peggy, I think people forget that the key to good communication is to find what works.

    Kevin gave some fab examples – and I’ll bet he measures response rates to any combination he uses.

    For example, the right headline is one of the most important elements of email communication.

    You are fighting for eyeballs. If I think I’ve already read it, why bother – no matter how standardizingly pretty it is?

    Measuring results can be a real eye-opener to identifying what works.

  7. <strong>&ldquo;Our Emails Are So Pretty, Our Messaging So Consistent &hellip; I Wonder Why Everybody Ignores Them?&rdquo; &mdash; Association Inc…</strong>

    "Despite what some people have been claiming for years and years, email to an opt-in list is still the best way to reach an audience and get it to do something, right now. But only when you do it right… "

  8. This is very interesting reading points. You are correct about the templates that are used. Funny many company’s make their front line staff use the approved copy and they all have the same feel or touch. Standing out and being noticed is one thing but to get the end result to click or visit your site is the challenge. But the biggest is the ability to freely type a email and get the same message out with flair.

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