Warning: This week’s column refers to forward-looking statements made by big corporations that may differ from actual results, materially.
Change the world, you say? Now that is an interesting way for a Google Group to present a new partnership, isn’t it? Nevertheless, a new collaborative effort between Google and Sun Microsystems was announced -- and much-discussed later -- yesterday via press conference. Of course, it may not change the world, but it might just change our environment.
Google and Sun have expanded an existing partnership to include, among other things not yet revealed, a distribution plan for the Java Runtime Environment (JRE), the Google Toolbar and OpenOffice.org, Sun’s office productivity suite.
Will our desktops change forever? Will Sun take back the web? Will toolbar advertising revenue graduate beyond the rounding error designation?
Naturally, a natural partnership
Scott McNealy, Sun Microsystems chairman and chief executive along with Dr. Eric Schmidt, Google’s chief executive, revealed the down and dirty of new collaborative efforts between the two companies. McNealy referred to the deal as a natural partnership, the number one search provider with the number one open source platform.
McNealy also jovially reminisced about pre-bubble-burst days when Sun was big; he then looked ahead with a statement about Sun’s intention to, “take back the web.” He referenced the 20 million downloads of Java per month and over 900 Java Community partners, and went on to say that Google is going to be a part of that.
The clear intention is to leverage existing downloads from both Google and Sun. The Google Toolbar will then correspond with expansion plans for Java Community Environments. Google has endorsed the open source platform, but isn’t it the reason for this painfully obvious?
Will the new partnership be a step in the right direction towards Google's goal of information domination, otherwise known as organizing the world's information and making it universally accessible and useful? The world awaits a sign.
Target: blue desktop application
The question on everyone’s minds at yesterday’s press conference seemed to relate to the possible competitive targeting of Microsoft. “Are you going after Microsoft?” one reporter asked. Minutes later, yet another question followed with an identical tone: what’s the Microsoft targeting strategy?
McNealy answered the first question with the world’s greatest generic, non committal response: we are going after profits and revenue.
In case any of you doubted who currently has those profits, it would be Microsoft. And let us not forget that the JRE must be installed on machines in order to run Java-based applications. Remind you of any other operating systems?
Adding a twist of lime to the discussion was a reminder that Sun and Microsoft are also partners. When McNealy was asked if the Microsoft relationship was as natural a partnership as the Google relationship, he referred to it as a required partnership. “Microsoft is everywhere,” McNealy said.
The word "required" sounds somewhat less than warm and fuzzy. Yes, of course it is required since Microsoft is a dominant force in the business, and it will be interesting to see how the planned increase in collaboration between Google and Sun will affect Sun's relationship with Microsoft.
Convergence and advertising
Speaking of profits and web domination, the two companies have agreed to explore opportunities to promote and enhance Sun technologies. Advertising was only briefly mentioned in yesterday’s press conference, but it was clear that profit sharing from ad revenue is part of the deal.
What might the future hold? Since Sun and Google will be jointly promoting and distributing technology, it is only a matter of time before we see a sharper and more integrated ad platform served up with your Java download. After all, this is a multi-year agreement to promote Java Technology and the Google Toolbar along with other products or technologies that have yet to be revealed.
The combination of Google Toolbar and the content capabilities of Java may just provide better targeting options. The possibility of going beyond BT -- what we consider intelligently reaching out to users with simple demographic and psychographic profiling -- without creating a nuisance or a perceived privacy intrusion sounds quite promising.
Power to the… ?
Attendees of the press conference witnessed what may have been the highlight of the press conference in Schmidt’s gift of a Lava lamp to McNealy. There was a bit of disarray on stage as the gift was introduced, and McNealy appeared a bit confused as to the significance of the lamp. Confusion and disarray might be a great theme for the new partnership.
If the goal is to offer the consumer more choices, why not offer other competitive desktop applications and tool bars? If you really believe in open source, why do you want to take back the web? Who are you planning to take it from? Perhaps Microsoft, or perhaps the people?
The recent shifts in policy, changes in partnerships and focus for many key search-driven providers have exemplified changes to the desktop world as we know it. It is possibly ironic and most definitely entertaining to watch this technical world move away from simply creating a functional utility for all.
In the end, money does in fact make the world go ‘round. One never seems to have enough and it’s a bit disappointing to see the web domination motivation crouching on top of the open source theme.
iMedia Search Editor Kevin Ryan’s current and former client roster reads like a “who’s who” in big brands; Rolex Watch, USA, State Farm Insurance, Farmers Insurance, Minolta Corporation, Samsung Electronics America, Toyota Motor Sales, USA, Panasonic Services, and the Hilton Hotels brands, to name a few. Ryan believes in sound guidance, creative thought, accountable actions and collaborative execution as applied to search, or any form of marketing. His principled approach and staunch commitment to the industry have made him one of the most sought after personalities in online marketing. Ryan volunteers his time with the Interactive Advertising Bureau, Search Engine Marketing Professional Organization, and several regional non-profit organizations.
Kevin Ryan is chief strategy officer at Zunch Communications.
As a producer of so many media channels, National Geographic is nailing it using email as an engagement catalyst for all. It is one of the largest curators of content from multiple media and creators of new content in a continuous cycle. So what is it doing right? Well, to begin with, the company is asking. Asking for your preferences, your profile, your desire for each email type, and, most importantly, your permission. That last one is the most important of all. National Geographic has set up some great opt-in centers across multiple locations that enable you to really set the level of engagement you desire.
Dropping down to a real web geek level here: National Geographic does a great job of informational architecture, allowing me to quickly understand and find the information that I'm looking for. With a brand that has so much content, being able to quickly do a visual scan of the content and pull the relevant information out in order to make informed decisions is key. On the design geek side, I am always excited to see the brand's emails, as the library of stunning images it uses will always hold my attention for just a little longer than average.
If you are a producer and curator of visually stimulating content, you need to deliver on the promise. And it is not always the big things like the hero shot that work, but the fine attention to detail on the brand attributes. The often subtle use of the yellow mark is used in order to break up and organize content blocks, while the top-level navigation (often missing in marketing newsletters, but active in ecommerce and content campaigns) helps to drive us deeper into content we might be willing to explore simply based on the brand trust National Geographic establishes. The use of color also helps when content is new. Using the red to highlight new content is a simple way to alert readers. With so much content buried deep within sites, calling out new content from the top level in an email works to spur the visit. While 90 percent of the content highlighted is "new" each week, it is does not lend itself to being unimportant or irrelevant after a period of time. We look to National Geographic for new things, and instead of having to seek it out ourselves on the website, the emails do the work for us.
I am also appreciative of how the company approaches video in email. As you can see from the above "25 Years" email, National Geographic adds the play button overlay but doesn't allow it to interfere with the images. Many other brands use the video play button overlay in the center of the content, thereby giving the notion of video playback in the email. But due to the relative few email clients that allow for playback, it is really just an illusion. I like how National Geographic gives the idea, yet gets out of the way of the asset experience.
Everyone loves their Tims. If you don't, you should at least love the company's email marketing. In a flood of footwear retail marketing, its emails always stand out due to brand consistency, large calls-to-action, clarity of messaging, and easy-to-measure creative tests that provide more information from a business intelligence perspective than they lead on. The brand-consistent emails use colors to drive impact, an easy-to-read font to aid in scanning, and navigation elements that take you right to the action. What a home run!
So often I see footwear retailers treating email as an exercise in footwear design and not a channel through which to engage and drive sales. Out of the 30 or so that I follow, Timberland has never let me down. Heck, the company has even gotten me to be a consistent customer from its email campaigns. And isn't that what email marketing is for? Customers and sales?
In a day in which I might have 500 emails to read, Timberland's clear block copy makes it easy to read, comprehend, and make a decision to proceed or curate. (Yes, I am a collector of emails for hundreds of brands -- just a part of the culture in this line of work.) Marketers that are shoving in dozens of items, using a 10-point font, and not using multiple engagements a week as an opportunity to expose channels, hammer home the current timing of a promotion, and learn more about me -- they might as well be selling me stilettos. (Take a note, Nordstrom). Timberland does it right, and if you are in ecommerce marketing, you should be looking to the company for how it approaches the use of pre-headers in emails, content filtering, simplicity of offers, and timing.
But it does not end there. It appears to me that Timberland is taking the click data and helping focus the offers into a very relevant stream. Whether it is gender, style, frequency, or size, I always feel like it has me taken care of. Other retailers simply shout out the latest campaign, a style that trend analysts suggest people will respond to, and hope to drive a sale online or maybe out in the "channel." Often these other brands fail to deliver on the simplest of things, such as the availability of sizes. Sure, inventory can sell out, but when you are constantly out of stock, why would I come back? It is a bad experience to build excitement, get me to engage, and then tell me I can't even have what's been offered. With Timberland, I haven't received an offer that it hasn't had in stock, which helps me trust the information -- and I assume this lifts conversion.
Other things I appreciate about Timberland are that its emails work on mobile devices, and the fonts the emails employ make it easy to read without zooming or straining. The single-column layouts and the weight of the design make the copy work. You think you have a challenge in the inbox? What about the mobile inbox? Timberland's approach is to keep it simple by targeting, talking, offering, and designing to continue a conversation -- all reasons why you will continue to see me rocking the Tims.
Not only has Banana Republic been working in overdrive on creative approaches the past eight months, but it has been testing, testing, and testing some more. Long trapped in a format of simply presenting offers and highly image-based email campaigns, Banana Republic has not only hit its stride, but also stepped up the game for retailers. The brand is doing some of the best ongoing work I have seen using things like animated gifs, time-based sales that are just hours long, gender segmentation, and taking creative risks by making creative appear to be broken or incomplete.
Think about the competition that the internet has brought to these big-box national retailers. They are a search away from losing a sale for even their own merchandise. Now is the time that Banana Republic needs to step up and shine, and shine it has from 2009 to present. Starting with more in-store opt-ins, immediate thank-yous, welcomes, and well-paced marketing engagements, the brand has not only kept the hearts and minds of its customers, but also brought the fun aspects back to why we are all so drawn to its fashions and marketing.
Out of all the Gap companies, Banana Republic has stepped into its own in testing, experimenting, and being different. In a land of khakis and button-downs, this strategy is working for me through its engagements via email. The brand is going tall, wide, torn off, and animated. I feel that from a creative stand point, Banana Republic is leading most retailers it competes with from a progressive point of view, and I applaud the brand. It is giving us more reasons to click and dive deeper through the new story-telling it is creating. My favorite part of its flavor of stories is that they are not always the same -- which can cause subscribers to lose interest over time. Rather, the emails are more like a collection of short stories that can hold their own during the relationship in the inbox. I would also wager to say that Banana Republic might be seeing a higher re-open or multiple-open rate with its emails, as they are compelling and worth tucking away for that moment you find in your day to give them the attention they deserve.
News: We all want it. Print: We all read it (even if we don't like to admit it). What I have loved about both Fast Company and Inc. magazine is the approach to content that Mansueto Ventures has been taking in terms of how it gives it away. So many publishers I have worked with over time follow the "walled garden" subscription method, which creates limited to zero access to these amazing articles unless you have a subscriber ID number. But this publisher is past holding content, conversation, and engagement hostage. Instead, it has found a great way to extend the use and reach of its content over the weeks that follow the newsstand release.
What is interesting to me is that the content is so well written that it is almost evergreen. Without massive appetite for content on a minute-by-minute basis via social and media networks, you might think that if the company doesn't get it out as soon as it has it through editorial, it would lose its importance. Well, as a hyper user of media myself, Fast Company's and Inc. magazine's content -- which is released daily in small doses via their emails -- not only gives me better ways and reasons to revisit (as a I am a print subscriber as well) but also to find time to explore it deeper. Their writers are often thinking ahead of what we might be thinking, have access to people we may never dream of, and have a concept large enough to have relevance to even the most hyper media addicts.
For Mansueto, this strategy has not led to the death of a business, but instead the adoption and growth of a business that is changing. The publisher has found (and I would assume is continuing to find) that timing, relevance, and speed are leading to prolonged engagement, revisits, and even greater share of voice through the social channels -- which in the end continues to establish its credibility in this new media world. This is in contrast to other new media publishers that often shout before they take time to understand, research, and make sense of the impact of the news, trends, or information they are seeing. Chalk one up for the publishing industry.
Often, the Kimpton properties are funky older venues in markets with large hotelier competition with even larger marketing budgets. But the experience that they provide as soon as you enter each unique property carries over to the company's emails. Flash, color, elegance, simplicity, and local content drive the value of connecting you not only with a reservation but also with the brand personality. Kimpton shows lifestyle, action, fun, and personality. For any of you who have walked into the Hotel Triton in San Francisco, that's the same feeling you'll have when you open one of the company's emails.
What I love about the Kimpton emails more than anything else are not the data-driven elements, but the experience driven by the jewel colors it uses in its emails. When I get one, the messages just explode in my inbox no matter the email client or my physical location. Now as a constant nomad (aka, business traveler), I need to make decisions each and every week as to where to lay my head. Sure, money factors into part of the selection process, but that comes into play during the hunting process in the reservations engine and not from the email. Travel emails focus on experience, friends, fun, and excitement, while basing your frequency of mailings on simple travel buckets like traveler type and booking frequency -- if that is as detailed as you can get. Over complicating travel marketing to me is not the way to be there right when travelers typically book. Some will argue this point, but when making a booking decision, I am more motivated by the experience leading up to the booking than by the immediacy of the "book now" button.
Even if you have not been a Kimpton hotel guest, make sure as an email marketer to engage with the company to see how it's doing it right. Kimpton is one of the only travel brands that has not disappointed me at some point in time by timing, design, or frequency. So in my book, this represents a program to emulate. Elegance, simplicity, local content, and value are the key attributes that keep me connected to the Kimpton even when staying at the Westin.
The Wall Street Journal provides one of the most in-depth and detailed email login centers I have ever seen. Now, due to this complexity, the publication might lose some readers who prefer a different flavor of fish wrap, but WSJ readers are astute, will spend time, and value the ability to have information delivered to them the way they want it, when they want it, and to the device and in the format they want it. This is a daily paper with an audience that demands information as it happens. And if WSJ is going to continue to be relevant and compete against the hundreds of thousands of news services, it needs to deliver just like I did in 5th grade -- tossing the paper to the doorstep and not the driveway.
WSJ wins not only in the way that it designs for information but in the way it presents the information. You want HTML? Mobile? Text alerts? It is going to provide the flavors that support more than 20 emails. The level of visual commutation that the publication takes the information architecture to in this subscription center doesn't stop there; it goes down to the day while giving you some insight on why you might want to pick one over the other. Heading off the negative user experience is a massive win if you can do it in your own email marketing with clearly positioned tips and setting the expectations upfront.
WSJ delivers from a design perspective much better than other news organizations, as its design approach leads with the content (being text and copy) and not images. For all of you who have opened up an email only to find greyed-out boxes and red Xs, you can see how copy and text win when used in design. While a picture might be worth a thousand words, a lack of content is worth a bad user experience and possibly losing one more subscriber. WSJ knows this and avoids the problem.
Ten-minute shopping breaks, anyone? If you have not jumped into the world of limited, deep-discount, private shopping, then you may have not stumbled into Rue La La. Yes, it is a daily for all of you who are gun-shy about emailing people more than once a month or once a week. Get over it -- this is the internet, and users are seeking good content all day long. We are not just here for green screens, Excel, and emails from our bosses and co-workers. We are here to shop, search, read, engage, and share.
Rue La La burst onto the scene in an early crowded private shopping market. (By the time I had signed up, I already had a list of more than 100 such retailers around the globe running similar stores.). But Rue La La stood out then and continues to stand out based on its clever writing, simplicity of design, education on what is coming up next, and the fact that it always lets you know how much you have left to spend via customer referrals.
Education leads with events that are small, quick, and time-based. You need to have a heads-up on what is next. This tactic drives the action to the "if I kind of like it, I better go look now as it might be gone" click. These are impulse, brand-oriented, and need-to-have it customers. Using the calendar features in the bodies of the emails -- as well as a days-hours-minutes left around the image itself -- we are led down the path to need or want to click to see behind the velvet curtain. Ru La La gives you all the tools to be successful at getting what you want at the price you want with these tactics.
The company takes the high road of giving you money. Yes, did you realize that it uses its cost of acquisition as a viral marketing engine? Instead of throwing those dollars at an ad network, the company is throwing them right at the customer. Genius idea, right? Why not use you for all your contacts, friends, and even people you have never met (I have seen people build landing pages that give their friend code to anyone looking for "access" to the site). And guess what? No matter who is doing your marketing for you, you win in two ways. For one, you are gaining customers, and those sending them your way are very happy with the referral dollars to spend with you. Two, I would wager a high percentage of the user base carries a balance of dollars that either do not get spent (giving you more to use to acquire) or spends them like water, thereby driving your sales up and, in turn, your revenues.
The overall design of Rue La La's emails is simple, uncluttered, easy to read, and even easier to click. Win.
As you have seen here, there are a diverse range of brands innovating within email in different ways. Whether you are B2B or B2C, these are all program ideas and best practices that you can adapt for your campaigns.
Now go forth and make my inbox not only prettier, but more functional, valuable, and engaging.