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7 brands with bad-ass email programs

7 brands with bad-ass email programs Dylan Boyd

What is "right"? Is there a correct way? Do best practices always work?

The answer to these and almost every other question in email marketing is, "It depends." I know it's a cop-out of an answer, but in all honesty, there is no right answer. There's no global best practice that makes your campaign stats jump, no design layout that wins every time. It takes constant trying, tweaking, analyzing, and risk-taking. Calculated and meticulous risk-taking, I might add. And yes, in the end there is no "right," only good job, mission accomplished, and what's next?

Yet over the years of not just observing thousands of email campaigns but also creating them, I have weeded through the good and the bad to find those brands that are marketing in ways that move audiences and drive results. This isn't about presenting you with empirical campaign data. This is about what works for me, and why.

Here are seven brands that are doing it right.

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.

Dylan Boyd is VP of sales and strategy at eROI.

On Twitter? Follow Boyd at @dtboyd. Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.

I lead Growth at Urban Airship, a mobile services platform provider that develops tools for marketers using the mobile channel to engage and retain customers on mobile apps. I lead business development efforts, strategic partnerships and agency...

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to leave comments.

Commenter: Naveen singh

2010, July 30

articles mentioned here are worth reading, but need more details on different success strategy or ideas specified on details. Also, expecting more of examples on retail fashions industry or domain pertaining to indian market. I am more interested on geographically domain examples and their success.
kindly guide me on this.
Naveen singh
Bangalore. India.

Commenter: Tim Bottiglieri

2010, June 09

great article dylan, eye opener for me...i will always look to read where your name appears...easy reading with All the info,,,if you edit your own work...you are a master, thanks for the info!

Commenter: Angelique and Friends

2010, June 07

Timberland's email message isn't any different from those I receive from dozens of clothing companies. I'm not saying it's bad in any way, I'm just saying it's not unique.

I do have to disagree with you about the magazine, however; to me it looks like a chore to read.

Commenter: Marc Haseltine

2010, June 07


Here's a link to today's National Geographic Channel email newsletter: http://ow.ly/1Vbq4

You can sign up to receive this email -- and all our other newsletters -- at http://ow.ly/1Vbs3


Marc Haseltine
Email Manager
National Geographic

Commenter: Ghulam Nabi Rezbi

2010, June 07

I don't think your "it depends" comment is a cop-out at all: It's realistic.

The fact is, as with basically everything in marketing, the only way to know if something is working is to test it.

By testing each and every element, sometime through a long and tedious (but necessary) process, can yuo know for certain what works and what doesn't.

And even then you have to keep testing because factors change over time.


Commenter: Bolen High

2010, June 07

Great article with excellent, but I wish you had included links to the 7 emails you described.

This way we could experience what you were discussing in the flesh.