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7 rules of content marketing in email

Christopher Marriott
7 rules of content marketing in email Christopher Marriott

I was speaking at a conference in early September, and during a panel discussion at the end of the day we were asked the questions, "How do I get my email noticed in a crowded inbox? How do I stand out?" The standard industry answer to this question is "be relevant." But I've grown tired of that stock answer. It's sort of like telling someone to "eat more vegetables." Easy advice to give, harder advice to follow.


On top of that, I don't even think it's the right question to ask. Your subscribers have a lot more daily distractions than simply the other emails in their inboxes. That email you sent is also competing for their attention with the thousands of other marketing messages bombarding your recipients on a daily basis in TV commercials, display ads, print ads, billboards, etc. (The average number of messages we're exposed to on an average day varies widely depending on who is doing the estimating. Safe to say it is a lot!)


When confronted with these stark terms, one might be tempted to throw up his or her hands and say, "It can't be done! I'm going to go binge-watch seasons one and two of 'Strike Force' instead!" While the idea to binge-watch "Strike Force" isn't necessarily a bad idea, giving up certainly is. My solution for my email clients is more than the stock "be relevant." The real key to standing out in any channel, including email, is to "be anticipated." What that means is really rather simple: Have your subscribers on the look-out for your emails in their inbox. Sometimes this can be achieved by (to borrow a television phrase) appointment viewing. Your email shows up at the same time every time and offers something of clear value. But this can also be achieved by always rewarding an open with something of value to the subscriber.


One of the keys to being anticipated starts with your ability as a marketer to look at your program through the eyes of your subscribers. Doing so forces you to think less about what you want to send and more about what your subscribers hope to receive. Ideally you know what that is. Even better, you act on that knowledge on a consistent basis.


This all brings me back to the subject we first covered last month when I wrote about my definition of content marketing in email. If you missed that, you might want to go back and read it before continuing with this column. I talked about the three Cs of content marketing: catalogs, context, and conversations. This month, I want to talk about my seven rules of content marketing. I deliberately use the words "my seven" rather than "the seven" because there are probably rules I have missed that you could add to the list. But it's a start if you are interested in having your emails "be anticipated" in your subscribers' inboxes.


Never lead with "buy now"


If "buying now" was the objective, we'd call it "content selling." I've always believed that the primary role of marketing is to make the target audience receptive to an eventual sales pitch when they are in the market for a particular product or service. Marketing and sales are cousins; they are not different names for the same thing. If they were one in the same, you wouldn't have both a marketing and a sales team at your company. So when we talk about content marketing, we're talking about what you send in the period between purchases. As discussed last month, customers quickly tire of "buy now" emails. So they get trained to ignore your emails in the inbox. If you want to send a "buy now" email, go right ahead. But you're not leveraging content marketing.


Understand your audience


Ensure that the tone and substance of your content sits correctly with the subscribers you already have -- or want to attract. While this might seem rather obvious, it nevertheless requires that you really do put yourself into the shoes of your subscribers. While it is true that content is everywhere around you, not all that is available is necessarily of interest to your customers and prospects. In general, content should be more category oriented, rather than brand specific. If you must talk about your brand, provide content not available anywhere else -- sneak peeks into new products coming, for example. Know your subscribers, and you'll know what will keep them opening your emails.


Focus on engagement that matters


Engagement is your goal -- top-of-mind awareness is your reward. It's important to remember that engagement is a means to an end, not an end in and of itself. The real value derived from engaging your subscriber base between transactions is maintaining top-of-mind awareness for your brand. This is a phrase often used to support ongoing advertising campaigns. The marketer wants his brand of soup to be the first one that a shopper thinks of when browsing the soup aisle at the grocery store. While that wouldn't necessarily be a good tactic for a soup marketer to use in email marketing, it has real value for brands like a hotel chain. A subscriber might only travel for leisure a couple of times a year, but if she regularly engages with email from Wyndham hotels -- even if it's no more than noticing an email in the inbox -- she's more likely to check Wyndham for rooms and prices when it's time to travel.


It's OK to ask for things other than a purchase


Just because content marketing means you can't ask your subscriber to buy from you right now doesn't mean you can't ask her for other things -- information, contest entries, feedback, etc. I've heard the argument made that promotions and contests aren't "content marketing." Nonsense. Of course they are. And they represent a great way to both keep your subscribers engaged as well as gather additional information from them as part of the entry process. Other ways to keep subscribers engaged, particularly following a purchase, is to ask them for feedback on the purchase experience. As we'll see in the next rule, this feedback can be used to create more content for future email campaigns. Even something as simple as asking your subscribers to tell you a little more about themselves will help you gain insights you can fuse into future marketing campaigns.


Reviews and pictures are very relevant content


Reviews and pictures can be crowd-sourced from your list! (Yes, I hate that term too. But it applies here.) If you read last month's column, you'll recall that I wrote about "the marketing democracy" and how your customers trust each other more than they trust you. Don't feel bad. That's true across the board. You can turn this to your advantage by making your emails a forum for sharing among your subscribers. Product and service reviews that you've gathered can be pushed back our in your emails, as can other customer-generated content like pictures and videos. Numerous studies have shown the value that consumers place on this type of content, and there's no reason they should have to visit your website to get it.


Don't try to compete with publishers


Your job is to inform, not entertain. OK, so daytime TV dramas got the name "soap operas" because originally they were produced by companies like Procter & Gamble as platforms on which to advertise. But in reality, a content marketing program that relies on entertaining your subscribers is going to be risky, costly, and likely doomed to fail. You need to face the fact that people whose business it is to entertain are people with whom you don't want to compete for attention, and they aren't your real competition in the first place. Information, on the other hand, is something your subscribers are typically looking for and you very likely have some degree of credibility with them in this area. Home Made Simple is how P&G engages today with its subscribers. Full of tips and tricks for homemakers, it doesn't try to compete with women's publishers (or whatever soaps are still on air). It has created its own niche.


Always be prepared to react to "I'm now ready to buy" signs


Lastly, it's important that you remember that your content marketing is a bridge between transactions, not a replacement for emails that drive transactions. So you need to be monitoring your subscribers' behaviors and be ready to react when they give indications that they are ready to buy (again). An increase in site browsing, for example, might be your sign to trigger an email with a purchase offer. Increased engagement with your content marketing emails or in social networks might also be a sign. This is data you should be collecting in any case. The signs will vary according to product or service offered, as well as individual buying behavior, but that's not an excuse for you to not create rules for triggering emails in response to "buy now" signs.


In closing, content marketing in email isn't just a good idea; it's a necessary component to any ongoing email program. It has the ability to evolve your relationship with subscribers from being purely transaction-driven to one that gives them reasons to anticipate receiving emails from you. And while an email from you might not lead to an excited post on a social network, it just might elicit a smile. And that's a pretty good result, don't you think?


Chris Marriot is the vice president of services and principal consultant at The Relevancy Group. Join him at his workshop at the DMA conference in Chicago on Oct. 17 to hear more and see examples of good content marketing in email.


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