I've been thinking a lot about content marketing in email recently. I even dreamt about it last night. And it was the most boring dream I have ever had in my entire life.
Nevertheless here I am, sitting in front of my computer about to write this month's column on this very subject. Truth be told, there's a reason I've been thinking about it a lot recently. I'm fortunate enough to have been asked to speak about it at the upcoming DMA Annual Conference in Chicago this October. My first thought upon being asked to speak about it was, "Why would anyone care what I think about content marketing in email?" But there more I thought about it, the more sense it made.
A concept that I've addressed in this column previously is the idea of "the new marketing democracy." As I wrote in an earlier column:
"Each channel has its own hurdles in regards to engaging the marketing democracy, and email is no different. In theory, an opted-in customer should represent someone who has turned on the faucet. In practice, we face that moment of truth every time that person opens his or her email and sees one of your emails in the inbox. At this point, consumers can turn on the faucet (open the email), or keep it turned off (ignore or delete your email)."
The trick here for email marketers trying to successfully engage with the marketing democracy is to figure out an engagement strategy for their subscribers in between purchases. Let's face it: The economic climate of the last five years has not made subscribers eager to receive a steady stream of "buy now" emails, no matter what you are selling. Consumers who make up the new marketing democracy quickly tune them out, or worse, turn them off (unsubscribe). This is where I suddenly made the connection between content marketing in email and the prior writing and speaking I've done about the marketing democracy. Because you don't want to simply stop emailing your subscribers. Top-of-mind awareness is still very important.
Is content marketing the answer? Is that how you keep people engaged when the time between purchases could be 12 months or more? The more I've looked at what I think works, the more I've realized it certainly is one of the answers. Successful email marketing goes beyond selling products at a great price, and today's leaders have learned to create messages that don't always hard sell. Instead, they create the content that keeps customers engaged between transactions.
So what exactly is content marketing? And how does it relate to email? Like so many things in digital marketing, you could ask five people to define content marketing, and you'd get five different answers. My definition of content marketing in email revolves around what I call the three Cs: catalogs, context, and conversations. Let's look briefly at what each represents.
This type of content marketing focuses on large assortments of products, with excellent sorting tools to enable simple browsing by a subscriber. The purpose of this type of content is not to sell anything in particular, but rather to remind your subscribers of the range of products you offer. The content should also make it easy for them to check out what's available in case they decide to make an impulse purchase. Sears sends out a great "daily deals" email that I often browse. I don't feel as if anything is really being pushed on me despite a hero product placement. However I enjoy the occasional hunt for something I might not realize I need until I see it on the site and offered at a great price. (Memo to Sears: It's not a "non-contact infrared thermometer.")
It's really not all that different from catalogs in the offline world. The swimsuit catalogs typically come out in February -- long before anyone is actually in the market. But many women enjoy sitting in their favorite chair, in front of a fire, dreaming about the upcoming summer as they leaf though the catalog.
This is probably the single largest category of content marketing found in email today. This type of content would include things like product demonstrations and how-to articles. The growing use of video in email makes this type of content marketing even more relevant and easy to use. Other areas of content under this heading include background information on a product or service and unique new ways to use something. Home Made Simple's emails are a classic example of this.
A company called Total Wine & More does a nice job of using email about particular regions to drive to content about the wines it sells, like wines of California. This is smart because I get wine emails from several different companies (go figure), but the only ones I open -- even when I'm not ready to buy anything -- are those from this company. As a result, the company ends up getting the bulk of my online purchases (and in store).
This final category is exactly what it sounds like: using email to encourage subscribers to engage directly with the brand through product reviews and other user-generated content, contests and promotions, and invitations to engage via social networks. TripAdvisor is my favorite example of this approach. Once you sign up for email from the company, it doesn't send you travel pitches. Instead it encourages you to provide reviews about your travel experiences in addition to sharing your friends' reviews with you (using Facebook to personalize your experience). In this way, the site draws you into the community of users first, without bombarding you with deals on flights, hotels, etc.
If you approach content marketing in email in this way, you'll quickly realize that content is everywhere you look! The problem of generating the content -- one of the biggest challenges raised by marketers in regards to content marketing -- goes away. Here's just a partial listing of the content you might have immediately available to you:
- Customer reviews (It's good to remember that in the marketing democracy, consumers trust each other more than they trust you)
- Videos that educate or demonstrate
- White papers
- Product purchase guides
- Promotions and contests
- Mobile apps
Some product and service categories are inherently more interesting than others. Automotive, travel, and apparel tend to trump laundry detergent, for example (though the Tide Coldwater Challenge from several years ago was brilliant). And the more interest a consumer holds in a product or service, the easier it is to engage him or her with content marketing. Life isn't fair. Neither is marketing. But, as my father-in-law likes to say, "That's just the way it is."
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