Laura Olin directed the social media team that oversaw one of the world's most followed Twitter accounts: @BarackObama. You might think that Olin lives, sleeps, breathes, and dreams in 140 characters. But she still devotes great care to "Everything Changes", her email newsletter, sent weekly to a loyal group of readers.
So what does the digital strategist behind one of the most popular Twitter accounts see in email?
"In this current era of Internet stuff, we rely on things being delivered to us," Olin said in an interview. Email can be "kind of a throwback to an earlier age of longer-form not-for-social-media writing with a solution to the delivery problem built in."
That "throwback" has a lot to offer inventive marketers who aren't afraid to get personal. Email is a flexible medium with intimate access. It provides what Arthur Conan Doyle, a great letter writer, called "the charm of variety". And it situates your letters alongside your audience's most personal correspondence.
As more organizations recognize that email can be as effective and inventive as any other marketing tool, it's worth considering how to best use that tool to engage your audience.
Not sure where to start? That's OK, here are a few pointers.
1. Think Before You Send
"Getting into someone's inbox is like being invited to their home for dinner," writes Nathan Hangen at Kissmetrics. "If they ask you to take your shoes off, you respectfully do so".
Sending an email without a clear purpose is like arriving for dinner late and tracking mud on the carpet.
Your purpose "will dictate the type of campaigns you send, who you target, the content you include, and how you measure success," according to Campaign Monitor, which handles emails for the likes of BuzzFeed, UNICEF, and SXSW. Each email campaign should be as unique as its organization's goal. "BuzzFeed sends regular email newsletters containing links to stories on their website with the goal of increasing the number of visits they get each month," so traffic will boost ad revenue. To encourage donations, UNICEF crafts emails that "reach out to their donor base, educate them on aid projects UNICEF is undertaking, and ask for donations".
Mere updates aren't enough. "Keeping your audience updated on what's going on at your nonprofit isn't a great answer," according to The Nerdy Nonprofit. "Ideally your newsletter does more than just inform - it drives users to your website, gets them to sign up for your annual gala or shows them the impact their donation has made on the community". A clear purpose keeps your organization honest, ensuring that the emails you send won't surprise or inconvenience your audience. Instead, it'll remind them of why they value their relationship with you.
Not sure how to find your email's purpose? It might help to familiarize yourself with your options.
Charity Email Gallery has collections of carefully crafted emails, organized by purpose (see below.) You can study emails created to make an appeal, to share regular news updates, or to simply say "Thanks".
2. Attain, Maintain, & Sustain Your Audience
You may already have a contact list filled with loyal supporters, but even the most formidable mailing list needs to be grown and maintained. According to HubSpot, "Email marketing databases naturally degrade by about 22.5% every year". That means you have to build your audience at the same rate to maintain your organization's impact.
Your website should make registration easy, but shouldn't strong-arm your audience into subscriptions. Rather, give your supporters the option to receive your emails when they check out or contact you through your website. There are similar options available through social channels, like Twitter's Lead Generation Cards.
The critical word here is 'option'. There's an idea that it's better to ask for forgiveness than permission - that's not true in email marketing. Sending unsolicited emails, even if you already have access to addresses, can rub people the wrong way. Instead, try a double opt-in: Ask your audience if they'd like more information from you in their inboxes, then ask them to confirm.
"It's an extra step, but data gathered by MailChimp suggests that double opted-in subscribers have a 75.6 percent increase in total message opens compared to single opt-in recipients," according to Search Engine Journal. Such subscribers also account for "a 114% increase in clicks".
Once you have your list, then the game is segment, segment, segment. Your audience is really many audiences, and the closer you can tailor your messages to each, the more impact your emails will have.
MailChimp's most recent survey found that segmented emails perform better in nearly every meaningful category. Each email you send should be relevant to its recipient; otherwise, you're selling ketchup popsicles to people in white gloves.
3. Let's Get Personal
We've said this before, but email is an incredibly versatile medium for content. It's interactive and flexible, and adaptable to your purposes. There are a few standard rules for composing effective emails: subject lines can be clever but should also be simple and direct, content should be concise, and visuals are worth their weight in words.
But the key to effective email content - the glue that binds these elements together - is personality.
You've no doubt heard this, too, but it bears repeating. "Newsletters have been enjoying something of a renaissance lately," according to the Washington Post, and the most successful emails of all kinds are steeped in the personalities of their creators. Perhaps the best example is Lenny Letter, created by Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner. More than 400,000 people subscribe to the newsletter, which has an open rate of 65%. The email has a clear purpose and good audience practices - it uses a double opt-in approach, sends thank-you notes, and encourages you to forward the email to other potential subscribers. From there, the content is pure personality.
Why does personality matter so much? "Your customer's email inbox is personal space," says Armando Roggio. "It's not the public Internet. It's not a public Facebook stream. It's private space. Think of it like meeting a potential customer in her living room, rather than at her office or at the mall".
There's a place in email for GIFs and infographics, personal narratives and calls to action, but your personality is what makes those elements appropriate - welcome, even. And while it seems pretty clear that personalized and interactive content can boost the performance of your email campaign, the people in your audience want to know you, too - and they might stick around longer once they do.
4. Consider How Your Audience Replies
In an email marketing campaign, your first email is also your first impression. You won't be able to accomplish everything you hope to with one email, and you won't be able to do it alone. An email is a correspondence, after all. Before you send each new email, you have to pay attention to how your audience responds.
Think of your web traffic and your email campaign's performance as a reply from your audience, en masse. How many people unsubscribed or labeled your email as spam? How many people opened your email, and how many followed a link to your website? Along with your preferred analytics program, consider a program that will provide you with information about your audience's response. That way, according to Less Annoying CRM, "you'll have the necessary statistics to determine the successes or pitfalls of your campaign, which will allow you to adjust future marketing plans accordingly".
Like email itself, your marketing campaign can be versatile, and you can - and should - adapt it to your purposes. Do some A/B testing to see whether certain subject lines or mailing times or types of personalization work better than others. Experiment with segmenting, too: Sign-up forms are a great way for your audience to provide you with more information about themselves, and you can segment according to a range of factors, from location to interests.
Nurture your email campaign and, like any good correspondence, it will improve over time.