The email you shouldn't send

By Max Ogles , written on June 6, 2013

From The News Desk

I don’t mind putting my email address in a signup form, so I can take a peek at a new Web product or service. The downside, of course, is that all of these subscriptions add up quickly. There’s a fairly consistent barrage of emails in my inbox, as so many fledgling companies work to engage me with their products. Of all the marketing emails I regularly receive, I’m surprised to see so many “new features” announcements, nudging me each time a dev team launches a new release. They’re all too predictable:

Hi Max!

I'm the CEO of Awesome Company that built the product that I'm assuming you love. We've been working very hard because we really want to make you happy. We're so excited to share Features X, Y, and Z with you. Check them out and give us tons of feedback! Click here! This is an incredibly lazy attempt at getting my attention. There’s nothing wrong with celebrating a milestone feature release as a company and letting users in on the backstory with a nice narrative blog post. But sending out an email proclamation to all users is a self-serving pat on the back for a mediocre accomplishment, under the guise of “helping” users. It won’t help you stand out against the veritable flood of emails in my inbox. There are better ways to engage users and drive traffic.

A survey earlier this year showed that the goal of 67 percent of marketers is “delivering highly relevant email content.” This doesn’t mean “announcing new features.” So how do you ensure that your email content is relevant?

Rather than thinking of your emails as pokes or reminders that are separate from your product, start thinking of email as another component of product, an extension of your product itself. If you’re a website that sells shoes, don’t bother explaining to customers that you’re working hard to re-arrange product pages and simplifying the checkout process--just send emails that help them find some shoes that they’ll love.

Look no further than some of the current tech co. email trends and you’ll see that rather than using email as a means to announce features, successful companies actually build features with email as the centerpiece. Here are two excellent examples:

Quora Weekly Digest

Nearly two years old, the Quora weekly digest has to be one of the best weekly email curations on the Web. A handful of other companies utilize this style of curated content (LinkedIn, Pocket “Hits”, Medium) but few have received as much praise as Quora. Given that some successful products are based solely on curated content (Longreads, Circa), it’s easy to see how much value these emails can add to your product offering.

Curated content done well is addictive. Just to highlight how much better this content is than a generic email poke, here’s a comparison of two emails I recently received from different companies. The first said, “We’re excited to announce a new feature today called...” and it ended with a big old “Learn More” button. The second email, from Quora, said, “If a tiger fought a lion, which animal would win?” While I didn’t even bother with the first email, the second was an answer to a decades-old question, originally posed by my third-grade self. How could I not click? (The answer is the tiger, usually.)

Not only do users love good curation, but it will drive them to your site as well. While Adam D’Angelo has his lips tight about Quora’s stats and engagement, it’s not hard to see that the weekly digest has had an impact. A comscore report (courtesy of some dutiful Quora users, no less) shows that between September and October of 2011, Quora’s monthly uniques increased 32.5 percent and continued to climb from that point. The Quora “About” page confirms: the spike in traffic coincides with the exact time that the Weekly Digest Emails were launched, in September of that year.

Airbnb holiday cards

One of the biggest advantages to Quora’s digest is that it leverages existing user content. With the algorithm in place and some editorial oversight, the email practically sustains itself. Along similar lines, AirBnB built a tool so that they didn’t need to send emails at all--they let their customers do it for them.

When Airbnb launched its simple “Happy Holidays” e-card tool in December, it planted it right on the home page. The tool encouraged hosts or guests to send a friendly note to the people they had met in their travels. Had the Airbnb team never created this tool, they could have resorted to a mass email: “Happy Holidays, look at all of the new site features we’re giving you...” and few people would have cared. That’s because Airbnb customers aren’t interested in learning about startups or how to build Web products; they’re interested in traveling all over the world and meeting incredible people in their travels. The holiday e-card tool allowed users to recall memories of the places and people that Airbnb had introduced them to. Not to mention that it offered plenty of opportunities to lead users back to

The Airbnb email strategy aligned perfectly with the company’s mission to connect people across the world. And the marketing results were significant: Not only did open rates and CTR nearly double, but Airbnb saw an increase of over 600 more bookings on the site, a direct impact on their revenue.

With a concerted email strategy and dedication to their products’ core offerings, both Quora and Airbnb settled on email interactions that actually increase community and engagement. Rather than pestering users with pokes and pleas, they’ve managed to offer more of what users already love about the respective services. And on the marketing front, both companies have seen success by treating email as a core element of their products.

Follow their examples and you’ll be better off for it and your customers will spend less time archiving emails and more time enjoying your product.

[Tiger vs. lion illustration by Hallie Bateman]