Sep 10, 2015

How MailChimp Automation Helps Buffer Educate 2.5 Million Users

Buffer is an app built to help people and businesses be better at social media, so it’s no surprise they’re super-savvy when it comes to using email to promote their product and educate their 2.5 million users.

For a while now, Buffer has been using MailChimp to deliver new blog posts to subscribers by RSS. It’s just one way their team of 37 employees has helped grow a profitable company since the app launched in 2010.

Earlier this year, we noticed they were using our automation workflows to run an email course on how to develop social media marketing plans. So we reached out to Kevan Lee, the company’s “content crafter,” to see how the courses were doing.

Short answer? Pretty great. The first course, Social Media 101, went out to 18,353 subscribers with a 39 percent open rate. More than half of those subscribers completed the course by opening all 7 emails, and about 10 percent wound up subscribing to the main Buffer email list. The first course did so well they designed a second one, 25 Days of Actionable Social Media Strategies, which went out to 20,709 subscribers with a 46 percent open rate.

“I’ve learned the value of being in regular communication with a list,” Kevan says. “The courses have felt a lot different to me than an RSS list, for instance, and it’s been such a privilege to be welcomed into the inbox on a regular basis by so many people.”

We talked to Kevan about what else’s he’s learned, how the courses fit into Buffer’s email strategy, and what they’re working on next.

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What’s Buffer’s general approach to email marketing, and how do your automation courses fit into that?

We’ve enjoyed focusing on email marketing as a way to communicate with our users, and we’ve noticed a few different ways this looks for us from the marketing side: information sharing (like announcements and launches), surprise and delight (campaigns that celebrate user success and milestones), and education. The courses fit into the education side. We felt called to move in this direction to help people share better to social media, and the courses are a big part of our strategy there.

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What was the impetus for your courses? How did you start planning them, and what did you want to accomplish?

I remember being quite inspired by what Highbrow was doing with email courses, and then also some really great and informative newsletters from Morgan Brown and the 500 Startups team. We also felt like there might be a lot of great potential in the content we have in our blog archives, if we could repackage and share it in a new way. I’ve been inspired lots by Wistia’s Library. The thought was that we could eventually move toward a learning center of sorts, where we’d be able to share a huge variety of different email courses on topics that we might have interest or expertise in.

The Social Media 101 course was our first experiment at creating learning center content. The course was based entirely on a single blog post, How to Create a Social Media Marketing Plan From Scratch, which had done quite well for us and seemed to be in line with the education angle.

I broke the article into 7 different pieces to represent the 7 days of the course. I added the reading time to give folks an expectation for what was ahead—in most cases, they were 2-minute lessons, so we were able to frame the course as "learn social media in 2 minutes per day." The end of each lesson had a takeaway, an action item, and preview of the next day’s content. I built a landing page to collect email addresses and to link out to web versions of each day’s lesson.

For the automation, I created each of the courses within MailChimp and worked with a designer at Buffer to get a template in place. The automation workflow was really smooth for me—having written the text in an external document, I just copied and pasted and formatted, and it was all good to go. The automation was set to send emails one day after another for 7 straight days.

On day 9, I scheduled an email just to check in and see how the early returns were for folks who had gone through the course. And on day 10, I scheduled an email that included a link to a Typeform survey so we could learn what people liked and didn’t like about the course and get suggestions for future courses.

We started thinking about a second course right away. The response to the first was fantastic and overwhelmingly positive. Pretty much as soon as the course started, I felt quite validated that we could continue growing and iterating with the courses.

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What did you learn from the first course that helped you do the second one better?

We added video to each day’s lesson, and changed the frequency from 7 to 5 days, Monday through Friday. We wrote shorter text within the email and included more visuals. We also included deeper insight into specific social media topics, and we added feedback smileys to the footer so we could learn which lessons resonated most. Most all of these iterations came from feedback to the first course—we were really grateful for the chance to learn from our subscribers the first time out.

What’s really surprised me is how eager people have been to receive this type of educational resource via email. The course has really gone above and beyond my expectations, and I feel really grateful for the chance to be learning alongside so many folks who are excited about this kind of thing. It’s all so encouraging and motivating. We’re really excited for what’s to come here.