May 8, 2012

Hugh MacLeod’s Social Objects and Fantastic Open Rates

We were impressed to find out that Hugh MacLeod‘s MailChimp campaigns consistently maintain a fantastic 40%+ open rate. What does a cartoonist know about email marketing? Well, as it turns out, he doesn’t worry about all the typical "email expert" stuff like A/B testing, sending at different times of day, experimenting with subject lines, etc. Instead, much like Email Inspiration, he just sends a fun image, and the people love it.

"I think it’s because we keep it simple—a nice cartoon to brighten your day, delivered to your inbox every morning," Hugh tells us. "People like getting that a whole lot more than, say, a daily, long-winded spiel about why y’all should give me your money, make me rich, yak, yak, yak…"

Instead of marketing himself to his readers, Hugh delivers his business-card cartoons into the inboxes of his extraordinarily engaged readership every day, then they send those cartoons to their friends, building up his list in the process. Pretty simple, right?

Hugh first started doodling on business cards in 1997. He had done around a thousand by the time he started posting them in batches to his website. Eventually, he’d start blogging in 2001 on a "crude and very expensive" early version of what would become gapingvoid.com, the website that collects his myriad cartoons and musings (and just turned 11 over the weekend!). After "messing around with a newsletter format" in 2003, then abandoning it to focus on the blog while people realized that "feed readers were not the answer, that they required too much time, work, and attention," Hugh came back around to email.

"We realized it was important to be able to reach out to people in a more deliberate way," he told us. "What email does, in part, is allow you to touch your core constituency at an interval and pace that suits them. As our business developed into the realm of retail and consulting around the cartoons, it made more sense to reach out to people, rather than just letting them come to us via the blog."

And each cartoon is a textbook example of what Hugh calls a Social Object, "the reason two people are talking to each other, as opposed to talking to somebody else," as he defines it on his site. We asked Hugh how the cartoons play into the bigger picture.

"Everything else—company news, stuff to sell, etc.—is very secondary," he told us. "The whole Social Object idea is based upon the premise that good ideas spread naturally. We are hard-wired to share stuff worth sharing. I’m blessed because my little illustrations are the definition of a Social Object, so when I put them out there, they spread like virtual pollen. In part, this is fundamental to our proposition that we can help other businesses do this."

In this way, he focuses on the content he’s producing, not the traffic it generates. His content varies in size from tweets to books, but is all striving to achieve the same goal.

"Blog posts allow for longer, more thoughtful discussion, while Twitter is obviously the opposite," Hugh says. "But the email is really about short content and a little illustration that delights people. It’s all interrelated, and it always comes back to our core purpose, which focuses on the idea of empowering people. It sometimes seems paradoxical that these little cartoons can do this, but that is exactly what they do."

But is it really as simple as just creating good content?

"Heck, no," Hugh told us. "‘Just produce good content,’ though essential, is just the beginning, sadly. Be interesting. Don’t waste people’s time, be nice, give them something of value. If you’re consistent in this way, and are giving in how you market, then your reach and open rates will be awesome like ours."

Hugh MacLeod’s third book, Freedom is Blogging in Your Underwear, was just published. Sign up for his newsletter, visit his blog, and follow him on Twitter.