Mar 13, 2013

Behind the Scenes: How We Do Our Own Email Marketing at MailChimp

Last month, we sent an email announcement to customers about our new SMS app Gather. I guess you could call it "email marketing," though we rarely think of it that way (we just call it "talking to customers"). But the marketing team put it together, with some help from our mobile team, and a bajillion annoying edits from me. I thought I’d share all the edits I made, and why I made them, in case you find this sort of thing interesting.

First, here’s the final version of the email that we eventually sent:

Now, let’s go over the process we went through to get there.


The goal was simple enough: Tell our customers about Gather. Gather is an SMS app that’s designed specifically for people who host events. It’s not exactly for everyone, so we certainly shouldn’t send it to everyone. Our list of users has more than 2.8 million subscribers. Not gonna lie–I was sort of tempted to send this email to that entire list. But that would’ve resulted in a ton of backlash, unsubscribes, account cancellations, angry tweets, and—worst of all—loss of trust in our brand.

So we started looking for segments of the list that we thought would most likely find this useful (and least likely find it irrelevant).

Our first thought was to segment by industry. There are quite a few people in our system who’ve indicated they’re in the "Entertainment and Events" industry:

That whittles the list down significantly, but it’s still a pretty big group.

Then we remembered that Gather was only available on the iPhone. And like many mobile app developers, we’ve learned the hard way that you really don’t want to irk the Android users out there. So we did this:

That static segment is a feature in MailChimp where we can use our API to sync data from our user database. Among many other things, our user database stores information about which external apps each account has linked to.

In the example above, you see MailChimp customers who are in the events industry, and who’ve logged in to our MailChimp mobile app for iPhone. But I felt a little uneasy about this segment of the list. The industry "Entertainment and Events" just seemed too broad (What, exactly, is "entertainment"?). At the same time, it was too narrow—there are plenty of people out there who host events, but wouldn’t consider themselves in the "Events" industry.

I really wanted us to focus on "tech-savvy people who host events." So this is the segment of our list that we ultimately chose:

These are MailChimp customers who have used our integration with Eventbrite. Integrating two SaaS products like MailChimp and Eventbrite is a decent indicator that these people are tech-savvy, and wouldn’t be scared to try Gather.

We make the act of segmenting your list super easy. But the discussion of how we should segment the list took place over 2-3 days. That seems awfully long, but this is important stuff. Nine times out of 10, I also include the criteria, "is very engaged." That little added element removes all the disengaged subscribers, who are more likely to complain or unsubscribe, or to tweet mean things about your brand. I believe your main goal of segmenting your list is not to increase relevancy (that’s your content’s job) but to reduce irrelevancy.

Content and design

After the segment of our list was settled, we tackled design and content. This was our very first stab at the email announcement:


It was such a pretty email. It took a lot to get that done. Back in July of last year, we built an online service that generates quick images of app screenshots inside of various mobile devices. That led us to creating a Tumblr of random hands holding smartphones, mostly for laughs (it’s pretty challenging to get a good shot of a hand holding a phone).  So you could say the photo at the top of the email was months in the making. The marketing team certainly was proud of it.

But I had a problem with it.

This was my basic feedback:


By the way, my actual feedback was mostly face-to-face. I didn’t mark up the email in red like these diagrams. I’m not a jerk, really! The red marks are just an easy way to recount my edits to you.

First, the subject line was a little too salesy, and was missing context:

"A Few Ways to Use Gather, MailChimp’s SMS App for Events"

We didn’t even introduce Gather yet—let alone say, "Hi, we’re MailChimp!"— to the recipient. So why are we already talking about all the ways you can use it? It’s a well written subject, but we were getting ahead of ourselves. Remember, this is an introductory email.

So we changed it to:

"Announcing Gather, a MailChimp App for Events"

It’s still a little slick and salesy, but hey–we’re selling something. It’s honest, and it’s a more polite way to introduce ourselves.

"Who the [bleep] is Gather?"

Next, I was concerned that our recipients would open the email, see the Gather logo, and think, "Who the [bleep] is Gather?!? This is spam!!!!" These customers signed up for MailChimp, and therefore are only expecting emails from MailChimp. So I asked for the MailChimp logo at the top of the email. Wouldn’t want to get shut down by my own Compliance Team.

Proper introductions

Finally, I wasn’t happy about placing that large photograph of the iPhone so high on the email. I wanted to get some text above that photo, where people can skim or scan really fast and decide if the email is useful to them. Plopping a giant image at the top is disrespectful, in my opinion. You’re asking the recipient to basically wait (or click) for an image to download? That’s kinda like the old "skip intro" days of web design (seriously, don’t be a Flashole).

So we moved the intro paragraph above the big pretty picture.

And here’s the second draft:

That’s better placement of the intro copy, but this didn’t feel like the way we’d write. It’s nice that we provide some context about why they’re receiving the email in the first place ("Since you use MailChimp and Eventbrite…"), but I still didn’t think it felt quite right. Our style has refined a little over the years, but we’re still trying to keep it a little weird. This copy was missing something MailChimpy.

My advice to all new email marketers is to figure out your brand’s natural Voice and Tone as soon as you can (we’re lucky enough to have ours documented by some brilliant people). If you’re not quite there yet, blogging can help you write more confidently, and the feedback in your customers’ comments will help you calibrate your style over time. Once you’ve got that figured out, writing email newsletters gets soooo much easier, and you’ll be able to spot when you’re a little "off brand."

My feedback:


Here’s the revision:

Okay, my writers are making fun of me. Clearly, they’re getting tired of my edits. But this is actually kind of funny, and does a really good job of explaining how the app works. Most importantly, it’s a true story! (I get lost a lot.) I loved it because it was humble, and it was human. That’s perfectly "on brand" for MailChimp.

With this new intro, it didn’t make sense to list all the ways you can use Gather. So the team chopped the rest of the email down to a very simple "go try it if you’re interested:"

By now, about 4 days had passed from when we started working on this email. And wouldn’t you know it, our dang mobile team went and launched the Android version of Gather. Sigh. People are always changing things around here. That means more last-minute edits (#agilemarketing). So we changed the image of the phone to Android (What the heck, we’ve got an app for that!), and we mentioned Android in the copy.

Always be useful

We try to include something useful in every email. If the announcement was totally useless, let’s at least give the recipient a case study, or something educational (even if it points to some other resource). So at the bottom of the email, we added a postscript that linked to one of our blog posts about Rockhouse Partners, an entertainment agency that uses our geo targeting feature to help them with their events. That was a blog post from November 2012. How lucky are we to have that content to point to?

Lesson: always be blogging.

The results

The campaign got an open rate of 32.6% (the list average for general announcements is 24.7%) and a click rate of 6.3% (average is 1.8%).  Meanwhile, 0.22% of recipients unsubscribed. And it only received one complaint.

Most importantly, sales went up. You can see clearly how sales picked up on the day the email was sent:

Word got out on Twitter, and sales are picking up speed. The different colors you see are the different price tiers. Cyan is the cheapest price plan, which has grown the most.


Being human is hard.

My point of all this is that sooner or later, you’re going to want to send an email campaign that sells something. When that time comes, it’ll be easy to just put on the Sales Guy Hat and run through the motions, doing the same stuff you’ve seen other companies do. You write a salesy subject line, throw in some aggressive copy, add a slick product photo, and "blast" it out to the masses. Because that’s what you see polluting your inbox, right? Please don’t do that. Email marketing is your chance to connect with your customers in a human way. Be human!