Email marketing isn't broken (yet), but Copyblogger found a better way

Jon Reed Profile picture for user jreed May 21, 2015
Brian Clark of Copyblogger revealed some eye-opening email marketing stats in a recent training course. The stats have big implications for companies grappling with the limitations of existing channels. Here's what I learned during a recent talk with Clark.

At diginomica, we've fired off missives about the overlooked potency of email marketing - when compared to the failure of social media to put butts in seats. Social may win more of the the marketing budget, when it comes to customer actions that lead to paying the rent, enthusiastic email lists whip social media blasts.

Yet all is not well in email marketing, and it's not just because providers like Google have clamped down on promotions. Something fundamental is changing. Our inboxes have a way of generating irritability, not goodwill (check out my "opt-out fails" piece for some flagrant how-not-to examples.)

In January I had a breakthrough in my thinking on this, thanks to the "New Rainmaker" content marketing course (free with sign up) created by Copyblogger founder Brian Clark. Copyblogger is not as well known amongst enterprise marketers as it should be. I take Copyblogger seriously because Clark's team has built a profitable, content-driven company in a hugely competitive space.  Recently I caught up Clark, and he offered some context to some rather amazing email marketing stats.

Why Copyblogger ditched (and re-invented) their email marketing strategy

Here's the stats:

  1. For about four years, Copyblogger ran an email marketing newsletter called Internet Marketing for Smart People," which was an email-based online marketing course.
  2. The email newsletter had no ads. Copyblogger drove traffic from various public content pages into the (free) newsletter sign up.
  3. After four years, Internet Marketing for Smart People had a six figure subscription list. Despite that success, Clark made the decision to ditch the approach entirely.
  4. In May of 2013, Copyblogger shifted instead to a "content library" log-in concept, and started completely from scratch on sign ups.
  5. In less than one year, Copyblogger surpassed the subscription numbers of Internet Marketing for Smart People - an opt-in rate increase of 400 percent. High opt-in rates (in the 300 percent range) continue.
  6. During that same period, Copyblogger experienced 35 percent revenue growth (to $10 million) for 2014. Given that email is Copyblogger's dominant sales channel, it's fair to make a strong correlation on the conversion side as well.

So what prompted this cliff-jump? I got the first clue while listening to The Rainmaker Conversion Approach: Accelerating the Buyer’s Journey, the tenth and final lesson in the Rainmaker Training series. Clark explains why email is facing a trust crisis:

At this point in the history of the Internet, the email newsletter opt-in request is often a synonym for spam. Too many people have abused the permission, and people are wary. I remember when I started in email marketing in 1998, people would sign up for anything and everything. It was amazing, but that’s what led to the abuse in the first place.

But then marketers made a critical mistake, putting way too much faith in social for lead generation. Clark:

I think this distrust of email is why you’ll see some kind of misguided gurus out there who will try to tell you social has replaced email, even though the data shows that we’re talking about like an 85% margin compared to sales conversions from email versus social. It’s not even close so you can’t ignore email, but what you have to do is you have to literally give people more.

Copyblogger's new approach is based on that deceptively simple premise: give people more, and thereby earn trust, which cultivates permission (a.k.a. "opt-in."). Clark:

The key is how do you get someone to trust you enough to give you permission and that’s the challenge, not that email doesn’t work. It’s how do you frame and establish yourself of someone worthy of that permission.

From pushing email content to "logged in experiences"

The concept of a "content library" sounds simple enough (Copyblogger has assembled 16 free ebooks as part of that content foundation). But on our phone call, Clark framed the new goal differently: to offer a valuable, "logged-in experience":

Even with apps, people will register in order to gain access more readily than they are going to opt-in to your newsletter. You really have to change the value proposition, provide more experience than just a PDF.  Facebook, at its heart, is a memberhip site when you think about it. You have to register and access.  You have to log in, or you don't get to have the experience that you want. Never mind it's also a social network. Twitter and Linked In are the same way, and mobile apps operate that way too.

So whether it's a content library or a different log-in experience, the gist is that Clark's team made a shift from 1. sign up for our newsletter to 2. register for full access to our content and community, and when you want access to it, log in. That means it's not just about the content, but the ease of access/UX behind the log-in.

We usually talk about these things from a content standpoint, but it's also the overall site experience itself. That was a huge hypothesis that we had that we put into motion, and it turned out to work really well.

What Clark advocates is no small feat to achieve, given the content quality and data trust/exchange needed - not to mention mobile-friendly UX chops. But as an end goal, it's effective in ways that classic email marketing isn't. And for those marketers who love their tools, but can't see their customers clearly based on cookies alone, this type of approach is an analytics dream. Clark:

This shift to logged-in experiences has powerful implications from a marketing automation standpoint. Cookies are pretty fallible, but when you log in, you know who that person is. And this is, by and large, how people use the web and apps today.

Enterprises need to be more like Facebook, rather than handing them the keys

Boiled down: Facebook knows a heck of a lot about you. Wouldn't you like to know the same about your own site visitors, along with job titles, contact preferences and so on? And yes, Clark sees enterprise relevance to these tactics, as marketers wise up to social media's limitations:

Forrester Research has been talking about moving back to branded communities because social media has been a big bait and switch. You don't try to convert people on a social level, anyway. You try to convert them to email, or somehow closer into you. But I think a lot of companies feel like they got the short end on the whole social media market.

This may seem an odd approach to advocate during a time when Facebook and a handful of other networks are growing in dominance and traffic, to the point of generating alarm for the so-called "neutral/open web." It's true that Facebook can offer marketers demographic insights well beyond cookies, That's not the same as achieving your own opt-in audience with your own data.

Companies that realize web advertising is already broken should give this a hard look also. The best way to move beyond the vacant page view models Den has been railing against is to devote budgets and creativity to opt-in scenarios.

Final thoughts

One thing I didn't get into deeply with Clark is the distinction between email opt-ins and notifications. I view opt-in notifications as a vitally important aspect of the lead conversion approach Clark is advocating. We're too distracted by the social stream to remember to visit our ten favorite sites every day. Even Facebook relies heavily on mobile push notifications to pull folks back in.

The ability to get your subscribers to opt into notifications without blowing a gasket is a big part of this. From this vantage point, email becomes one notification option of several (including in-app mobile notifications and text messages). The end result is the same: we opted in because
1. we see the value, and
2. we find the right notification comfort level without too much hassle.

I've only scratched the surface of the content in the Rainmaker series. There are more specifics on landing pages/topic hubs, and how to integrate blog content with the rest of the opt-in scenarios (obviously blogs don't work well as opt-in content; they have a different role to play involving social and search).

At the time I wrote Hubspot inbound marketing certification – waste of time or valuable pursuit?, I was listening to Clark's New Rainmaker training. While Hubspot's training covers more of the basics, the New Rainmaker training is much more entertaining and sophisticated. It's all about media over marketing, or media as the new marketing if you like. As a fan of transparency, even I was gobsmacked by how Clark completely opened up his business model in the final lesson of the Rainmaker course, some of which I've shared here.

Whether or not it was a good idea to share that much, Clark's naked exercise has created an invaluable resource for any marketer who is determined to change in order to win, instead of measuring the wrong KPIs on the way to losing.

Image credits: Feature photo: Businessman Choosing Success or Failure Road © Creativa, Photo of Brian Clark used by permission of Copyblogger.

Disclosure: diginomica has no financial ties to Copyblogger. We were approached by Copyblogger's PR team about other topics, including my prior piece on podcasting, but I finagled my way into this one as I think the story is important.

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