Using conversion copy in your email campaigns could lead to higher opens and click throughs, but could also turn away certain subscribers. Read what happened to us during a recent campaign.

Has this ever happened to your business? You spend a lot of time focusing on growing your email list through landing pages, subscription forms, webinars, collaborative projects, and others. Everybody gets lumped into the same email list. Maybe you're doing some segmentation, but for the most part, everybody is getting the same campaigns.

Then, after awhile, you realize your open and click rates are down, your unsubscribes are going up, and in general, things aren't as upbeat as they once were. You've lost value to your subscribers.

Like a good marketer, you investigate the makeup of your email list, from segments to content, frequency, etc. You find there's a segment of your subscriber base that no longer matches up with the type of content you're sharing in your emails, so you decide it's time to reconnect with those subscribers (which will increase your open rates, click through rates, and other performance metrics that make you feel good about your email marketing program).

This is a story about that situation.

We are in the process of reactivating a large segment of our subscriber base that had laid dormant for a long time due to reasons of business focus. Put another way, we were collecting email addresses through an opt-in for a service we were no longer really talking about, so we weren't sending that segment any emails beyond the welcome series, and 2 other campaigns in the last 12 months.

Even with our active subscribers, who we have been emailing at least monthly, our business has shifted to the point where the type of content we're sharing might not match up with what they feel is valuable.

We developed a Reader Survey to reconnect with our subscribers and gain a better understanding of how we could reshape our email marketing program to be more valuable to them. The results would help us with segmentation, tagging, content schedules, and copywriting strategies.

Truth be told, every business should be doing this kind of thing, or at least collecting feedback on a regular basis to supplement the intelligence it's gathering from behavioral and engagement data in their email marketing platform.

This blog post, however, isn't about the survey; rather, it's about the email campaign we developed to get people to fill out the survey. There's a lot to learn from both our mistakes and our achievements, especially in the areas of copywriting and trust.

Shall we get started?

Setting up the Email Campaign

The "ask" was sent in a two-part email campaign to a list of just under 2,000 people:

PART 1: The initial outreach that went to everybody on our list [Email (A)].

PART 2: A segmented campaign that sent a "last chance" email to those who had opened the first email but hadn't clicked on the survey [Email (B)], and hadn't opened the first email at all [Email (C)].

By the way, if you're looking at the segments in PART 2 and saying to yourself, "Stephan, you're missing out on the people who opened, clicked, but didn't fill out the survey," you would be correct. The completion rate of the survey was a reassuring 87%, so that missing segment wasn't enough people to worry about.

Email Campaign Breakdown

I've been getting quite good at subject lines that generate opens, with an internal benchmark rate of over 30%. However, to get the most responses on this survey I knew I'd need to pull out some techniques that really coaxed an open, and then encouraged a click. Remember, I said I was adding in a once-dormant segment, so to get them to respond at all was indicative of the trust I'd built up with them, even if I hadn't emailed them in a while. In other words, I was going to have to take some risks, especially with the subject lines.

I'm going to come back to that last point later. In the meantime, here are the stats:

(A) The email in PART 1

(read a copy of it via Litmus Scope)

Subject: could you help me with this?
Open rate: 42%
Click to open rate: 18%

Just to add perspective, on average my "new blog post" emails have a 30% open rate and 15% click to open rate. So the subject line and copy formulas used in this email gave me a pretty good engagement lift.

The emails in PART 2 went as follows:

(B) Sent to those who opened but didn't click PART 1

(read a copy of it via Litmus Scope)

Subject: pleeeeeeease complete my reader survey?
Open rate: 59%
Click to open rate: 15%

One guess why this had such a high open rate. Yep, the subject line. To put it simply: with this segment, I totally intended to go for it, and go for it big.

On one hand, a 15% completion rate was lower than the original email. I guess the body copy wasn't compelling enough, even after adding in commentary about how it was easy, fast, etc. Maybe I ended up adding friction with those stats instead of taking it away, and should have just stuck with the sense of urgency that the survey was closing soon.

On the other hand, in absolute numbers, I added an estimated 40 more responses to my survey, four times that of the email below, and 29% of the total number of survey responses.

(C) Sent to those who didn't open PART 1 at all

(read a copy of it via Litmus Scope)

Subject: [Invitation] please take my reader survey before it closes tonight?
Open rate: 11%
Click to open rate: 11%

Okay first off, I goofed on the last word in the subject line; I made a last minute change to when I wanted to close the survey, and forgot to change "tonight" to "today." It's correct everywhere else in the email. I say this in the interest of transparency, but honestly, don't think that it had a material impact on the open rate or the completion rate of this email.

Bottom line here, this segment was full of non-engagers to begin with. Getting anything out of them is a win. You'll notice that I pulled back a little on the aggressiveness of the subject line copy, with the hope that I may warm back up to this segment of my list enough that they'd sympathize with my cause. Maybe it was just enough for 11% of them to humor me (and then 11% of them to want to help me by clicking through to the survey).

The Effect of Email Copy on Trust and Unsubscribes

You've seen all the positive stats, but what I haven't talked about was the fallout. Between the three emails in this campaign, I lost just over 6% of my email list to unsubscribes. Another 3.3% to bounces (shame on me for not scrubbing the list beforehand; just looking at some of the bounced addresses there were fakes, free ISP and cable company addresses that had gone defunct, and a few misspellings).

That's just about 10% of my email list. Gone. Because I didn't take the time to rebuild their trust (well, trust won't play a part in the bounces, but that high a percentage could hurt my sender reputation for future emails). Instead, I went for an over-the-top, ultra-casual but highly effective way to coax them into opening my email...only to ask them to do something for me.

This was interesting: In absolute numbers, I had just as many unsubscribes in Email (B) as in Email (C). On a percentage basis, 70% more people unsubscribed from Email (B) than Email (C).

Wow, right? So, bottom line, Email (B) illustrates a high risk, high reward copy format. Use it wisely.

Had I taken more time to warm up that dormant segment of my list, to send them a fresh welcome and update on how I'd gotten their address, and what to expect going forward, I would probably have been given the benefit of the doubt for an email or two before the person ultimately decided if I was still valuable and relevant to them.

Now, to be honest, I knew this, and did it anyway. Why? To see what would happen. To test this exact best practice of warming up a cold email before going for an ask. I mean, think about it: so much of email marketing involves interrupting someone's day to ask them to do something for you, but we send these emails under the pretense that they're valuable to the reader. The more aggressive you get with your copy, tone, and your asks, the faster you will lose your subscribers' trust and turn them off entirely.

So now I know first-hand it's a bad idea, and have a story to tell clients who may be contemplating the same approach.

Lessons in Copy and Trust for Future Email Campaigns

I've learned a lot from this campaign, especially from the survey results. That's a separate blog post, though, and it's coming, because even though the survey was meant to help me create segments and persona profiles for my own email list, the process and framework I used has some fantastic ideas any business can implement.

In the meantime, here's what I know to be true:

  • You absolutely must match up the tone and style of your subject line to the copy in the body of the email. A mismatch will cause you to lose value and/or trust in the eyes of your subscriber.
  • The bigger you go with your copy, the bigger the risk, and the bigger the reward. So, consider going big with people who really trust you. If you don't have a superstar VIP segment of your email list, go make one now.
  • Be careful about adding friction, stop words, or other attempts in your copy to smooth out the urgency of your call to action. It may not lose you any trust, but as any student of landing pages knows, it will hurt your conversion.
  • Clean it up (your list) before you warm it up. And if you can keep your list from getting cold in the first place, that's even better.

What to do next

This blog post dives deep into several aspects of value nurturing through email. We're using ourselves as an example to illustrate what goes into a project like this, with the hope that you'll see how important copy, trust, and segmentation are in email campaign design.

If your email list is falling flat, or you need help developing a plan to revitalize it, hit the Get in touch tab below and start a chat with our team. We're here to help.

To browse more articles about email marketing strategy and optimization, start here.

Stephan Hovnanian

Stephan Hovnanian runs the show here at Shovi, bringing over 15 years of email and web marketing experience to companies that need more from their digital marketing efforts.

Connect with Stephan here, on Twitter (@stephanhov), LinkedIn, or Google+.

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