Email is a conversation – not a megaphone by Rory Carlyle @rorycarlyle

Email is a Conversation - Not a Megaphone

Planes, trains and conversations — On my way back from the Web 2.0 Expo in San Francisco last week, I was reminded of how many different cultures are in our periphery, everyday. Just walking through the city this past week gave me a new perspective on how communication works within separate cultures.  Each cultural entity has its nuances and specific characteristics regarding the norms of that group, especially with relation to inter-personal communication.

What brought all this to my mind initially was while I boarded the plane back home. As I boarded the plane and walked back to my seat, I noticed an older Indian couple that was sitting in the same row as me. Getting closer to the row I look at my pass to see the letter/number for my seat and before I sit down I notice the woman was already in my seat. I politely ask her to move and get no response. I stood there for a minute and asked again – she didn’t speak English. I proceeded to tap her on the shoulder; she looked at me, finally.  I then began to ask for her boarding pass so that I could get my seat. To no avail we began to hold a meaningless conversation that included two languages, undecipherable by each party.

Once everything was settled, I began to think how this situation could be applied to email marketing. I thought to myself; why didn’t that work easily, what could have been done to make that a pleasurable experience? After a few minutes of reflecting I came up with two reasons – history and actions.

History – We knew nothing about each other; language, personality, likes, dislikes, current situation, cultural norms, etc. We had no basis on which to relate and communicate.

Actions – She was undeniably foreign – not a lick of English was spoken between her and I or her and her partner. What I thought was a polite way of asking her to check her ticket to find her seat may have been rude from her perspective. My tone and presence could have offended her in the same manner I felt disrespected with her not speaking or acknowledging me. We were disconnected and potentially offensive to one another, I could have killed the conversation before we even started it with my actions.

How is this applicable to email? Well, here’s my thought.

As email marketers this shouldn’t happen, but it does on a regular basis. In order for us to communicate to people we need information and permission to do so – we’re building a history. The amount of information we gather initially may or may not be vast, but it’s usually enough to make an educated and considerate decision to engage our recipients appropriately. In doing so correctly we should be able to gather more info as the communication develops and respond back, which brings us to actions.

Actions are pivotal to fostering the conversation. A single action can spurn or dissolve a conversation immediately. With email we do this by listening to our recipient or by batching them into a list and ‘blasting’ whatever message goes out that day. Knowing how to leverage whatever amount of data is available for the initial and continuing emails can be key in converting prospects into clients and attrition into list growth and activity. Email is the best online retention tool – let’s use it as such, let’s have a conversation.

Takeaway: Frame of reference is everything in communication – how we view the world dictates how we interact with it. Do you know what your subscriber’s frame of reference is and are you relevant? This is especially important if you are marketing globally.

Viva la email!

We’ve probably all had an experience such as this. Share yours or share how your marketing strategy is working to ensure you have a constructive conversation with your subscribers!

Meet the author:

Rory Carlyle

Rory Carlyle

Rory Carlyle is the author for VivaLaEmail.com. He's also an Email-Geek, frequent twitter hound, web-analytics nut and an all-around dweeb. Rounding out a 8+ year stint in interactive marketing, finding a home with email marketing, and becoming the most awesomest person ever; Rory keeps his hands full with his passion. Hoping to make the web a better place one inbox at a time, Rory loves talking email marketing all day. Outside of work; Rory takes his Jeep into the Rockies, thinks big thoughts and takes flights to random locations.

Connect with: Rory Carlyle

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  • Trevor
    May 18, 2010 at 12:03 pm

    This could be dangerous advice for newcomers/people who don’t live email marketing every day.

    Email isn’t really a conversation. It’s more like ringing the doorbell and leaving a package with a note attached. You’re overvaluing your message by hoping that people will see it as anything more than that. In a world where people get dozens to hundreds of email per day, your email is just one of many. Yes, it needs to be great, but don’t overestimate it.

    Email is a one-way channel for delivering relevant value. Sure, people can respond, but really what you should be aiming for is trust, an implied ‘yes, ok’ when your message arrives in an inbox.

    Ultimately you’ve got this right…the ‘conversation’ you should be having is with your segmented user data, their click history and your split testing. That should be your focus.

    But in terms of your real-world example, I would never recommend reaching out to someone who didn’t ‘speak your language’ and was really only ‘in your space’ by accident. Those people dilute your metrics and can mislead your messaging.

    • Garin Kilpatrick
      May 18, 2010 at 12:46 pm

      Trevor,

      I see where you are coming from, email marketing and is primarily a medium for delivering relevant value.

      That said, every email does contain a “from” address and I think there is more value to be added by including an actual email address instead of a [email protected], which makes people think that you are just trying to sell to them and don’t actually care what they have to say.

      Split testing is important, but in my experience newsletter readers often have valuable insight to share. When I send out my personal newsletter it is not uncommon for me to get great feedback that I am thankful for.

      I consider my newsletters campaigns, not blasts. I prefer email from a person, not a noreply address. I get Rory’s point and I think email marketing is far more powerful when it is a potential conversation, and not just a one-way channel.

    • Rory Carlyle
      May 18, 2010 at 12:47 pm

      Thanks for the reply Trevor.

      I think maybe I didn’t explain well enough, I have a tendency to not state exactly what I’m trying to convey. My point there was I engaged with no relevant info other than my seat assignment and in a way that potentially could have been offensive. In relating that to email my intent was to convey the value of history/data as well as acting appropriately with that history/data.

      I would argue that email is a conversation. Maybe not a 1-to-1 conversation as we may have with our coworkers via email, but the data we receive back via our ESP or our website analytics programs is the recipients voice back to us. It can tell us a tremendous amount on how to respond back via email. i would say, ‘Ringing the doorbell and leaving’ isn’t a relationship at all, it’s actually exactly what I would advise against. It caters more to the company doing the marketing than the actual recipient. What if you sent a package that they didn’t want?

      I totally agree with the conversation opinion, but we see differently on email being a one-way channel. I think undervaluing the the recipient is why many company’s still believe it’s perfectly okay to ‘batch and blast’ or send without segmenting. Email is personal and should be treated as such.

      • Jim Ducharme
        May 18, 2010 at 1:03 pm

        I’d like to add something to this discussion. My experience as a digital content provider and editor has brought me to the conclusion that the web and by extension, any communication via the web is in fact, a 1-1 conversation. Whether or not that is actually true is irrelevant when that is the perception of the user/subscriber. Perception is nine-tenths of the law after all…

        The only traditional media ever to achieve this was radio and as a veteran of that industry, I can tell you that smart broadcasters played that card to its fullest potential. For decades this was unique to radio and its strength but, now the web also stakes claim to this.

        If you are writing for distribution via the web then you are most effective if you approach your audience on a 1-1 basis. You may be able to make the argument that this perceived intimacy is false (being perceived but not actual) but, that does not invalidate it.

        For example, there’s a sense of territoriality when sitting at your KB and monitor. It’s your space…your intimate space. Unless there is a need for direct collaboration, people do not share that territory easily. If you are going to virtually invade this territory, you need to show relevance and respect.

        Regards,
        jim

        • Rory Carlyle
          May 18, 2010 at 1:15 pm

          I love that perspective Jim. That was the sentiment I was eluding to in the post, it’s imperative to treat people as people, not just data. Understand them and foster a relationship based on the data they give you.

          Viva la Email!

  • Trevor
    May 18, 2010 at 12:03 pm

    This could be dangerous advice for newcomers/people who don’t live email marketing every day.

    Email isn’t really a conversation. It’s more like ringing the doorbell and leaving a package with a note attached. You’re overvaluing your message by hoping that people will see it as anything more than that. In a world where people get dozens to hundreds of email per day, your email is just one of many. Yes, it needs to be great, but don’t overestimate it.

    Email is a one-way channel for delivering relevant value. Sure, people can respond, but really what you should be aiming for is trust, an implied ‘yes, ok’ when your message arrives in an inbox.

    Ultimately you’ve got this right…the ‘conversation’ you should be having is with your segmented user data, their click history and your split testing. That should be your focus.

    But in terms of your real-world example, I would never recommend reaching out to someone who didn’t ‘speak your language’ and was really only ‘in your space’ by accident. Those people dilute your metrics and can mislead your messaging.

    • Garin Kilpatrick
      May 18, 2010 at 12:46 pm

      Trevor,

      I see where you are coming from, email marketing and is primarily a medium for delivering relevant value.

      That said, every email does contain a “from” address and I think there is more value to be added by including an actual email address instead of a [email protected], which makes people think that you are just trying to sell to them and don’t actually care what they have to say.

      Split testing is important, but in my experience newsletter readers often have valuable insight to share. When I send out my personal newsletter it is not uncommon for me to get great feedback that I am thankful for.

      I consider my newsletters campaigns, not blasts. I prefer email from a person, not a noreply address. I get Rory’s point and I think email marketing is far more powerful when it is a potential conversation, and not just a one-way channel.

    • Rory Carlyle
      May 18, 2010 at 12:47 pm

      Thanks for the reply Trevor.

      I think maybe I didn’t explain well enough, I have a tendency to not state exactly what I’m trying to convey. My point there was I engaged with no relevant info other than my seat assignment and in a way that potentially could have been offensive. In relating that to email my intent was to convey the value of history/data as well as acting appropriately with that history/data.

      I would argue that email is a conversation. Maybe not a 1-to-1 conversation as we may have with our coworkers via email, but the data we receive back via our ESP or our website analytics programs is the recipients voice back to us. It can tell us a tremendous amount on how to respond back via email. i would say, ‘Ringing the doorbell and leaving’ isn’t a relationship at all, it’s actually exactly what I would advise against. It caters more to the company doing the marketing than the actual recipient. What if you sent a package that they didn’t want?

      I totally agree with the conversation opinion, but we see differently on email being a one-way channel. I think undervaluing the the recipient is why many company’s still believe it’s perfectly okay to ‘batch and blast’ or send without segmenting. Email is personal and should be treated as such.

      • Jim Ducharme
        May 18, 2010 at 1:03 pm

        I’d like to add something to this discussion. My experience as a digital content provider and editor has brought me to the conclusion that the web and by extension, any communication via the web is in fact, a 1-1 conversation. Whether or not that is actually true is irrelevant when that is the perception of the user/subscriber. Perception is nine-tenths of the law after all…

        The only traditional media ever to achieve this was radio and as a veteran of that industry, I can tell you that smart broadcasters played that card to its fullest potential. For decades this was unique to radio and its strength but, now the web also stakes claim to this.

        If you are writing for distribution via the web then you are most effective if you approach your audience on a 1-1 basis. You may be able to make the argument that this perceived intimacy is false (being perceived but not actual) but, that does not invalidate it.

        For example, there’s a sense of territoriality when sitting at your KB and monitor. It’s your space…your intimate space. Unless there is a need for direct collaboration, people do not share that territory easily. If you are going to virtually invade this territory, you need to show relevance and respect.

        Regards,
        jim

        • Rory Carlyle
          May 18, 2010 at 1:15 pm

          I love that perspective Jim. That was the sentiment I was eluding to in the post, it’s imperative to treat people as people, not just data. Understand them and foster a relationship based on the data they give you.

          Viva la Email!

  • George
    May 18, 2010 at 1:00 pm

    I am not sure how this advice would be dangerous to a newcomer in the email marketing space. If anything this should be the basis of how we train newcomers to the medium. The days of sending one-off campaigns, blasts, or non-conversational mailings are over. Life-cycle messaging, conversations, or whatever you would like to call them are what consumers…the people you are looking to drive to engage…are looking for out of emails in their inbox.

    Rory is right on in terms of his offering that email needs to have a conversational element to it. This is true from retention marketing to acquisition marketing. You need to start the conversation somewhere…you need to show your recipients that you are paying attention to what they are “saying” even if those actions are simply click-through or opens.

  • George
    May 18, 2010 at 1:00 pm

    I am not sure how this advice would be dangerous to a newcomer in the email marketing space. If anything this should be the basis of how we train newcomers to the medium. The days of sending one-off campaigns, blasts, or non-conversational mailings are over. Life-cycle messaging, conversations, or whatever you would like to call them are what consumers…the people you are looking to drive to engage…are looking for out of emails in their inbox.

    Rory is right on in terms of his offering that email needs to have a conversational element to it. This is true from retention marketing to acquisition marketing. You need to start the conversation somewhere…you need to show your recipients that you are paying attention to what they are “saying” even if those actions are simply click-through or opens.

  • Liz Lynch
    May 18, 2010 at 1:27 pm

    Hi Rory,
    Good post. It reminded me of an experience I had last week in a training class. It was an exercise in listening. I was a foreman and my partner was a builder. Together we had to put together a Lego car, but my partner couldn’t respond to me. I was talking at him, getting no feedback. It was incredibly frustrating for both of us, and really made me think about how this applies to our clients and e-mail marketing.
    Yes, you can blast messages out to your subscriber base, but if you don’t get any feedback, you’re operating in a vacuum, with no way of knowing how to be better. And the recipients on the other end are just as frustrated if the e-mails they receive are not relevant to them.
    E-mail marketing as a channel really does need to be a conversation if both parties want to get the most out of it.

  • Liz Lynch
    May 18, 2010 at 1:27 pm

    Hi Rory,
    Good post. It reminded me of an experience I had last week in a training class. It was an exercise in listening. I was a foreman and my partner was a builder. Together we had to put together a Lego car, but my partner couldn’t respond to me. I was talking at him, getting no feedback. It was incredibly frustrating for both of us, and really made me think about how this applies to our clients and e-mail marketing.
    Yes, you can blast messages out to your subscriber base, but if you don’t get any feedback, you’re operating in a vacuum, with no way of knowing how to be better. And the recipients on the other end are just as frustrated if the e-mails they receive are not relevant to them.
    E-mail marketing as a channel really does need to be a conversation if both parties want to get the most out of it.

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