Originally published in MediaPost’s Email Insider, 10-17-12.
Facebook’s Timeline is remarkable for brands because it allows consumers to follow a brand’s narrative almost at a glance. Every piece of content a brand contributes to its Timeline constitutes a chapter, and seeing them all aggregated chronologically and graphically allows them to be read quickly as a whole story. It’s actually fascinating how quickly you can pick up on a brand’s positioning and value proposition if they’re executed well on Facebook Timeline.
A similar aggregation of brand content is taking place in email right now. It’s more subtle and is occurring on a number of platforms and with a range of methods that make it increasingly likely consumers will have the whole picture of a brand’s email program through aggregated content. These methods are driven by the need for inbox management, a topic that is everywhere in the news now — covered in places ranging from Lifehacker to Fortune magazine to the Harvard Business Review. Everywhere you look, consumers are trying to find a way to reclaim their inboxes and make sure they remain as useful as they are essential.
Here are just some of the approaches your subscribers are taking to inbox management:
– Filters and Smart Mailboxes make it easy for subscribers to quarantine messages from selected senders into their own folder, for reading at a later time.
– Aggregation tools work similarly but require less subscriber input to triage more mail. Examples are Azigo, Hipiti and Swizzle.
– Time-shifting email with tools like InboxPause, which queues up email outside the inbox until the user elects to let it flow in.
– New means of inbox management are hitting the market almost daily. As long as marketers continue to email, consumers (and entrepreneurs) will continue to seek out ways to make the inbox experience more proactive than reactive. Aggregating like content will be an important strategy.
None of these techniques and tools is as clean as Timeline, but you can see how they give consumers a whole view of an email program over a series of five, 10 or even 20 messages at a time. The unintended consequence of aggregating messages by brand is that the meaningful shelf life of each message may be extended. Every time a consumer goes to the “Brand X” folder or stream to see the latest message, the handful that preceded it will also be visible.
How can email marketers turn this trend into an asset instead of a liability? I think the answer lies in email marketers’ ability to think like brand managers as well as direct marketers. When subscribers see past individual messages to the email program as a whole, the brand narrative becomes more important. Here are some tips on how to be more attentive to yours, and ensure that the story your brand is telling in the inbox is consistent and engaging:
Use an editorial calendar: An editorial calendar ensures that the content focus is the same in the inbox, social media, search, and wherever else you’re marketing. It also helps email marketers remain proactive about content, instead of reactively resorting to promotional messages to move the needle. An email program that has “save 40%” in the subject line every time may position the brand well outside of where you’d ultimately like it to be.
Note the importance of the subject line: When messages are aggregated and queued up for review, the subject line carries the brunt of the storytelling responsibility. Make sure yours not only telegraph the message content, but do it in a way that supports your positioning.
Maintain a consistent voice: Not only do you want your content to be consistent across channels, you want all of the emails viewed together to obviously come from the same brand. If last week’s subject line is “An important message to our customers about saving 20%” and it is visible in a folder next to this week’s promotion of the same sale with the subject “20% off everything? Aww yeah!” you may have learned something about open rates, but you have confused your audience about your brand’s positioning.
Adopt a content strategy for your brand, not just the email channel: It’s time to stop thinking about email as a direct-response channel, even though it rocks at driving revenue-producing action. Instead, develop a brand content strategy that you execute across all channels. In order for email to help tell the brand narrative, it has to contribute to the whole story — not just the parts that drive the clicks you need today to meet your numbers this month.