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How to Achieve Empathetic Automation

Savannah, GA has infused Gauge Interactive with people with a penchant for creativity and kindness — two important ingredients for a successful automated email campaign.

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From its open floor plan to the two miniature basketball goals that hang from the unisex bathroom door, Gauge Interactive exhibits all of the classic agency accoutrements. Tattoos aren’t uncommon. Neither is Star Wars memorabilia.

But look beyond its walls, and you’ll see what makes Gauge different.

Located on historic Bull Street in Savannah’s up-and-coming Metropolitan neighborhood, Gauge is just a short walk from Forsyth Park, where you’ll find families and Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) students walking among the trees and historic statues. Savannah is the oldest city in a deeply southern state. The presence of SCAD lends it an artsy, progressive edge.

That dual sensibility pervades Gauge, where many of the employees are SCAD graduates. It may not be a tech hub, but Savannah has infused Gauge with people with a penchant for creativity and kindness — two of the most important ingredients for a successful automated email campaign.

"It’s all about having empathy for the customer. What do they want? What do they hate? What keeps them up at night?"

Handcrafting automation

Art director/lead designer Robert Floyd and copywriter/content strategist Liz Pryor could have fled to bigger cities after graduating from SCAD. Instead, they chose Gauge. “If you go to BBDO or R/GA out of college, you’re going to be a pixel pusher,” Floyd says. “Here, you are going to client meetings and pitching work right away.”

Floyd and Pryor, who work together to craft the art and copy for Gauge’s automated email campaigns, view email as a way to connect with customers on a deeper emotional level. “It’s all about having empathy for the customer,” Floyd says. “What do they want? What do they hate? What keeps them up at night?”

The process by which it happens may be called marketing automation, but the goal is to deliver messages that feel handcrafted and authentic to the recipient. According to Pryor, that means writing as much from the heart as the mind. “You have to create content that people actually want to read, and find the emotional tie to the brand.”

“Most of our clients sell things that their customers could get from Amazon 2-day shipping,” Floyd added. “There is a reason they buy from our clients instead. Why is that? We have to understand where they are coming from, and tailor everything to that.”

When automation goes wrong

After her recent engagement, Pryor signed up for a popular wedding planning website. Soon, the emails started rolling in. Every. Single. Day.

“379 days to go until your big day!” “378 days to go until your big day!”

“It was too much,” she says. “They could have done some research, and they would have learned that most people my age don’t have time to hear from a brand every day.”

Automation falls apart when brands fail to understand — or to think much about — the humans on the other end. That’s why Gauge starts every campaign with a thorough research effort. “Demographics are low hanging fruit,” Floyd says. “Psychographics are the next level. You have to try and understand what the customer’s life is about and why they use the product.”

The goal isn’t to use this information to sell to the client, but rather to serve the client. And once the campaign is up and running, the information gathering continues, allowing the brand to develop an ever-increasing degree of familiarity with the customer.

“That’s the great thing about automation,” Floyd says. “You set it up and let it run, and lots of data comes in. You find out what people look at, what people click, and whether people even open it. And all of that information helps you get a clear understanding of who your customers are and how you can tailor imagery and content to them.”

"You have to create content that people actually want to read."

Make it (very, very) personal

Email is an intimate channel by nature. Your message arrives in the recipient’s inbox alongside messages from their mother and best friend from college. Clogging that space with fire-hose-style automation betrays that intimacy.

When you think about it, it really is your obligation to know your customer before you start barraging them with email. “What makes automation work for Gauge is the amount of time we put into researching the client before we even open Mailchimp,” Pryor points out.

Floyd relays a story of a Gauge client who sells chess sets. “He sends automated instructional emails that include strategy and tips, and they’re great, because chess is his passion and his love. And people feel that and think, ‘Wow, I want more of this.’”

In other words, if you’re sending automated campaigns using traditional advertising tactics, you’re doing it wrong. “Consumers are tired of being hammered with crazy conceptual advertising,” Floyd says.

Besides, you don’t need to snap people to attention with email marketing. If you know your list well enough, you can treat it like a conversation. “You’re talking to a smaller group of people,” Floyd says. “But if you do it right, they will become very loyal to you.”

In fact, if you do it really right, you may end up being more than just a brand to the recipient. You end up — as corny as it might sound — being something more like a friend.

How to write automated emails that work

If you’re an advertising copywriter who’s been asked to ply their craft in the service of automated email, follow these three rules for better results.

1. Don’t write like a copywriter. You’re not trying to win an Addy or a One Show award; you’re trying to connect with a human being on a personal level. Drop the copywriter voice and adopt one more like your own.

2. Know your customers. Like, really know them. You’re not writing for a monolithic group of people, but for carefully segmented groups of people with a singular set of qualities and quirks.

3. Think of the brand as a person. We’re not saying corporations are people. But brands — the best ones, anyway — have personality. What’s yours? Playful? Wickedly smart? Sober and serious? Figure it out, and bring those qualities into your writing (in a natural and unaffected way, of course).

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