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Delectable Data: A Case Study in Data‑Driven Email Lists

How Atlanta‑based digital agency FortyFour helped Southern Kitchen bridge the gap between content and commerce.

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Content and commerce have always had an uneasy relationship. From YouTube pre-roll to newspaper advertorials to Homer interrupting The Iliad to plug Big Al’s Toga Emporium (hey, it might have happened), marketers have historically struggled to wed the two seamlessly.

Such was the challenge for Southern Kitchen, a site that celebrates dining and entertaining in the modern South. To solve the problem, Southern Kitchen’s team approached Atlanta-based digital agency FortyFour.

“They were a brand-new site,” FortyFour’s Director of Analytics Ryan Anderson says. “They had little to no awareness and came to us looking to build an audience with the right content strategy to grow the commerce side of their business.”

In their favor? More than 100 years of experience in publishing.

“Southern Kitchen was new, but they’re part of Cox Media Group, which has roots in the newspapers as far back as 1898. So publishing content was not a foreign concept. What was new was e-commerce,” Anderson says. “This is their first direct-to-consumer checkout site, and they wanted to blend content and commerce in a way that would win over customers.”

That’s when Anderson’s team looked to the inbox.

Cooking up content

“We knew we wanted to build a robust email list,” Anderson says. “But first had to offer something.”

That “something” was good content.

“Southern Kitchen is really about presenting an accurate depiction of the modern South,” Jarod Jones, Head of Marketing Programs at FortyFour, says. “Southern cuisine has really been elevated by recent trends in the restaurant scene, and there’s an audience there that wants to grow their knowledge and appreciation of what Southern cooking is. People are realizing it’s deeper and more complex than they thought, and as the South grows, our cuisine grows and changes as well.”

Recognizing this, FortyFour helped write the first batch of articles to set the tone and find out what people would respond to. The next step was attracting the right audience.

“We initially drove people to join the email list through ad campaigns on Facebook,” Anderson says. “We were also careful with where we deployed the signup prompt on the actual website. It wasn’t something we hit you over the head with. We’d wait until you were midway through an article, or had gone a couple pages deep, before you ever saw the prompt.”

The strategy was to wait until readers really engaged to drive them to the newsletter. Not only did the data show that those readers were more likely to stay engaged, it also helped minimize those visitors who weren’t likely to become customers.

As the subscriber list grew, a productive interplay between social media and the newsletter emerged.

“When we thought about what topics the emails should focus on, we’d look at what performed well on social networks for our different audiences,” Anderson says. “For instance, our segmentation might show that South Carolinians interested in food would enjoy our article on low country boils because of how it performed on Facebook. So we’d make sure that article was served to them by email.”

But getting social media to work for them wasn’t always smooth sailing.

A course in course correction

It’s a strange fact of digital marketing: Some people just like to sign up for stuff.

“When we came on the job, it looked like the client had a problem with the people signing up via Facebook ads,” Jones says. “That audience just was not performing well. But after we dug into it, we discovered it was a much older demographic than we anticipated. Older people tend to click a lot more on Facebook, and since we were optimizing for clicks, we were skewing to that audience.”

In other words, click-optimization—meant to be the most efficient use of the ad spend—was working against them because it was encouraging the wrong audience to engage. When the data revealed the problem, Jones and Anderson corrected course.

“When we saw that, we immediately put some demographic targets around our ads,” Jones says. “That resulted in a better response from a younger audience, as well as better conversion. And it was still cost-effective.”

“You pay for your demographic,” Anderson says. “That’s your engagement number. You still have to take a hard look at your efficiency of spend, but ultimately it’s worth it if you’ve found the demographic that will engage and convert.”

As Southern Kitchen’s email list grew more refined, it was time to move into the next phase of the campaign.

Seeking long term relationships

“When we start working with a client, the first thing we do is lay out our short-term and our long-term metrics,” Anderson says. “In the short term, what we really want to do is get a better feel for the segmented cohorts that make up our audience and understand what kind of content they’re engaging in.”

Anderson gives the example of a 45-year-old college-educated mother versus a 25-year-old single male.

“Generally, they’re looking at different articles. The young, single guy is more likely to read an article about Texan cocktail culture, whereas the college-educated mom may be more interested in entertaining,” Anderson says. “So in the short term, we want to optimize who we’re showing which kind of content.”

But the team at FortyFour also wanted to identify the lifetime values of these different subscribers. Reviewing the data on long-term engagement made it easier to see where to adjust.

“We want to know how open and click rates change based on where people are coming from,” Anderson says. “What’s their engagement like after 60 days? 90 days? Does their engagement trail off? And if so, how do we adjust?”

They also adopted a higher-level strategic role for content.

“Southern Kitchen has their own editorial team now, so instead of writing articles, we’re really helping to identify what topics will perform well in search,” Anderson says. “We have all this great data, and we can use that to key in on the most engaged segments.”

“With Mailchimp, we can see who’s engaging with email and create a custom audience we push to Facebook.”

Life happens in the (Southern) kitchen

Thanks to the data collected by Mailchimp’s marketing analytics tools, Southern Kitchen has also been able to implement Facebook Ad Campaigns to help identify new lookalike audiences to appeal to.

“With Mailchimp, we can see who’s engaging with email and create a custom audience we push to Facebook. It’s been incredibly powerful for us,” Anderson says. “We’ve dropped our cost per lead by 40% using that strategy.”

FortyFour’s email strategy for Southern Kitchen has also helped drive page views.

“Compared to the site as a whole, our number of page views per session through email is 15% higher,” Anderson says. “And measured against organic social engagement, email is actually 50% higher. So we’re seeing better and deeper engagement, and we’re able to surface the content that really connects with people.”

With an interested, robust audience securely in place, Anderson believes the time has come to shift attention to e-commerce.

“The key part has been to build that demographic audience,” Anderson says. “We’re starting to shift our focus to revenue, but our initial goal was to make it clear what Southern Kitchen stands for. We don’t want them to lose their voice by focusing too much on analytics.”

Ultimately, it’s that voice and identity that attracted so much of Southern Kitchen’s audience in the first place.

“You know when you have a party, everyone seems to end up in the kitchen,” Anderson says. “It’s where life happens—sharing stories, cooking food, laughing together. That’s the spirit Southern Kitchen encapsulates.”

3 things to know about email campaigns

We spent a long time talking to Ryan Anderson and Jarod Jones about Southern Kitchen. We got some more good stuff we didn’t want to leave on the cutting room floor. Here are 3 more smart things they said about email you should hear:

1. Email sticks. Social media comes and goes: The demographics that once embraced Facebook have moved on to Instagram and Snapchat, and you can bet there are more changes ahead. But an email address tends to stick. “A person’s email very rarely changes,” Anderson says. “And when they give their email, it’s because they want to hear from you. Together, that represents a level of trust and an opportunity to build a relationship over a longer term than what you might have on a social network.” If you’re in it for the long haul with your customers, email is the way to go.

2. Start with your audience. One of the early hiccups Jones identified was that prior campaigns, which optimized for clicks, had inadvertently attracted exactly the wrong audience to the Southern Kitchen website. “I think that the results they wanted were still there,” Jones says. “We just needed to start with the audience in mind. It’s better to start there, and then figure out how to get them converting better.” A strategy that results in 100 new signups might feel like a big success at first, but it could cost you if you haven’t considered your audience.

3. You can’t buy love. One common way of driving email list signups is to offer coupons, discounts, and other financial incentives. Which might be great for a minute, but you’d better have something else on offer. “Incentives create a transactional relationship with the user,” Anderson says. “You’re saying, ‘I’ll give you money to sign up.’ How is that going to perform long term against people who love your products and like your company?” For success that lasts, give customers a reason to love what you are—not what you’ll give them.

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