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Selling in Email Happens Through Stories

We connect with Paul Jarvis, creator of Fixtail and owner of Chimp Essentials, to learn more about how storytelling plays a key role in email marketing.

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For this week’s Mailchimp Loves Agencies (and next week’s!), we handed over the reins to Paul Jarvis, cofounder of Fixtail (software that connects Stripe orders to Mailchimp’s e-commerce features) and teacher of Chimp Essentials. He’s been featured in USA Today, Newsweek, LifeHacker and one time even got poked fun of on BuzzFeed for being too creative.

Just because we agencies have a bunch of fancy features at our fingertips doesn’t mean we should entirely rely on technology to do our jobs for us. Even with targeted marketing automation, a unique human touch and compelling story are both necessary and beneficial. Email is humans communicating with other humans, and that should come through to the people reading it.

If email marketing were as easy as just helping clients pitch their products to their lists day after day, everyone would be making money hand over fist. But it’s not. It requires carefully crafted stories, building trust, educating, and sometimes even using humor to build relationships with lists.

Plain-text perfection

My favorite newsletter isn’t a newsletter at all. It’s a BCC list. It’s from a local farm in my area and gets sent to a grand total of 20 people.

There’s no on-exit modal on their website, no conversion-oriented landing page, nor a 154-page PDF bonus on their WIX website. It doesn’t even use newsletter software. In fact, you can’t sign up for it online. You have to be at the farm, pay for your veggies, and then fill out a ragged piece of paper attached to a clipboard, lightly stained with blueberry juice. Within a week (or 5), you’ll start to get the emails (if they remember to BCC you. They might not.).

Each week at the farm, within about an hour, everything they’ve got for sale is sold out—and it becomes an empty room that always smells vaguely of carrots. This is what most businesses strive for: a demand for their products that’s so high, products sell out as soon as they’ve been produced.

Their newsletter, which gives people like me a heads-up on what’s for sale, converts to selling 100% of their inventory each week.

Let’s look at some excerpts from it, so you can see what I mean by using compelling stories to sell their Saturday market produce:

“Fall is all about crops you can depend on for the long haul: the sturdy rutabaga, the cantankerous carrot, the starchy, stable potato. They are like bulky sweaters for your bellies, comfortable and filling, these vegetables will be sure to hold you over all winter long.”

“The expletives this week while weeding have been both innovative and jaw dropping. Thank goodness the children weren’t in the garden.”

“But as soon as summer hits, so does the crazy. All of a sudden your onions and garlic can’t decide on what to wear, the fungal suit with root rot loafers or a nice clean white t-shirt? Your tomatoes won’t stop binge drinking, rehabbing on small allotments of timed water lines. The cabbages are getting headaches from lounging with the cabbage moths while the peas are falling all over themselves in the wind. And, four hours later, you find yourself still lying next to the carrot bed, big spooning them as you weed, while half listening to their woes about how everything else around them grows faster.”

It’s an example of perfection in consistent email marketing. The woman who writes it isn’t a best-selling author or a growth hacker—she probably spends very little time online because she’s busy being a full-time farmer. But still, even though writing newsletters isn’t her “job,” she makes sure it happens every week—even though the list comprises only 20 people. And here’s why I love it:

1. It’s 100% useful

I get this newsletter the day before the farm has its Saturday market. I know exactly what they’ll be selling and I can decide if I want to go or how early I’ll line up (if they mention some veggies are in short supply, for example—and there’s always a line). I get the email when I need it, eager to know what’s in store for the market the next day.

When clients communicate with their customers or potential customers, there needs to be a good reason for doing so: a sale, a new product, a significant update. That way, there’s a good reason for people on that list to want to open the emails.

Often overlooked in creating an email marketing strategy is the why of sending each email in the first place. Why does a customer need this? What’s in it for them? How can they use that information?

By considering those questions and putting ourselves in the mind of the recipients, we can help craft more concise and actionable emails that will hopefully be opened and clicked on at higher rates.

Email requires carefully crafted stories, building trust, educating, and sometimes even using humor to build relationships with lists.

2. It’s 100% consistent

I get these farmers market emails every Friday night during the selling season. No excuses, no exceptions. One time, the woman who writes it was away, so the other farmer wrote it—and it was just as good (and silly). Building consistency with a mailing list shows people that there’s care and attention involved, which they tend to reciprocate.

It’s hard to stay true to your schedule when you’re only slightly ahead of the deadline. If you or your client are writing a newsletter with a standard cadence minutes or hours before the send time, you’re at the whim of having the time to do it.

This is why staying ahead of a content schedule is important. If you’re able to create the content a week or more ahead of a weekly schedule, then you’re buffering time in case other things come up. Luckily, Mailchimp makes it easy to schedule campaigns far into the future.

3. It’s 100% hilarious

I laugh out loud every time I read it. You’d think selling organic, heirloom veggies and homemade pastries could be somewhat boring or monotonous week after week, but they tell a great story every single time, from saving cows to mobster zucchinis. It’s the only newsletter I stop whatever I’m doing to read start to finish.

This just goes to show that you can put your personality into and create interest in anything. The farmers don’t have to tell stories to let their mailing list know what’s available, but the stories are why people love the list.

If humor isn’t part of your client’s brand, then it doesn’t make sense to make it part of your email marketing strategy. But whatever personality and tone a brand takes, it’s important to be both consistent and interesting with it. Whether you’re selling organic carrots or double-locking lug nuts, you have to find a unique way to tell stories about them that draw an audience in and capture attention.

One of my favourite resources for defining a brand’s written style is Mailchimp’s Style Guide and Voice & Tone guide. By considering and then empathizing with where customers are in their journey and what you want them to accomplish, you can craft a written style that feels right for any brand.

A carrot flying into an apple

4. It’s 100% to the point

The farmers market email has no fancy mailing list software, no images—just plain-text with a story followed by a list of the produce that’s available. All bells and whistles have been stripped out (or never added in the first place). I get exactly what I need when I need it. As a consumer, I don’t need fancy graphics or heavily branded emails to enjoy it—I just need the veggie information and a good story.

That’s really what matters.

It’s always good to consider that your assumptions could be wrong (in life and in email marketing). That’s why running regular A/B tests can not only be interesting, but extremely useful to increasing open or even conversion rates.

Curious if a heavily branded email will perform better than a mostly plain-text email? Don’t just guess, test both templates. Not sure if the story you want to tell will get folks to click the “buy” link? Test the content—straight to the point or with a story.

A/B testing is the best way to consider new ideas without having to use an entire campaign sent to an entire list.

A lesson to share with clients

Cultivating an eager mailing list and a captive audience isn’t completely about software, funnels, or fancy tips and tricks. Those things can definitely help and make it easier to manage relationships with your audience or customers’ clients, but if a good story or big value isn’t also present, the emails won’t have engagement. It’s about sending interesting and useful content to the people that need it, reliably.

As agencies, we have to not only help our clients use the technology, but help them figure out why they’re using the technology in the first place. You don’t have to wait until a client’s audience is massive, or until they have something to sell. You just have help your clients to engage with people in a way that benefits both them and their audience, with a little bit of personal flair.

Now excuse me while I wait for another Friday and another email from my favorite farmer.

Illustrations by BoneHaüs, an illustration studio of northeast-located, cartoon-watching, skateboarding, illustrator, animator and printer Kirk Wallace.

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