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Nate Wright started his collegiate career at the Air Force Academy in Colorado, where he intended to study computer science. But after a year or so, the Academy pushed him in another direction.
“They told me I wasn’t smart enough to hack it, and they were right,” Wright says. “So I found a subject I didn’t like but wouldn’t fail out of, which was English. That tinted my career from that point forward.”
After graduation, Wright spent time working in artist management and promotion, which largely consisted of driving around in his rusted out ’68 Dodge Dart with a trunk full of posters and a staple gun. It gave him his first taste of small business marketing, and it helped him land a full-time marketing gig at TheFilmSchool. It was there that Wright first met his future business partner, Seth Rasmussen.
“When I met Seth, it was at the end of a long day of interviews,” Wright says. “He comes walking in after we’ve seen 7 or 8 other people, and he kept going on and on about Doctor Who. I talked to the office manager next to me and was like, ‘No way, I can’t use this guy.’ But the office manager declared, ‘I’ll take him.’”
“I was very interested in writing,” Rasmussen says. “I showed up to that interview without much experience besides a couple of scripts under my belt. But I was fascinated with words—and maybe a little obsessed with Doctor Who.”
Eventually, Wright and Rasmussen realized their shared love of writing was something of a secret weapon. That led them to join forces as Small Biz Triage, a marketing agency with a strong focus on email marketing and e-commerce for small businesses.
And the rest, as they say, is history.
Finding a mantra
Rasmussen knew he didn’t have much experience when he first met Wright, but he was eager to learn. As he and Wright worked to develop TheFilmSchool’s marketing strategy, he discovered how much he enjoyed writing newsletters. So when he and Wright began Small Biz Triage, they deliberately made email a cornerstone of their business.
“In those days, MailChimp was very different,” Rasmussen says. “This was before e-commerce played such a big role in the platform, so the data was really centered on open and click rates. I became very interested in extrapolating that data into decisions about what to do. As I worked with Nate on other clients, I became very focused on the words and the writing. And as more clients pushed toward selling things online, we naturally moved into that space as well.”
As the e-commerce industry grew, it forged a natural connection with email marketing—especially for smaller businesses with limited marketing resources. The demand prompted platforms to adapt quickly.
“All of a sudden, this beautiful thing happened in the form of e-commerce integrations,” Rasmussen says. “I was building strategies around it, and suddenly I could see the most direct, most important dollar figure as a result of my efforts. These days, I’m relentlessly focused on e-commerce and MailChimp.”
As this convergence between email and sales continued, Rasmussen and Wright learned a lot about what worked to move customers. And what worked above all else, they discovered, was to be “unapologetically human.”
“As we focused more and more on email marketing, we adopted that as our mantra,” Rasmussen says. “People really respond a lot better when you don’t act like a robot.”
Although they had the experience and data to back them up, “unapologetically human” newsletters were sometimes a tough sell to their clients.
“It’s one of the hardest conversations to have,” Wright says. “E-commerce clients are conditioned not to write or deliver communications in a human way. They’re afraid of using slang, or misspellings, or of not including a coupon in a newsletter.”
In Wright’s view, taking the approach of perfectly polished coupon emails means losing something fundamentally unique to your business.
“Everyone else in the market is being very robotic and overly professional, and it’s annoying,” Wright says. “You don’t need to apologize for being human. Share the messy bits, share when things go wrong. Remind people that there’s a real person behind the words. It helps, and it gives you the opportunity to go beyond the coupon emails and to show you’re an expert, to educate your clients, to move beyond the purely transactional mindset.”
"You don’t need to apologize for being human. Share the messy bits, share when things go wrong. Remind people that there’s a real person behind the words."
Replies (believe it or not)
“When I’m doing a newsletter for Small Biz Triage, there’s only ever one call to action,” Rasmussen says. “That is ‘Reply.’ Write back with a question, ask to meet up for coffee, I just want you to hit ‘Reply.’”
“Now, e-commerce clients don’t necessarily want that,” Rasmussen continues. “They want to move some product. But there’s real value in getting direct feedback and for your customers to know that if they do reply they’re going to be talking to a real person.”
Although clients are often reluctant to embrace this strategy, it usually pays off quickly once they do.
“The clients who open up to feedback get incredible responses,” Rasmussen says. “And every response is an opening for engagement. People will write to let you know what they liked in your newsletter. But they’ll also write to tell you they hate the Oxford comma, or that you dropped an apostrophe. But that’s an opportunity. That’s a chance for you to write back and say, ‘Thank you for paying attention.’”
Human connection is at the heart of this approach. And according to Rasmussen, if you do it consistently, it will allow you to connect with your audience in a way that other online retailers don’t.
“Your customers want to know there’s a person on the other end of the line,” he says. “They’re more inclined to support your business when they feel connected to it. That’s not something they get from companies like Amazon. When people buy from you, they know you’re the expert—you’re who they want to purchase from.”
Seth Rasmussen working in Seattle, WA.
3 tips for imperfect greatness
In email marketing, Small Biz Triage believes that being imperfectly personal beats cold perfectionism every time. But it can be an uncomfortable transition to make, especially for small businesses worried about looking professional. Here are 3 tips on how to be great at it.
Tip 1: Send newsletters that tell a story.
“We have clients using MailChimp for things that might seem boring or unsexy,” Wright says. “But there’s always a way to add a human touch. One client wrote about dealing with the death of a parent. That breaks the newsletter out of the selling tempo and makes it into something else.” Telling personal stories between promotional emails is a great way to connect with your readers and keep them interested in what you have to say.
Tip 2: Build trust with a personal tone.
Mistakes happen in marketing. But by taking a more human tone in your emails, your customers will be more likely to forgive them. “It’s part of good customer service,” Wright says. “When you set a personal tone in your newsletter, people tend to be a lot less cranky with you when there’s a mistake.”
Tip 3: Give the people what they want.
“We find that our approach has a vastly positive effect on engagement,” Wright says. “That feedback can help you make good decisions about what you should be sending to your list.” It’s not enough to simply invite your audience to respond. Their responses should shape how you go forward. Do people like when you tell stories? When you share photos of your dog? Pay attention to those little moments and use them to help shape your next newsletter.
Illustrations by Sarah Neuburger, an Atlanta-based freelance illustrator and designer.