Q&A: Chris Hexton on How to Send Better Email

By James Knutila on Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Chris Hexton is co-founder and CEO of Vero, software that triggers emails based on customer behavior. 

We had a chance to talk to Chris about why email can be more powerful than Facebook, why curiosity works best for subject lines, and more useful email marketing advice. 

Why should small businesses focus on email marketing?

That's a really good question. What excites us is the real trend towards marketing as a customer experience. It's about how the customer interacts with your business, from the moment they first hear about you, to when they buy from you multiple times, to when they tell a friend. 

Email works very well because it's a very personal medium. Everyone has email, and people check their email multiple times a day. 

Even though you're competing for that space in someone's inbox, once someone opens your email, you've got their one-on-one attention. It's not like Facebook, where they're just scrolling through a stream. With email, it's just you and them. For that reason, it continues to be a powerful channel. 

Any tips for collecting more email addresses on a website? 

It really comes down to: Why should someone give you their email? That's why content marketing is so popular -- it gives you something of value that you can offer in exchange for an email. 

People offer lots of different things. A common theme for a restaurant would be: if you sign up for our list, we'll let you know about special events or special offers. You won't get this stuff unless you're part of a list. 

Think about what you can offer your customers. It could be some sort of online content, tips they haven't heard before, or something more tangible, like a discount or events where they're treated like a VIP or part of your club. 

How do you re-engage with an older contact list? Should you start emailing promotions to them? Should you email them and ask them if they still want to be part of the list?

The first thing a lot of people recommend is a service called BriteVerify, particularly if you've got a sizable list. They basically check the validity: if the email still exists, things like that. That'll help prune your list. It might be a bit painful, you might lose some of your list, but it will get rid of the email addresses that are completely useless and will hurt your delivery reputation. 

If your customers haven't heard from you in a while, put yourself in their shoes. Most people aren't going to take as well to a random promotional email. Who is this? What are they talking about? A lot of companies will come up with what I call an event. So they might say, "hey, we're relaunching our loyalty club," or "we're relaunching our blog newsletter." Ask them if they want to hear from you, and give them an example of what they're going to get.

My approach is to be genuine. If you've got something compelling, say, "this is what we're going to offer, would you like to re-subscribe?" That's the way you'll keep a list that's most engaged, even if it is a smaller portion. 

You hear a lot about segments when it comes to email. How would you suggest going about segmenting a list?

One of my favorite examples of this is asos.com, a clothing retailer in the UK. They sell to young people, with a huge product range. They've got this subscribe form at the bottom, with two buttons: man or woman. 

If your list is a million people, a thousand people, or a hundred people -- what's the most important thing you can segment on? For Asos, it's gender. If I'm a 25 year old man, I'm not going to be interested in pink dresses for the summer. They've increased conversion rates on all their emails, just by knowing if you're a man or a woman. 

At Vero, we've worked out a key thing when people sign up for our blog or our free trial. If we can figure out how big the company is, it makes a huge difference for how we talk to them. If you've got more than 10,000 subscribers, your wants and needs are going to be very, very different than someone with less. If you've got less, you're going to be interested in pre-formatted ideas for campaigns you can run. 

If you're a huge company, you've got an email marketing team. You know what you're doing. You want a platform that enables you to test your own ideas. The sort of content and tips we should send these two people are very different. That question for us is probably the most important segmentation question. 

Any tips on writing a great subject line? 

Someone told me people respond most effectively to fear, curiosity, and greed. It sounds Machiavellian or something, but the subject lines that have the highest numbers for me are ones that have curiosity -- a question or something intriguing. You want to open to find the answer. 

Having said that, you do need to think about the types of emails you're sending. The goal of an email is to get somebody to take an action. If I say, "What would happen if the sky was purple?" I might want to click that -- it's the weirdest thing I've seen today. But if I get to the email and it says "buy this email marketing software," there's no way I'll actually take a next step. 

Curiosity works best for me -- but make sure it's within the context of what's actually in the email. Otherwise you'll get lots of opens, but no one will do what you want them to do.

Is there a limit on how often to email people? 

What we've generally found -- through lots of experimenting -- is that around 3 times a week is where you start to see fatigue. People just get frustrated, unless you've got something really compelling. 

There are exceptions of course, like if you tell people you're going to send a daily email, like a daily deal site. People who like those sites get value from those emails, so it works. 

Generally, 2-3 emails a week is a good number, once you send more than that, you start to see unsubscribe rates go up.

What examples of email marketing would you suggest for inspiration? 

Airlines: Virgin, and Southwest airlines in the states have pretty slick operations. Companies in traditional industries trying to do something new generally do a good job. 

In the software space, I've always liked Kissmetrics' email marketing. It's fairly aggressive -- they send a lot, but you still enjoy all of it. 

Product Hunt does a great job. Ryan Hoover, the founder, has written a lot about email for startups. For them, email has been a huge part of getting customers to engage with their platform. 

Thanks again to Chris for chatting with us! We'll go ahead and add Vero to the list of email marketing examples to check out. They do a great job of asking users for feedback and engaging with interesting content. 

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