Okay, so the first thing to say is I know that my headline sounds like a boast - when in fact there are amazing small companies out there generating those sort of sales in a single campaign!
But these days, headline writing for an article is as much about SEO as anything else so please forgive the tone. The point is I’m pretty passionate about the potential of e-mail marketing (in our case we use MailChimp) to make a big difference in the bottom line of a small business and in this article, I’m going to flesh out my experience with e-mail marketing and share with you some of the strategies that have worked for me.
Let’s get the introductions out of the way first. My name is Patrick Ryan and I’m the founder of The Canvas Works - a tiny little business based in the picturesque coastal town of Kinsale, at the beginning of the Wild Atlantic Way in County Cork, Ireland.
I’ve been in business for 13 years, love what I do (most of the time) and count myself very lucky to be running my own small little piece of the internet.
Running a Photo Printing Business Online
After 13 years, I can safely tell you that running a photo printing business online is not an easy thing to do. In Europe, I’m competing with the likes of Photobox, Snapfish and a ton of small guys like me. We concentrate on the higher value end of the market - wall decor like canvas prints, framed prints, wood mounts and mounted poster prints. We don’t do photo books, mugs or any of the other smaller ticket items where you need serious volume.
In the US, where I’ve just launched a dedicated site - www.thecanvas.works I’ve got a very daunting task. The market is dominated by Easy Canvas Prints, Shutterfly, Snapfish, Canvas Creations and a ton of others. My main task at the moment is just trying to build some page rank. Not easy - I have zero traction in this market at the moment.
In the UK, I launched www.thecanvasworks.co.uk last year and likewise, it’s an uphill struggle to build rank and traffic. I think I’ll find it slightly easier going in the UK than the US but I’m still under no illusions.
Whilst I’m trying to build my e-mail list on both these sites, my main e-mail marketing work still revolves around the Irish site but I’ll touch on the international sites again later on.
What Other Marketing Strategies Have I Tried
Okay, so before I dive into my MailChimp work, let’s discuss briefly what else I do to drive traffic and sales so you can see where e-mail marketing fits into my overall marketing mix.
Here are things I do or have done:
- PPC - This works but is pretty expensive and is complicated/time consuming
- Facebook - This has not worked yet and is getting expensive
- Twitter - This doesn’t work
- SEO - This works but is nebulous and takes forever
- PPC Display - This drives traffic but tends not to convert
- Offline Marketing - Way too expensive and often doesn’t work
So basically, I’ve tried quite a few things - probably not as much as I should but I’ve a pretty tiny budget. I spend about $800 a month on marketing of one type or another - mostly between Google, Facebook and MailChimp.
Between Organic and Search, Google is awesome and I wouldn’t have a business without it. But for simple ROI, MailChimp offers the best return of the lot - hands down. That’s just been my experience - maybe I’m doing the other parts of the mix badly but I do tend to hear similar anecdotal evidence that suggests other small businesses struggle to get a good return on social media advertising as well.
The First Thing I Did When I Started Using MailChimp
When I decided to put a bit of effort into my Mail Chimp marketing, I decided the first thing I would do would be to pay an expert to build an attractive, professional looking template. At the time, Mail Chimp were offering financial support in the way of credit on your monthly bill if you hired one of their recommended partners. In this way, the initial cost of the template creation was paid for in half by Mail Chimp credit.
I looked around and settle on a company called Lucky Red Pixel in Florida, run by a super nice guy called Evan Diaz. Evan did a fantastic job, turning around a slick looking template that was modular and so allowed me to add “blocks” of content and build out a professional looking e-mail that delivered targetted messages about key products and features I wanted to talk about.
Crucially, Evan also designed me an attractive and effective looking “Welcome” e-mail - the first contact a potential customer would get from us after they signed up to the list. I’ve been using my Lucky Red Pixel template for a number of years now and I will go back to Evan soon to do some more template work on the new sites and for a refresh.
I’d advise anyone who is thinking seriously about investing in Mail Chimp to do the same - it’s worth the investment to have a professional agency create you a look that is unique and tailored to your specific needs.
Let’s take a look at the two templates Lucky Red Pixel designed for me in a little more detail.
Welcome E-Mail - Driving Sign Ups
So I decided I need an initial offer or incentive to drive e-mail sign ups. Nothing new there - pretty much everyone is doing this. I settled on a 10% discount on your first order. The important point is don’t give this away on the site without an e-mail sign up. Make sure the customer has to join your list to get the Welcome e-mail and discount code.
The other important decision I made, was to use a personal tone of voice in the copy of my Welcome E-mail (and all my e-mails). To this day, I firmly believe that “People buy People” and that I had to adopt a personal tone, using well written copy in all my e-mails.
I’m not Amazon and never will be. While I want The Canvas Works to have a strong brand and a coherent look and feel that is consistent over time, I don’t want my customers to think they are dealing with a faceless corporate because they aren’t. We’re a five man team at best and rather than pretend otherwise, I want to make sure my customers realise that’s a strength not a weakness.
So the Welcome e-mail is a personal e-mal written from me. You would be amazed at the amount of times customers actually reply to the mail to me personally as if I sent this the moment they signed up.
The other point I want to make about my Welcome e-mail is that it’s not a hard sell. There are no offers in it. It is literally a quick hello and a code for the discount.
The Campaign E-Mail Design
Here’s the top half of my campaign template. The first thing I pay attention to the tiny line of text in the header - the preview text.
Think about it. When an E-mail lands in your in-box, what do you see? A subject heading and some preview text. I knew I had to make some effort to come up with an effective subect heading and preview text in order for anyone to open it.
MailChimp is great for getting you to focus on these steps first. They give you adivce on what makes a good subject heading and show you what your e-mail will look like when it hits an in-box.
I decided to always follow a couple of rules. First the e-mail would look like it came from me - a real person. So what you see is an e-mail from “Patrick at The Canvas Works”. I’m personally sending the mail. Secondly, I’d always use a subject heading that featured the word Exclusive. Why? Well, my e-mail offers are 100% exclusive to my list. I don’t offer them anywhere else - I don’t share details of the offer on the site, nor do I post them on social media. The only place to get the offers in my e-mail are by staying subscribed to the e-mail list. So I want that to jump out to a reader in their in-box. It usually reads something like:
“Exclusive: You get 15% Off Until Sunday”
For me, this gets right to the point and in a crowded in-box that’s so important. I’m hitting my potential customers with two vital pieces of information - there’s a discounted offer that is exclusively for them and it’s available for a tight timeframe - in this case until Sunday.
The e-mail body itself begins with one main visual that communicates my offer and a brief bit of body copy to flesh out the details.
I tend to avoid “News” type content. I really am not convinced my list need to know the details of what’s going on in my life or business. We’re bombarded with tons of pointless information every day. I don’t need to add to it!
My purpose in this e-mail is to communicate a discounted offer, drop some links to different products and get the hell out of there!
At the footer, I use another main hero graphic to drive downloads of the iphone app and to make plain that the offer is available to app customers as well. All the usual links and unsubscribe buttons are down there too.
Why I don’t Pay Much Attention to Open Rates, Conversion Rates Etc
My list average open rate is 14.9% against an e-commerce industry average of 12.3%. However, my list average is declining year on year. So that’s a trend I will need to dig into and work on over the next 12 months.
My click rate is lower than the industry average but I think that may not be an accurate reflection of the effectiveness of my campaigns as many of my customers simply take note of the discount code and visit the site without necessarily clicking from the e-mail campaign.
So why am I not pouring over stats? Well, simply I don’t have enough time. I should spend more time looking at metrics but welcome to the world of a small business owner. I should be doing lots of things that I’m not doing well enough.
My One Key Metric - Sales Revenue and Discount Code Uses.
The metric I do spend a bit of time looking at is sales revenue per discount code and amount of uses of a discount code. And I can relate this information back to my e-mail marketing because that is the only source, ever, for a customer to acquire the discount code. As I never give the codes out anywhere else except an e-mail to list, by definition every time a code is used, it must come from an e-mail campaign.
How I Plan My E-Mail Campaigns
So, how do I plan my campaigns? Typically at the start of year I will plan out every single promotional offer for the full year. It looks like this:
In Google Sheets, I will literally look at the calendar and pick out the send dates and end dates of my entire year long plan. I always send my mails on the same day of the week. My promotions go out on a Thursday morning and run until Sunday at midnight. Over time, my customer base become familiar with the pattern which I think assists in uptake.
My promotions will vary from between 15% off and 20% off. I have looked at other types of offers like BOGOF but that involves too much extra labor for me. Likewise, I’ve looked at discounts over and above a certain spend but again, they have been less effective. I think customers like a straight discount on a basket and my experience has been that they will repeat purchase consistently with this sort of offer mechanic. I allow as many uses per customer as they want - the more the better as far as I’m concerned.
Last year, I upped my campaign frequency from one a month to two a month in order to test the effect on unsubscribe rates versus revenue. I’ve been overall happy with the result but it’s early days and I think the success of this strategy will depend on driving list growth.
In Shopify, I then create all the codes in one go and schedule them to begin and end on the dates I’ve selected. I separate out Christmas from the rest of the year as the festive period needs a more intense and concentrated period of work.
In Photoshop, I’ll then create all the graphics in a few days that I’m going to need for the full year. As I have the codes and the dates already decided, it’s pretty straight-forward to do them all in one go.
Usually by the end of February or early March, my entire year of campaigns have been designed in photoshop, scheduled in Shopify and booked into MailChimp.
I can then pretty much forget about it and get on with something else, which for a time-poor small business owner like me is ideal.
Dealing With Unsubscribes & Growing My List
This year, one of my major goals is to dig into my list growth and devise new strategies for adding new subscribers. I’ve got the usual pop ups on the site for adding subscribers. I currently use Privy for this and like their features - even if there’s a lot of overlap between them and Mail Chimp.
A typical e-mail can generate 50-60 unsubscribes so I need to ensure I’m adding more than 150 a month to my list to be sure I’m getting overall growth.
This year, I’m investigating whether social media might be an avenue for driving list growth rather than sales. I’ll also look at a specific PPC campaign for list growth also. Both will need dedicated landing pages and some form of exclusive offer in order to capture e-mail addresses.
When I Send
My send routine is also mapped out in advance. I use Mail Chimp’s timewarp feature to send my campaigns and I will typically send out between 7 and 8am on a Thursday morning as my campaigns run from Thursday to Sunday.
I also make it clear to my list that promotions are never, ever extended beyond the promotional window and I’m strict about that. I want my list to understand that they have a three day window to use the discount code and that’s it - use it or lose it in that period! Otherwise, it’s very easy to end up constantly discounting and if customers think they can get the discount outside of promotional windows, the e-mails will be less effective.
Looking at last year, my least effective campaign generated just €498 and 8 discount code redemptions. My most effective campaign generated €4220 and 43 code redemptions. Added up over the year, I generated over €46,500 in sales from my campaigns from 567 discount code redemptions.
For the year, Mail Chimp cost me €1500 so that’s about a 2900% ROI which by any measure is not bad!
How I Need To Improve My Campaigns
So am I satisfied or confident about what I’m doing with Mail Chimp and Shopify? Not really - I think there’s huge room for improvement. The headline figures are good and what I am totally convinced about is the effectiveness of e-mail for driving repeat sales.
But I’m worried about declining open rates for my campaigns and feel like I will need to re-formulate my approach this year. It may just be time for refresh of the template and an injection of new visuals. Some A/B testing would be a good way to test new campaign designs and copy writing content.
A major area for me to focus on is driving traffic to the US site and UK site and in turn, capturing sign ups for those sites. I’ll need to look at segmentation strategies on my current list as a good portion of my existing list could be purchasing from the US and UK site which may in turn lead to increased referrals and traffic.
Another area I will need to look at is increased automation. I’ve been using automation for more transactional emails and those campaigns have had very high open rates. But I have thus far shied away from selling in those mails.
There’s also the issue of over saturation. I think there only so many e-mails anyone wants to get and I’m always conscious of that line.
Overall, it may be the case that I need to hand over my campaign building and implementation to an agency who can work with me to bring the campaigns to the next level of growth and effectiveness. One thing I’ve learned is that small businesses can rarely do everything by themselves if they want to do it really well.
Summary? MailChimp and Shopify All The Way!
So if I was to advise anyone just starting out on their e-mail and e-commerce strategy, I’d summarise it like this:
- Go with MailChimp - it’s an awesome platform, full of features and resources that will help you to achieve your goals.
- MailChimp integrates brilliantly with an e-commerce platform like Shopify.
- Get some professional help at the start with template and welcome e-mails.
- Plan your campaigns methodically and in advance
- Focus on list growth as well as monthly campaigns
- Do a better job than me in measuring and tweaking!
Please Share This Article
If you’ve read this and found any of it useful, I’d really appreciate you sharing it on your own network and please reach out if you’d like to ask a question or discuss anything further with me.
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