After speaking at the SMPS Pacific Regional Conference in Portland, Irina approaches me saying, “I read your article on AEC rebranding in the PSMJ Newsletter.” Upon handing me her business card, she confesses, “I know, we need your help.” Irina’s card reads Marketing Manager at Murray, Smith & Associates, Inc. (aka MSA) an 8-office, 120-person civil engineering firm located in Oregon, Washington, and Idaho.
While Irina’s Marketing Department understands the value and need for branding, many of the firm owners are reluctant to invest in a rebrand when “business is good, why should we change?” Plus, an attempt at DIY rebranding, and hiring a consultant unfamiliar with A/E/C marketing, had both failed.
To help the owners make an informed decision on whether or not to rebrand, I propose they commit only to a Discovery Phase. This phase includes a review of their strategic plan, a brand audit rating 75 brand touchpoints, personal interviews with recent hires, and a competitive audit. The main deliverable is a Findings & Recommendations Report. Here is my discovery:
The use of two brand names, MSA and Murray, Smith & Associates, Inc. confuses those unfamiliar with the firm. The acronym MSA is generic, lost among AEC firm alphabet soup names. With no Murray, Smith, or Associates at the firm, this name doesn’t reflect where the firm is headed. In short, two names and both are weak.
Internal and external feedback reveal a brand identity that has gone stale. Compounding the problem are the inconsistent versions of the logo (see above). The horizontal lines behind MSA in the logo are problematic at small sizes and when reversed out (white on dark backgrounds).
The only thing that everyone at MSA agrees upon is that the website is terribly outdated (see above). The competitive audit (see below) reveals how much the site lacks in terms of modern website attributes.
A recent hire shares, “If I were choosing a firm solely based on their website, I would never work here.”
I fly to Portland to share the Findings & Recommendations and Why Branding Matters in a presentation to the owners. The room is filled with mostly smiles and heads nodding in agreement, but there are a few owners with folded arms still reluctant to move forward. The proposal to rebrand is ultimately approved, but for a novel reason. MSA’s rationale for rebranding is not to attract new clients, but specifically to attract and retain talent. I share that the two are not mutually exclusive and that the work we do to attract and retain talent will also benefit marketing and business development.
A strong brand is rooted in solid brand strategy. This means having well-articulated Purpose, Vision, Core Values and Positioning statements.
The following already exists from MSA’s work in the book Traction, by Gino Wickman:
Purpose – Creating Infrastructure Solutions to Help Communities Prosper
Vision – grow 10% per year to 250 by 2025
To develop Core Values and Positioning, I lead a half-day workshop with the newly formed branding committee. Participants arrive at the workshop with previously assigned homework complete. I explain that a positioning statement should define what you do, who for, how you are unique and how this benefits your target audience. We develop a long list of unique attributes and engage in group prioritization exercises to narrow to the top three shown here:
Just the Right Size
We are large enough to employ diverse talent to solve your biggest challenges, yet small enough to genuinely care.
We Keep Great Company
Our people are like super glue. They tend to stick around awhile. And that’s some strong stuff, which means you get a strong team. We take care of our people so they can take care of you.
We are personally invested in your success ““ for the long term. Not just for your next project. As your projects and challenges evolve, we’ll still be by your side. As an extension of your staff, we’ll work together to help our community prosper.
From these three uniques, we develop the following positioning statement as seen on the home page of our new website.
Our workshop yields seven Core Values that we later expand upon and manifest as a faux craft beer coaster for each of the seven Core Values. Why craft beer coasters? We draw from Just the Right Size, Our Work Goes on the Fridge (Obsession with Quality) and focus on the Northwest. Each of the seven Core Values is letterpress printed (a craft printing technique) with the value on the front, and more detail about what the value’s meaning on the back. To give each value the gravitas it deserves, and to create a sense of anticipation, we recommend the distribution of one new Core Value coaster to each employee for seven consecutive weeks.
We Make it Happen (Service)
We Invest in Us (Improvement)
Our Work Goes On The “˜Fridge (Quality)
Multiple Minds > 1 (Collaboration)
Work That Works For You (Flexibility)
We Engineer Fun (Fun)
We Give a $#!T (Passion)
Before developing a new firm name and logo, we establish brand personality attributes. These constraints, along with the brand strategy, help us edit from many options to a few finalists. All future marketing communication should embrace at least one, if not several of the following brand personality attributes. If MSA were a person, she would be described as:
We present over 75 possible new firm name options and refine to seven semi-finalists. After a loose trademark and URL availability search, we whittle down to four finalists. Ultimately, with new brand positioning, core values, logo, and website, the owners are not comfortable with an entirely new name at this time. So we propose retiring MSA and Murray, Smith & Associates, Inc. in favor of Murraysmith (one word, one company, capital “˜M,’ lowercase ‘s’). With the attention to quality and right size, Murraysmith can be considered craft engineers. The -smith suffix suggests being thoughtful makers. Much like the honored tradition of a Blacksmith, Goldsmith, or Alesmith, they are now Murraysmith. While Murraysmith will typically be used as a noun (the name of the firm), it can also be used as a verb. As in, “Murraysmith that curb detail because our works goes on the “˜fridge.”
We begin sketching rough logo ideas, which get drawn digitally in Adobe Illustrator, then refined, and presented as 7 explorations in grayscale. Based on feedback, we refine three finalists in color and show what the logo might look like on a business card.
Rough Logo Ideas
Logo Finalist #1 (below) in Color and Application
Logo Finalist #2 (below) in Color and Application
Logo Finalist #3 (below) in Color and Application
The final logo design evolves from prioritized aspects of the Core Values, Positioning Statement, and Brand Personality attributes. For example, We Make It Happen, is represented by the forward moving arrow shape and right-leaning wordmark. With a focus on the Northwest, the green “pin” within the arrow points to the northwest corner of the United States. Being relatable and sincere, we choose lowercase, sans-serif typography for the custom wordmark that reads “murraysmith.” To retain equity from the past, the logo uses legacy colors in use for the past five years. While elements of the logo have meaning, we purposely design an overall abstract symbol that, as Murraysmith continues to deliver on their promises, will gain meaning over time.
Stationery & Forms
Now the approved logo is ready to be applied to brand touchpoints. We start with the business card because of the challenge to design in such a small space. When the design works as a business card, it will be successful on other brand touchpoints including the entire stationery system.
All employees receive their business cards with three different backs to honor the Three Uniques. The cards are efficiently smaller than conventional business cards because Murrasymith isn’t a conventional firm. Upon receiving the new card, a prospect, might remark, “that’s an interesting size for a business card.” Murraysmith staff can then proudly reply, “actually, it’s just the right size” with a wink, while handing out the version of the card with “Just The Right Size” on the back. Employees can then explain how Murraysmith is Just the “Right Size,” or “We Keep Great Company,” or “We’re Invested” depending on the context of the previous conversation with the person receiving your new card. If unsure about which version to hand out, we recommend letting the recipient choose in playful “pick a card, any card” banter.
For simplicity, memorability, and consistency with the new brand name, the new URL is www.murraysmith.us. The previous URL www.msa-ep.com automatically redirects users to the new URL and website. Go ahead, try it!
Using graphic design, color, and typography the new site reflects the new Core Values, 3 Uniques, and Brand Personality. Fresh, custom photography by KLiK demonstrates that Murraysmith is a fun place to work. Featuring responsive design, the site responds to screen size to provide an optimum user experience on desktop monitors, tablets, and smart phones. The main navigation (top of every page) is simple, with only four buttons and a powerful search feature to find anything within the site. As the user scrolls down the page, the main navigation “sticks” to the top of the page to avoid having to scroll up and down. The footer (bottom) of every page contains a Site Map listing all pages within the site to help users find exactly what they are looking for, and discover something new. Here are a few key features of the site, by section:
Great Company – Contains a custom designed overview infographic, Culture, News and a page for each of our eight offices
What We Do – Features our four services, each represented by a new icon. Six “hero” projects for all four services are displayed prominently.
Our Team – Since We Keep Great Company, all 129 Murraysmith employees have their own page on the new site.
Join Us – True to our original reason for rebranding, to attract great talent, the “˜Join Us’ section contains useful information. Potential hires can learn about our application process, the work we do, our 3 uniques, diversity, why work here, benefits, our 8 locations, and of course, job openings.
Website photograpy by KLik
The tradeshow booth is designed as a simple and bold brand background to complement the human activity in the foreground. The booth is imaginative (less is more) and relatable. It utilizes bright, optimistic colors to attract. Instead of the bullet point lists and small project photos of our previous booth, we prefer to let our people in the booth tell our story.
Brand Style Guide
The Murraysmith Marketing Department appreciates the Brand Style Guide because it helps maintain consistency across the eight offices. It also transfers the brand elements and their guidelines, empowering the marketing department to take ownership of the brand for ongoing communication needs.
An often overlooked, but critical, component of launching a rebrand is first building support within the firm. Having an entire firm of brand ambassadors to evangelize the firm’s message is considerably more effective than the marketing department working alone.
2.5 Months Until Launch
Two and half months prior to the May 1 launch date, I fly to Portland to present at an all firm meeting. Employees travel from all eight offices to take part in a half-day Strategic Plan Update. The Marketing Department and I are onstage in an auditorium sharing the why and how of our rebranding project to date. We present the brand strategy and unveil the new logo and website preview to the entire firm. Change is scary and we know that not everyone will instantly love the new branding. But we ask everyone to trust the experts and prioritize the good of the firm over their personal opinion.
5 Days Until Launch
For the five days prior to May 1, a daily email is sent to employees preparing them for the rebrand launch. This 5…4…3…2…1…launch approach allows us to answer frequently asked questions and re-engage the entire firm as brand ambassadors. The emails are timed to coincide with the distribution of new business cards and other marketing collateral. Organized as FAQ, here are some sample questions we answer:
Why did we rebrand?
Why do brands matter, can’t we just do great work?
As of May 1, what will be new about our firm?
What can I do to support the rebrand launch?
Where do I get the new logo files?
What do I do with my old business cards and collateral with the old logo?
What do I have to do to use my new email address and signature?
How is the rebrand being communicated to our clients?
On May 1, do I do anything differently?
On May 1, past and present clients receive an email explaining the rebrand. The email contains an important call-to-action button to view the new website
Rebrand Launch Postcard
To reinforce the email message, we mail the postcard below to past and present clients.
The Murraysmith rebrand launched May 1.
9 months prior to rebrand: +12 employees (net)
9 months after rebrand: +30 employees (net)
9 months prior to rebrand: 88%
9 months after rebrand: 94%
“The new website is the most important recruiting tool we have. Every candidate we talk with at career fairs and interviews mentions how impressive our website is and how they are excited to join the culture that is reflected on the site. In January, 3 of 10 people hired sought us out because of our website. It makes my job easier.”
““Murraysmith Human Resources
Gross revenue: + 30% since rebrand (9 months)
Earnings: + 42.5% since rebrand (9 months)
+12 new clients since rebrand (9 months)
Launch Announcement: 50.1% Open Rate vs. 15.3% Industry Average
24.5% Click Rate vs. 1.9% Industry Average
14,000 website visits in first week vs. goal of 2500
LinkedIn company page followers: + 32% since rebrand (9 months)
“Marketing team, I have been a part of four rebranding efforts at other firms. All involved a rollout to offices and clients around the country. I can say that your work has resulted in the smoothest and best-communicated rollout I’ve seen. It really does reflect our core values, and positions Murraysmith as the company of choice.”
LecoursDesign/Murraysmith were honored for three national awards at the 2018 SMPS Marketing Communications Awards (MCAs): best rebrand, best website, best recruiting/retention promotion.
“The website and rebranding is fresh and unique.” Great research and planning, tied nicely to strategic plan! They clearly set out to rebrand their website as a recruitment/retention tool””did a good job at each stage. Outstanding results!”
Services For This Project
Strategy – Core Values, Positioning, 3 Uniques, Launch Consulting
Branding – Personality Attributes, Naming, Visual Identity (Logo), Style Guide
Web & Digital – Website, Email Marketing
Print – Tradeshow Booth, Postcard, Advertising, SOQ Package Template, Project Report Template, Stationery & Forms
Note: This is a transcript of an episode about Positioning Your Firm from PSM – Professional Services Marketing Show podcast. Hosts David Lecours and Josh Miles share best practices for A/E/C firm positioning.
Visit PSM.show for more episodes
What is Positioning?
- Why positioning your firm can be painful?
- Vertical vs. horizontal vs. both in positioning strategies
- How long should your positioning last?
- Template for your positioning statement
- Where do you use a positioning statement
- Why firms avoid positioning
Episode 108 on A/E/C Firm Positioning
Announcer: Welcome to PSM. The Professional Services Marketing Podcast. It’s insight applied.
David Lecours: Hello and welcome to PSM show. If it’s about professional services marketing, we’ll be covering it here. I’m David Lecours and this is Episode 108. Josh, Happy New Year. Did you have a nice holiday?
Josh Miles: sure did. We’re still cleaning up a little bit of the champagne over here.
David Lecours: Nice. We had guests and it’s always great to have family come but it’s probably even better to have them leave.
Josh Miles: How can we miss them if they won’t go away?
David Lecours: That’s right. Absolutely so cool. I’m excited about our topic today. Do you want to tell us what it is?
Josh Miles: Yes something near and dear to my heart. And today it’s all about positioning. So does that mean we’re your firm is located?
David Lecours: It could. However, it’s not a necessity. What positioning really refers to and I really think of positioning as kind of the foundation of all marketing. You know it’s what you do. It’s who you do it for. And then it’s how your differentiator benefits those target audiences. So it really requires some sometimes painful decision making because you have to decide what you’re going to be and that often means what you’re going to not be. And my experience. I love your take on this is don’t you find it that marketers really have trouble narrowing their positioning?
Josh Miles: I think it’s kind of a classic case of people saying well we don’t want to be pigeonholed for something or we don’t want to be stuck only known for this one particular thing. So I think people tend to especially creatively minded people tend to fight against the idea of having to do something that’s so tight and so narrow that they’re going to be just screwing caps on bottles for the rest of their lives.
David Lecours: I think you know one of the things I have in here is well what about AECOMM? You know they work in. You know I don’t know how many but let’s say 12 different vertical markets and they offer 12 different services and it’s probably more like twelve hundred of each. And I always say well when you get to be AECOMM you can do that too. But until then I think it helps. And you know when you have a firm that size with that many resources, then it makes sense. But yeah I’ve also found that those creative folks, and I put engineers and architects and even consultants and even sometimes accountants.
David Lecours: You know trouble you know making those hard decisions.
Josh Miles: when you think to your point on AECOMM part of a company like that that is just massive in size and scale. And in all the markets that they work in, that is their positioning.
David Lecours: Exactly. Yes.
Josh Miles: We are half of the world of professional services. So that’s why you come to us because we are a force to be reckoned with. So they don’t have to get super narrow because they can say we are the only AECOMM.
David Lecours: In fact, in their positioning statement there is a line about we take on the world’s largest problems and you know until your firm can take on the world’s largest problems it’s probably best to leave that positioning to them. So yeah you’re right that is in fact their positioning. But yeah I mean I had my experience is that clients to your clients here I’m talking to our audience here they really do want to hire experts and it’s really difficult to build meaningful expertise if you’re reinventing your service offerings every time you take on a new client while I get there’s a there’s an addiction and there’s probably an adrenaline rush to that we call that sort of jumping off the diving board and inventing water on the way down. It’s not a real sustainable way to work. You know you’re going to crash and hit the pavement if that water isn’t vented in time. So yeah I think positioning requires some tough decisions in order to get to a place where you can really demonstrate your expertise.
Josh Miles: I think the expertise is really what it comes down to is this idea of being the only your being the leader in space or being the the ones who can help a client through a particular challenge or problem or you know knowing that you’re bringing somebody on who’s who’s seen this before. Sort of akin to the surgeon like you don’t have somebody operate on your shoulder who is like, “well,I usually do feet. But yeah. What the heck I’ll try a shoulder.”
David Lecours: Right, I can do it. Yeah. I’ve got a scalpel. Well they’re certainly different parts of the anatomy. And, to that end, you know you can have different services and you can work in different markets but you need to sort of come up with a compelling way to wrap those two together. I like to say, “you can be a bartender and a wastewater engineer, but you better have different business cards.”
Josh Miles: Exactly. I don’t think I want the glass from the same guy.
David Lecours: No definitely not. So you know to further elaborate if it’s not clear. Yeah you can work in radically different spaces but you need to have different marketing plans and different positioning for each of those very different spaces. So we’re kind of talking a little bit about you know different types of positioning and sort of the classical you know ways to look at this is working in vertical markets versus horizontal or a combination. You want to sort of unpack that a little bit Josh? in sort of what those different terms mean. Case we’re in a clear.
Josh Miles: Yeah absolutely. So when I think of verticals I typically think of industries. So this could be things like education or health care or public works or you’ve got these different vertical markets that you go into and then horizontal for me and maybe you look at this differently would be sort of the areas of expertise for the practice areas or the studios in which your firm works so you know in a really huge practice you might have an interior design practice and you might also have MEP engineering and you might also have structural engineering and you know most firms don’t have a diversity of a spread but you have those different areas that you do work and have specialties and then those different areas that you are sort of the clients that you interact with.
David Lecours: Right. So yeah it’s just kind of simplify or summarize so verticals tend to be more markets and horizontals tend to be more services. Now where I think you know if firms if you’re sort of thinking about these different options where a firm can be really compelling is when they combine those two things together. So let’s say they are working specifically in healthcare and they are specialists in interior design. So when those two things come together now they’re really starting to differentiate themselves from all the other people that work in healthcare and all the other people that are interior designers.
Josh Miles: Yeah it’s a much tighter positioning when you can say we’re the only you know interior design firm who specializes in cancer rehab. You know you can have these very tight ways to go to market when you’ve got very specific target both in the service line and in the practice area and there are certainly advantages and disadvantages to both. You
David Lecours: know if you’re focusing in specific vertical markets it’s much easier to find the clients that you’ve chosen to seek. You know you can most likely there’s some sort of trade organization you can join that you can buy lists of people because they’ve already self-identified as working in healthcare or education. Horizontal it’s a little more difficult but it certainly can be done and there is probably a little more variety if you are just focusing in a horizontal service. But again it’s tough to get that level of expertise.
Josh Miles: You know one of the things that I like to walk clients through is this idea of perceptual mapping which is kind of a fun way to look vertical and horizontally from a visual standpoint. And one of the most basic ways you can break that down is you know do you do one thing or do you do a myriad of things. So
Josh Miles: I would put like on the x-axis left to right is kind of your breadth of services. So if you picture the left side is we do everything on the right side as we do one thing and then on the y-axis could be just price. So the bottom of the y-axis is we charge rock bottom basement prices and the top is we’re super premium so you can start to map out where you fall on that grid and where your competitor falls on that grid and then you start to see light. Are we all kind of crowded around the middle of fighting for the same thing or are we all fighting over the price because we’re commodity ties and we do everything and we’re on differentiated or are we super differentiated to the point where we charge those premium prices so that we can really get great demand for our expertise. And then you can do the same x y perceptual mapping thing for any of those vertical and horizontal positioning elements and kind of see how you match up and how your competition falls on that chart for each of those positioning areas.
David Lecours: Yes that’s a really great way to do it because it’s a visual tool that you really quickly can see where the opening is and I’m not sure in the beginning if we really clarified wide positioning matters but the whole goal is to carve out an open space to really own a particular space you know in this case within those little baps years getting a visual feedback of it. But yeah it’s the idea of differentiating your firm so you’re not just a commodity you’re not just one of many. You know having to always only compete on price. You want to be perceived as this expert and offering something truly unique and meaningful to your client.
Josh Miles: Yeah. Back in the day. Maybe not even all that long ago everyone said oh we’re just an attack on sustainability to our positioning. And everybody was saying the same thing and all of a sudden you find out you’re like you’re all in the same room. So you all strangely sound the same when you Tagamet on so you know those little things that become trends that really take off and then it’s a sort of unexpected element of you know being a good business.
David Lecours: So that brings up something that I’m thinking about as you know. How long should a firm’s positioning last?
Josh Miles: Wow that is a fantastic question. I guess my gut feeling would be it should only last as long as it makes sense and as long as it’s profitable.
David Lecours: Yeah you know so I sort of teed this up because eventually we want to have the Image Seven folks back on. If you’re new to our podcast Josh and I adopted this podcast from a firm in Australia that had sort of two positioning areas of focus. One was in educational marketing and one was in professional services marketing. They chose to narrow their positioning and they eliminated the professional services and thus they reached out to us to adopt the podcast. They are just now working in the educational marketing space so positioning isn’t forever. I think you should approach it perhaps and this is just my opinion. I think you should approach it as if it is forever so you take it seriously. But you re-evaluate say every three to five years every time you look at your strategic plan and say hey is the marketplace still responding? Are we still relevant? Are we sort of as positioned as we think we are when we first launched this positioning?
Josh Miles: Yeah absolutely I think to go into it with the at least the short term view that this is forever. Yes that sounds really contradictory. The short-term view that it’s forever but at least thinking about it as OK if we had to do one thing forever would it be and start doing that now. And I think very much to Image Seven’s credit as you said at the top of the show. They had those two positioning. But when you went to the Web site it was really clear you need to either go in one door or the other being some sort of virtual version of two business cards and they made two podcasts.
Josh Miles: So they had the absolute version of this show that’s just education focused as well which is really cool.
David Lecours: And I think I won’t speak for them but I’m just going to guess is that that takes a lot of work. Right. So now you’re marketing almost two separate brands. Two separate podcasts two separate e-mail lists two separate ways you do proposals. And well I can’t wait to hear from them but my guess is that that just became unwieldy and they realized that while they could actually be deeper experts if they weren’t splitting their time between these two areas and they could narrow their focus and go deeper so.
Josh Miles: Well that’s a little teaser we’re going to hear from them when we interview them something maybe David you could talk about is let’s see I get this super niche. Sorry, that’s my Midwest coming out. You can say “niche” if you just have pinkies out as far as I’m concerned. But you’re super niche positioning. And then there’s really general opportunity walks in the door that looks interesting. What do you what do you do with that? If it doesn’t really fall within your stated positioning?
David Lecours: I believe that positioning is about the work that you seek, not necessarily what you accept. So positioning is what you’re doing in terms of proactive marketing: the things that you’re going out into the world and seeking. But if a great opportunity presents itself then and gosh darn it if you’ve got a hole in your pipeline for incoming work, of course, you take that work or it may just be an incredible new opportunity that somebody believes you can do effectively because you’re so well positioned in this other space it might be some complementary type of work say you’re amazing at health care specifically in the sciences and then a lab comes to you and says Hey can you design our lab then yeah, of course, you take that on and that’s one of the biggest misconceptions about positioning is that if you’re going to somehow put these blinders on and never be able to accept work outside the domains that you are establishing.
Josh Miles: And I think the reality is so long is that you know that oddball project that is attractive and profitable is something that your current staff can execute on. So it’s assuming you’re not you know to use your wastewater engineer earlier that if you have a room full of those guys and this is a road or bridge project that shows up obviously that’s that’s maybe not the best fit but to have something that is a little bit outside of your positioning you can still handle absolutely take that on but then don’t put it on your home page and tweet about it and put it all over Facebook and you know tell everybody how excited you are to win this project. That is not at all what you’ve spent so long doing the market. You’re all about it.
David Lecours: And let’s say you do work in a couple different verticals or you have a couple different services. You know while we like to think that we love all our children equally. The reality is that some of those verticals that you work in and some of those services are going to be inherent if not significantly more not profit necessarily but they bring in more revenue. And I think you need to be really sort of clear about knowing where your money’s coming from and if in fact one of those areas is where you’re getting most of your dollars. That’s the positioning that you lead with doesn’t again not necessarily. You’re not going to sort of cut out those others services or markets. It’s just you’re going to lead. And then what I hope is that by leading in that market you’ll be so well known that those other services and markets will sort of draft and benefit from the strong leadership and strong you know point of view and position that you’re taking.
Josh Miles: know speaking of strong points of view I found in school one of the greatest ways to develop a strong statement was to use the scientific method called Mad Libs. So yeah.
Josh Miles: DAVID I know that you have this really cool sort of Mad Lib-esque way of putting together positioning statement. Maybe you could introduce our listeners to that right.
David Lecours: So if there was a deliverable in your positioning it would be the positioning statement and this is the statement that goes at the top of your website. It’s the first things that somebody reads and this is sort of the the Madlib fill-in-the blank format that we use with our client so I’ll just read this out and then in your mind listeners sort of start to fill in the blanks. OK. So we are a _________. And that’s where you fill in type of firm helping ________ (fill in target audience) to ____________ (solve a business problem.) So what that would look like and I’ll just use LecoursDesign positioning because I know the best. I would say we are branding consultants helping a A/E/C firms attract great clients and talent. I’ve identified the type of firm that we are: branding. You know you could say architect you could say engineer you could say accountant helping. And I’ve identified the target audience: in this case AEC firms which is architecture engineering construction firms and then too. And here’s where you insert solve a business problem which is: helping those firms attract great clients and talent. So that’s like the very simplest form of a one-sentence positioning statement if you want to add on to that which most clients do because they feel like that doesn’t really capture all of them. You can add a second sentence that is: Our __________ and that’s where you fill in unique value proposition does __________. And that’s where you fill in the benefit to your target audience. And this is where most firms get it wrong frankly is that they don’t convert the feature to the benefit right. They say why they are unique but they don’t clarify why that is unique to their target audience. Does that make sense?
Josh Miles: Yeah I think that’s totally right. I think when I don’t think this is even unique to AEC or professional services but I think marketers in general often want to lead with features and they kind of fail to circle back with the benefits for the benefit or that as Simon Sinek would say the Why is really a thing that you want to lead with what’s what’s the unique way that you are helping us solve this that only your firm brings to bear.
David Lecours: And it comes down to you know what I call the curse of knowledge right. You know all those benefits so well you feel like you don’t need to communicate them. But keep in mind that a potential client is just learning about you for the first time and they don’t they don’t know all those things so you have to sort of oversimplifying what it seems like in your mind oversimplify and over communicate to him. And it’s just communication and just oh OK I get it.
Josh Miles: Yeah exactly. And I think the more you know the more you fail to ask the right questions and be curious so you just sort of assume that you know the answer is our sales coach calls the dummy curve like the better you get at doing stuff the worse you get at selling things because you just assume that you know what they’re going to say and you know as our coach says when granny’s basement flooded totally ruined her dresser because the whole basement was full of water. And so your response would be what?
David Lecours: Why? Why did it flood?
Josh Miles: That’s one of the correct questions. So you didn’t he didn’t jump to a value judgment says oh that sucks or I’m so sorry or ma’am that’s too bad that you lost a piece of furniture. You know you jumped to a questions so you don’t know if I like the furniture or if I was happy was in my basement if I was frustrated with it. But questioning is the right path to go there.
David Lecours: Yeah not just making these assumptions. Sorry, Josh, I guess I’m just too well trained.
Josh Miles: I think you’re a plant.
David Lecours: So there are a couple tests when you’re writing out your positioning statement. There are a couple of things that you can do to sort of test whether it’s working. Josh you want to talk about those?
Josh Miles: Sure. So maybe this goes without saying but you can’t go to market with something that just simply isn’t true. So if you if you read this positioning statement and you’re like. Eh, that’s that’s not quite right. And then obviously maybe work a little bit harder on that.
David Lecours: Yeah so that’s it it’s a tough one because as marketers sometimes we’re prone to hyperbole and a little bit of exaggeration but it gets to actually the third one is that it’s got to be provable it’s got to be something that you can demonstrate. I call it during the “client dating process.” It’s that time when the clients getting to know you. You’re getting to know the client and if you’re making a pretty bold claim and I firmly believe you should. If you can’t back it up with some sort of evidence or demonstration of how you pulled that off for clients in the past, it just doesn’t fall into that “true” category. Now maybe you’re not 100 percent there maybe you’re 90 percent there but if you stake this bold claim it’s going to force you to learn some new knowledge or add some staff that has capabilities maybe that you don’t quite have.
David Lecours: Yes. I don’t have a problem with firms claiming that. But what I do struggle with is if they’re at like 20 percent there and they’re claiming 100 percent that just does not because people are smart you know they can sniff out B.S. pretty quickly. So yeah.
Josh Miles: So it’s ok I guess maybe to phrase it differently. You would think it’s OK to be a little bit aspirational and how you’re positioning yourself even if it’s maybe a newly found position? You’ve been doing this work for 100 years but for the last year, this has been your focus. And so now it feels most right.
David Lecours: Yeah I love that. Aspirational is the perfect way to say that.
Josh Miles: Yeah. So it’s got to be true. It’s got to be provable and it needs to be unique something that is absolutely you and not something that anyone else can claim or they would have to have the same skill sets and experiences to be able to claim that.
David Lecours: And to that point, it’s got to be meaningful to your clients. So there’s a great book out there by a consultant named Cal Harrison and he wrote a book called The Consultant with Pink Hair. So having pink hair is not probably meaningful to your target audience. Yes, it might differentiate you from your competitors but so what? You know you keep asking yourself that question you know is this unique-ness meaningful and compelling to our target audience.
Josh Miles: That’s such a great point. So what if you’re the insurance consultant that sells insurance to everyone and drives the yellow Humvee right. Right. The vehicle’s interesting and maybe obnoxious but it doesn’t actually make you better. Insurance agents it just would be easy to spy you on the freeway.
David Lecours: It’s just different for difference sake. So what are some places to place a positioning? You’ve spent time crafting this. You want to put it out there in the world. What are some vehicles or places or when might you use the positioning statement?
Josh Miles: I think there’s definitely as we noted earlier kind of lead in the sales process and I would offer even early in the sales process those are probably two of the strongest reasons that the shining stands out both. You know if you’re in proposal land and putting together paperwork or if you’re in that short list interview and they’re asking you okay why should we hire you. That positioning statement should go a long way to really set you apart from the rest of the crowd.
David Lecours: Yeah definitely. And I guess I was thinking sort of also sort of practical things like I mentioned earlier. You know it should be at the top of the website. Some firms put the positioning statement you know on the back of their business card. You know it can be of like the foundation of your and I hate this term elevator pitch because nobody talks in an elevator but you know what I’m talking about here it’s that answer to the question Hey tell me what you do. Ideally, you’re positioning statement is written in real language and that’s not something we touched on but it’s a mistake that I see firms make as they do they create these positioning statements that sound, when written, so lofty and beautifully crafted. But if you were to say it in a conversation you would just feel like a… you just feel slimy and like a…..jerk
David Lecours: Nobody really uses that kind of language. So I think it’s important to use real life language in your positioning statement so that if someone asks, “hey what do you do?” You know you can reel comfortably say hey we’re branding consultants and we help if firms attract great clients and talent. And if it doesn’t tell the whole story that’s great. Hopefully, there’s going to be a follow-on question somebody is going to go really well. How do you do that? Or tell me more whatever. So you don’t have to like spell out the whole thing and that’s why it’s just a statement it’s not a paragraph and it’s not an entire white paper. Yeah
Josh Miles: I love having the almost sort of the positioning tease that invites someone to ask the question how do you do that. So I remember this one guy from networking circles years ago who when he would introduce himself people would say what are you doing? He would say I help people find the money hiding inside their business. And who doesn’t want to would, of course, say how do you do that. And then he gets a chance to unpack what he does and reviews contracts with you and helps you figure out other ways to save money here and there. And I think part of his pitch was he gets paid a percentage of whatever he helps you save so you know even his fee is sort of invisible because it was you were already spending it anyhow so he’ll spend most of that and his fee is actually inherently tied up in his positioning which is really like his business model gets summarized by his positioning.
David Lecours: So that’s very interesting. But yeah whether you’re saying it verbally or whether you’re writing it in word form whatever the medium I think the goal is to engage somebody in a conversation. Right. So we’re not professional services typically don’t work in e-commerce. It’s not like somebody fills out a shopping cart and buys your services right off your site. So it requires having some conversations and developing a level of trust between the both of you. Ideally, the positioning statement begins that conversation.
Josh Miles: People who bought MEP consulting also blog commissioning it has only three remain at this price and should make that website just for this report.
David Lecours: Absolutely. Alright, since we’re starting to devolve maybe it’s time to kind of wrap things up. I don’t know what do you think is there anything else that you wanted to talk about jobs in terms of positioning. No
Josh Miles: I think that’s good. I think you know if any listeners have thoughts on their positioning or would like to float some bias you can head over to PSM.show and share some of your thoughts with us and let us know how your process of creating a strong positioning is going for you and your firm.
David Lecours: Yes absolutely we’ll also have some other resources in the show notes again at PSM.show. So to wrap up great talk. Josh
David Lecours: this is PSM show professional services marketing and Episode 1 0 8 and we are glad to be here in the New Year and excited to kick off we’ve got some really exciting interviews coming up that we’ve lined up. So make sure you go to subscribe to iTunes and keep yourself on a regular drip of the PSM show.
Josh Miles: Very nice. DAVID, great chatting with you. We’ll see you next time. All right sounds good. Bye.
David Lecours: Bye.
Note: This is a transcript of an episode about Email Marketing from PSM – Professional Services Marketing Show podcast. Hosts David Lecours and Josh Miles share email marketing best practices. Click here to listen to the episode.
Episode 104 on Email Marketing
Josh: Hello and welcome to PSM show. If it’s about professional services marketing, we’ll be covering it here. I’m Josh Miles and this is episode 104 on Email Marketing for Friday, November 17, 2017. You know, tomorrow is my birthday and welcome to the show David.
David: Hey, happy birthday.
Josh: Thank you.
David: In that honor, I’m cracking open a beer. Oh, can you hear that?
Josh: That sounds like birthday goodness. I’m actually enjoying a little bit of Bourbon here myself, celebrating a little early.
David: Nice. This is a Stone Ripper, a San Diego Pale Ale.
Josh: Sampling the Woodford Reserve here today. Also quite tasty. Today’s episode is actually not about beverages but it is about one of my favorite topics, which is email marketing.
David: Yeah. Josh, you know, I’ve heard you say that this is the most under-appreciated marketing channel and that begs the question, why?
Josh: I think there’s a lot of reasons, not the least of which, depending on the tool that you use, email marketing can actually be the least expensive, especially if your firm is doing email in-house and pulling together email newsletters. There’s certainly the time that goes into it. One of the reasons we like it is because it can be so targeted. You’re obviously building your list and sending it exactly to the people that you want to receive it. It’s more likely to be seen and you can actually know who has looked at it.
You can get a little bit big brother with it of course, and get into the details and know exactly who clicked on it and who forwarded it and who clicked on what. In effect, your audience if giving you that permission. They’re signing up for your list, presumably you’re not spamming them. Hopefully nobody’s doing that. If you are, we’ll get into that a little bit later. That combination of low cost and targeted and the ability to know who’s looking at it and sending it to only people who want it, it’s kind of one of the closest things we have to silver bullet in marketing today.
David: Yeah. I think that’s so true. The idea that it is so targeted is so key. Many marketing channels, whether it’s traditional advertising or direct mail, you just don’t know if somebody has seen it because if it’s just an ad, you’re hoping that they pick up the publication that you’ve placed that ad-buy in. Whereas, with email marketing, you can’t guarantee that somebody’s going to open and click on your email but there’s a pretty good chance that they’re going to at least see it. You’re going to have a better opportunity for somebody seeing your message than so many other media.
That intimacy of knowing exactly who you’re targeting and sending something to them is pretty unrivaled.
Josh: There’s also the, as you mentioned, the visibility piece. Even if people aren’t opening the email, even if they’re triaging it and seeing it in the inbox and they aren’t opening everyone, they’re just deleting it as it comes in, they’re still getting that brand expose. I think about some of the retail brands that I interact with. I don’t want to buy something from J Crew or Bed, Bath and Beyond or whoever else I’m getting these occasional emails from but I see them in my inbox all the time so that brand exposure is there pretty frequently.
David: Yeah. I think we know that, in our business, the professional service marketers, the sales cycle is long. Being front of mind with somebody is so key. Having a targeted campaign where you put that prospective buyer on a drip of useful content, will help you rise to the front of mind or the top of requests for proposal list when your customer moves in the buying cycle to actually have a project and ready to purchase. I think that is so key.
Josh: We talked a little bit about, obviously, you’re going to get a little bit of visibility in the inbox even if somebody does interact with the email. Maybe we could talk about some of the ways to help optimize getting people to read that email and I think one of the ones I’d love to hear your thoughts on is what role the subject line plays in getting someone to open that email.
David: It’s critical. You can’t overstate this. If somebody doesn’t open your email, they don’t really absorb your message and the only way they’re going to open the email is if the subject line is compelling. I’m imagining opening my email service provider, I happen to use Mac Mail but it could be Gmail or whatever. Doesn’t matter. You’ve got a sea of new emails. They’re all bold, indicating that they haven’t been read. You get this little dreadful feeling in your stomach about having to go through all of these different emails.
Josh: That was literally me this morning. Why are there so many emails in my inbox?
David: Right. Yeah. You’ve got to deal with most of them. Knowing that, you’re competing with projects and critical emails from people on your staff so you’ve got to have an email subject line, because that’s the only thing people see, that is in fact, compelling and it needs to be well written, it needs to peak somebody’s interest. There’s a lot of techniques to do this whether it’s asking a compelling question, having a thought-provoking or provocative message. I always suggest to clients that, if they’re looking for inspiration for writing great email headlines, go to the supermarket and look at the tabloids. Look at the headlines that you’re seeing popping off the list.
I’m not recommending that you write an article about Brad Pitt’s dating habits or something like that but, look at the way they craft those messages because they’re guaranteed to stand out on a newsstand. The techniques they use, things like seven tips for X, Y, and Z or, have you ever thought of A, B, and C? Those are great techniques.
Josh: The third one will blow your mind.
David: There you go.
Josh: The subject lines, I think, are definitely powerful ways to get your attention and then, you know, most email programs also will have that preview text, is what I typically call it, but that next line of text that’s the un-bolded copy which is sometimes, a totally squandered opportunity when you open up the email and you see that that first line says, “Email not rendering. View it in a browser.” That kind of default text is the first thing you see but we’ll get into some of the different email programs here in a second but things like Mail Chimp will allow you to enter that preview text in purposefully so it’s not just pulling the default message.
David: Yes. Right. Right. Typically, the default is the first lines in your actual email but you have the ability to create, some people call it an excerpt or a synopsis and that’s another great way that your email is compelling. First read subject line, second read is whatever that summary easy. Just some real practical tips; somewhere between 35 and 55 characters, which ends up being about six to ten words for the subject line so it fits within the window of view within the email.
Josh: Yeah because you’re not probably, technically limited by the number of words or characters but nobody’s ever going to see those beyond the six to ten words, you’re not going to be able to read it anymore.
David: Yeah. Don’t put your whole entire email message, in the subject line. It’s not a way to game the system.
Josh: I feel like there are some people who use the subject line almost like text messaging. They just send you the subject line email with an empty content.
David: Yeah. Nothing else. I’ve used that technique so I’m guilty. Josh, there’s something I noticed recently. The rise in popularity of emojis. It may be because people are sending emails from their phone and the emoji culture is a little bit more prominent within mobile. How do you feel sticking an emoji in the subject line? You’ve got this sea of email text for subject lines and an emoji pops out? Is it professional? I don’t know. I have mixed feelings. What do you think?
Josh: I feel like the underlying theme with email is, is with great power comes great responsibility. Most people just don’t behave very responsibly on the web when it comes to email marketing. It’s the thing that I feel that people have abused more than anything. The reason we have spam laws is that people spam you. I think emojis are maybe not up there with spam but certainly, every email doesn’t warrant using emoji and the professional services space.
Josh: Sure, there are things like open houses or parties or golf outings or networking opportunities and maybe those are good places to maybe work in a little emoji here and there but certainly not every message. What’s your take on that?
David: I like that. I think using it sparingly. There are some cute emojis that you can utilize in a witty way. Whether it relations to the literally or metaphorically, to the subject line, that can be kind of fun. Yeah. I think if it becomes the norm, then it’s not unique, it’s not special and people will tire of it.
Josh: Who knew that we would have so much to say about emails and we are literally, just through the subject line at this point? This is one of those that may seem like, “How do you even change this?” Actually, the sender itself could be a factor to whether you open this email or not. Tell us about why that is.
David: Yeah. I’m glad you brought that up. When you’re scanning, the first thing you’ll look at is … Well, actually, I’m not even sure. I sort of go back and forth between looking at the subject line and looking at who sent it. Both are going to give me a clue, you mentioned triage, in terms of the priority that I need to respond to that email. My eyeball probably goes back and forth. I put one eye on subject line and maybe I use the other eye to look at sender and I’m instantly judging whether or not I’m going to open that email.
The point here is that I strongly believe that the sender needs to be an actual person that you have this relationship with. Now, you may not have met that person but I think it needs to come from you, an actual person or somebody in the company that is perhaps a figurehead that people know. What I discourage people from doing is just putting, the X, Y, Z first or B&C consulting because that just feels instantly like it’s going to be some sort of generic corporate, not very compelling, personal email.
It seems small but again, you’ve got milliseconds to let the viewer know; are you trustworthy? Are you offering something worthy? Most likely, that comes from a person, not a company. Your thoughts?
Josh: Let me see if I’ve got this straight. We can say it’s from XYZ Corp and the subject line is November email.
David: Yeah. Right. That tells me-
Josh: There’s nothing less interesting than the big corporate giants sending me their November newsletter.
David: Yes. Absolutely. Right. I don’t want to read that. It’s going directly into trash. The other option is to get an email from Josh Miles and saying, “Guess who we just hired at Miles Herndon?” I know it’s coming from you. I have a relationship with you. The headline is compelling. I’m much more apt to click on that.
Josh: I love the very conversational nature of your very theoretic subject line of, “Guess who we just hired?” That’s so much more human than, “A press release E sounding. Miles is proud to announce the new developer of business development.” I’d rather read the email that says, “Guess who we just hired?”
Josh: I don’t know. Let me guess.
David: I love you said that. That’s a great technique. If your subject line doesn’t sound conversational and literally, test it by posing the question or staying the statement to somebody else and if they say, “Oh no, that’s corporate speak,” speak human. Be a human being and have empathy and be compelling. Don’t sound like a corporate automaton, if that’s even a word.
Josh: It is if we use it a few more times.
David: That’s right.
Josh: I think the other thing to keep in mind for sender is, for most programs, you’re going to have the option of including both, the sender name and the sender email so you’ve got the opportunity to, depending on how your email preferences are set, you either see those listed as names, so you see that it’s from David Lecours, or you see that it’s from email@example.com but those are both things to think about because, when you’re sending through an email service provider and piece of software, you’re not relegated to just sending from, “your email address” it can be from anybody as long as that email address is validated through the system.
David: There might be a reason to break this rule. Let’s say your email address is showing but let’s say you’re sending out some sort of fun, timely thing. In the last episode, we talked about holiday messages and generally, we’re not a fan of generic holiday messages but let’s just say for example, you were sending a holiday message and to break things up a little you could say, “Elf from the North Pole,” or, “Elf from XYZ Corp,” just to provide a little bit of variety or maybe there’s a relationship between the sender, name and the subject matter.
I think as a general rule, don’t try to be overly creative and witty. Save that for the content and the body of the email, which I think we might want to talk about next.
Josh: Yeah. Let’s get to that then.
David: That was my segway, did you notice that?
Josh: It was pretty subtle. I appreciated that.
David: All right. You’ve determined your subject line. You’ve determined your sender, now you’ve got to write the content. Josh, any good rules for developing content of an email, without getting too much into content marketing, which is a totally separate subject? In terms of length or topic, what do you do in terms of creating this content of the email?
Josh: This may be sort of cheating but I’ve always enjoyed writing the email inside the context of the template that I’m going to be using so that I can really see. It’s so easy if you just start writing in Word or a text editor, to write something lengthy, even if you don’t feel like it’s getting that way and I think email is one of those things, it’s much easier to visually scan the important parts. Email writing and blog writing are similar in that regard. Having lots of small, bite-sized pieces, allows your eyes to just kind of glance over it and see the important parts that pop out, whether you’ve got one big image at the top or a couple little thumbnails throughout but you know.
Even if it’s not literally bullet points, just writing in little chunks I think is a little bit easier to digest than opening up your inbox and being greeted with a wall of text. I think very few people are looking for that in an email. What would you add to that?
David: Yeah. That’s so true. I like digestible chunks of content. Think of it sort of, as web copy where it’s not long-form narration but it’s these smaller chunks that somebody can scan and see a headline and then a little bit of copy, a couple sentences. Another headline, another couple sentences so it doesn’t feel like work. It feels joyful to be able to read and learn the great insight that you’re providing. That reminds me of the next thing.
Within the content, you want to make sure that you’re offering valuable information that will make your clients’ work better. I think people a lot of times, fall into the trap and the mistake that I see commonly made by professional services forums is they, pardon my potty humor but, they “we” all over themselves. Do you know what I’m talking about there Josh?
Josh: I think that’s when they say, we this and we that and we, we, we.
David: Yes. Exactly. You can share that joke with your five-year-old son. Yeah. You don’t want to we all over yourself.
Josh: Everybody likes dad jokes.
David: Yeah. It doesn’t. It’s not very interesting. It’s like a relationship with somebody who talks only about themselves and doesn’t offer anything of value. I kind of like to think of it like this 6:1 ratio. I’ve heard as much as 10:1 where you’re offering content that’s valuable to your client, useful tips for making them smarter, faster better and then that affords you that latitude, so six of those, to one we content.
We content would be the equivalent of a project we just won, we just hired this key new hire, we just won this award. I get so much email from firms in our space and they just are constantly … it feels like you’re just bragging the whole time.
David: What am I supposed to do with that? Okay. Great. I’m proud but it just doesn’t have the resonance and lasting power of offering something of value.
Josh: I think even, the softer side of we is when you’re sharing culture or sharing people and when it feels conversational or story-like. I know story’s an important word for you too David. When I feel like somebody is telling me something that I’m excited to hear about, it’s a lot different, even if it is all about … if it’s a fun, a light, or interesting or human sided story, that makes me a lot more interested to dig into it than it does when it’s just announcing that next project or that new hire.
David: Right. Doesn’t everybody really think their own content is interesting? How do you get to that sort of human part? I think you do it well. I’m just curious if we can offer some tips.
Josh: Yeah. I think when it really sounds conversational. One of the tips that I’ve heard for blogging that I’ve tried to apply to email whenever possible is thinking about, what if you were just writing to one person? I think sometimes it’s helpful to think exactly, literally one person. It can be an imaginary person. Okay, I’m going to write to this marketing manager and she has X years of experience in the business and she deals with these kinds of problems and she wants to learn one, two, and three, and her life would just be easier if she could just figure out these things.
If I just think about, I’m always writing to her, what would my next message be to her if I was trying to encourage her along or trying to help her out or teach her something? I think that really changes the tone of the email and makes it kind of naturally conversational and friendlier. It’s kind of speaking to an audience. When you pick somebody out in the audience and you make eye contact with them, I think it’s that same thing with the email.
When you have written that feeling like you’ve written to one person, everybody who reads that says, “Oh, they were writing to me. This is a great email.”
David: Yeah. Is that amazing? Yeah. Absolutely. For sure.
Josh: It’s much more engaging email to read that kind of message I think.
David: Totally. One idea that our studio audience can think about is, just keep listening, listening to your clients and what are the problems that they’re consistently facing? Those can be great topics. By the same token, what are the answers that you consistently give? That’s great fodder for email copy. Of course, you want that copy to live on your blog so that it has a life well beyond just the email. Maybe we could transition a little bit into that relationship between email and a blog. I know there’s a couple different schools of thought.
One is, have the entire message in the body of the email. Another one is, send just a teaser within the body of the email to encourage the user to click from the email, onto your turf, which is now the website, own-able media. Do you have any preference there Josh?
Josh: Well, interestingly enough, I have fully subscribed to both schools of thought at one point or another in hopes of keeping my emails short back when, this was kind of the early days of email for my firm, 2005, 2006. We were just experimenting with this thing called email marketing. We would do these very we focused and it was always like, “Here’s the latest project. Here’s the thing that we just won. Here’s an award. Here’s a client that did something that was in the news.” We would have a one liner about that project and, “Click here to read more.” The next client, “Click here to read more.” The next client, and shocking, very few people clicked through unless it was a face or a really cool image, then they would click on the images or the faces but they wouldn’t click on the “read more” as much.
Josh: Fast forward to 2013 or ’14, we started sending out these emails that were very conversational and we started treating it the opposite. We started really building up our email list and subscriber list from our blog. We were pulling in email from the website as opposed to previously, we were trying to send our email subscribers back to the web. In this case, when we flipped it around, we really tried to keep all of the conversation, literally, in the inbox.
We would end a lot of our messages with a question or a challenge or something to provoke thought. We’d say things like, “Tell us about a time when you had something like this. What has your biggest challenge been in this area? Share an idea with us. Do you love this idea or hate it?” Then we’d always end it with, “Hit reply and let us know.” When you have that personal email address as the sending email and they hit reply, it literally just comes back to our inbox.
It was a really cool way. Obviously, it was a smaller number of subscribers who would actually do that but the ones who did would realize, “Oh, he’s actually sending and responding to these emails.” It really extends that personal relationship piece of it.
David: Right. It felt like you were there for somebody if they had a question or wanted to respond right within the email.
Josh: Yeah. Obviously, it feels really accessible when you get an email from somebody and you hit reply and then they write back to you. It’s kind of mind blowing. Peter Shankman’s another marketing guy out there. I’ve had a very similar experience with him recently. He was a speaker at a regional conference earlier this year and I subscribed to his list and hit reply to the auto-thanks for signing up and told him what I liked about his talk.
He wrote back and had very specific things to that talk in response so I knew it was him or someone who was very well trained in what was going on in his show. That was pretty cool.
David: It wasn’t a bot.
Josh: That’s right. Probably not a bot. Would have been a really good bot if it were.
Josh: What do you think about including calls to action inside of an email or buttons or that idea of read more? How often are you seeing that successful or how would you advise firms to handle those?
David: Right. My example is my own in that I’ve been tracking my firm as a professional services firm. Our list is 1,539 people and we’ve done some A/B testing. I was designing an email and wanted to test whether a fully designed email that utilizes some of the bells and whistles that these email services provide versus just plain text email with a link. I did it two different times.
In both cases, the plain text emails had … I’ll just give you the numbers. 17.2% opened for designed versus 23.5% for the plain text. For the second time, it was 25.2% opened for the design and 30.3% opened for the plain text. In both cases, the plain text email had a higher open rate and a higher click through rate.
Josh: Isn’t that interesting.
David: That may just be the audience. I think that there’s also some concerns that when you include a lot of graphics and pictures, that it could get flagged as potentially spam and that might not reach your intended user, in which case, your open rates would be lower. Yeah. Lately, my approach has been simple plain text with a link because I do want to get them over to the site where hopefully, they can stumble upon other articles and if they’re interested in services, they can learn about that. My goal is to get them to the site.
Yeah. I think the key is just knowing what your plan is and knowing how you’re going to do it. There isn’t one right way to do it but probably the right answer is just to know what you’re doing and be intentional about it so that you can execute on that.
Josh: Dude, I feel like we’ve gone through a lot of really cool stuff on emails so far but we’ve got so much left to go here. Maybe we should actually split this up into a second episode and release this as a little bonus for everybody. What do you think about that?
David: Yeah. I think that’s great. We have been publishing our episodes every other week and this is such a hot topic and I’m into it, I want to keep going. Let’s wrap up for now. Let’s call each other in a week and do part two of this and then we’ll release them in subsequent weeks so people will just only have to wait one week. Today is November 17th, we’ll release the next one on the 24th. Does that sound good?
Josh: Yeah. That sounds good.
Episode 105 on Email Marketing
Josh Miles: Yeah. Sometimes I just love nerding out on nerdy stuff, and e-mail marketing is definitely one of those kind of nerdy topics. But as we talked about in episode 104, when it comes to e-mail marketing with great power comes great responsibility. I’m excited. If you haven’t listened to episode 104 yet, please go back and do that because David and I covered the nitty gritty of why e-mail is a great tool in professional services, better ways to look at subject lines and the importance of those, and the sender. We really just started digging into the actual content of the e-mail itself. Today, I’m think we’re just going to pick up in the area of building your list. David, what are some of the good ways to build your list when it comes to e-mail marketing?
David Lecours: I think you have two choices. One is build it organically, which means adding people in an opt-in kind of manner. You meet somebody, you ask them either in-person or via e-mail, “Hey, can I add you to my mailing list?” Or another way of organic building is that they go to your site, they fill out a call-to-action form and they give you permission to send them information. They’ve opted-in to your list. That would be organic.
The other method is purchasing a list. There are sellers of lists out there and you can buy e-mail addresses and build your list that way. Both have pros and cons, but this is a bit of a numbers game. You want to have as big a targeted list as you can. You don’t want numbers for the sake of ego. You really want people that are prospective clients, now or in the future, so it’s not just about getting your cousin in to your list, or your whole family. It’s having targeted members.
Those are the two approaches. I have explored purchasing a list, but it didn’t make sense. I wasn’t convinced that the list was quality. I knew they were going to give me a bunch of names and e-mail addresses, I just wasn’t convinced that they were going to be targeted enough. I’m a super targeted marketer and my firm is exclusively focused on the architecture, engineering, construction industry. A lot of these list sellers are building their lists based on advertising buys, and architecture, engineering, construction doesn’t do a lot of ad buys, so like I said, I wasn’t convinced that the list was going to be valuable.
I may have not done enough research, but how about you, Josh? Where do you sit on this organic versus purchasing list?
Josh Miles: Yeah, we talked a little bit about this on the last episode. Again, if you haven’t listened to 104, go back and do that, but kind of in the early days of marketing for us, we were doing the business card thing. Any time we had an intern, one of their weekly tasks would be to enter all of my business cards into our e-mail marketing program and making sure that that database was up to date, and then we would just blast away to that group. Today, it’s even more permission based where most of our e-mail subscribers are coming from our website and blog traffic. I think we’re averaging something like 50 or 60 new sign ups a week, which is kind of ridiculous, but we’ve got a couple of blog pieces out there that are working hard for us, and really helping build that list. The main things that we’re looking for are also what the real e-mail nerds will call List Hygiene, which is just making sure that when we’re sending an e-mail out to thousands of people, that those thousands are still receiving that e-mail and they’re opening it.
If we have someone who goes multiple sends without even an open, we’ll just go ahead and take them off the list because it’s not doing anything for our sending scores to have people who are not even opening the e-mail. If we know they’re going to delete a couple in a row, then we’ll just go ahead and take them off the list.
David Lecours: Just to clarify, when Josh says it’s “ridiculous” that they get 50 or 60 a week, I think he means it’s ridiculously great. Right?
Josh Miles: Yes. Ridiculously great.
David Lecours: Sometimes we’re not sure with Josh’s Indianapolis vernacular. Just want to clarify for our listeners.
Josh Miles: When I say ridiculous, I mean good. It’s been, I think, successful beyond what I expected it to be. David and I were talking a little bit before we hit record here, about we’ve got a couple of blog posts that are now outperforming our homepage. The homepage is actually the 4th or 5th most popular page on our site, which means we’re getting a lot of organic traffic. That organic traffic, we could talk about that content strategy later, but that organic traffic is really what’s driving new subscribers to our e-mail list. Ultimately, people who want to hear from us, which is a pretty cool thing.
David Lecours: In short, build your list, we don’t proselytize, whether it’s organic, organic does seem to lend itself a little better to people signing up, raising their hand saying, “Yes, you can send me things.” In either case, you might want to include at the bottom of one of your e-mails, a request to be white listed, white listed meaning that you have gone into your e-mail service’s spam filter to tell it, “Yes, this person who is sending me things is a viable source. It’s not spam.” It’s basically just making sure that the e-mail doesn’t go directly to spam. Adding somebody to your address book is another way to whitelist. You want to make sure that your e-mail gets to your audience.
Josh Miles: What about when you send out an e-mail to your audience, David, or as you’re coaching your clients on this, do you do the standard batch and blast where you’ve got, just everybody gets everything, or do you do more customized groupings, or do you do any customization within the message itself so that at least mine says, “Hey, Josh,” or it has my company’s name somewhere in the body? What level of customization and segmentation are you looking at typically?
David Lecours: Right. What I do, and what I advise my clients to do are actually different. I’ll explain why. Because my firm is so specialized, architecture, engineering and construction, I do actually have those lists segmented just in case I want to send something specific, but I don’t know, 99 times out of 100, the message has been relevant to all three of those audiences. I send all my e-mails to all my list. For my clients, because a lot of them work in so many different vertical markets, they may be an architecture firm that works in the commercial space, they may be working in education, they may be working in universities, they may be working in transportation, all these different sectors, their messaging and their e-mails are probably going to be specific to that particular market. They want to actually segment their list, and only send the e-mail that’s relevant to that specific audience.
The more relevant, the better. I did a little A/B testing with this where I sent out, and one of my subject lines included the term, “A/E/C Firm,” and one of the subject lines included “Engineering Firm.” It was ever more specific. The results of the “Engineering Firm” were several percentage points higher than just the more generic “A/E/C Firm.” Point is, be specific and send your list to a specific audience.
Josh Miles: Yeah, and I think we’re probably similar to that. Really, the only segmentation that we use regularly within our agency and what we send out to our prospects is that my business partner and I each have our own lists that come through. If it’s something he’s written, it’ll by default sign you up for his list, and then we give folks the opportunity to also sign up for mine. Because we do a very personal touch on our e-mails. As we talked a little bit last time, we try to make them sound like they’re really written for one person, and just coming personally from me or from Daniel. The flavor that you’re going to get between the two, as you’d expect when you’re getting e-mails from two totally different people, they sound different, they read differently. That’s kind of the chief segmentation, but then we also break it down for, we’ve got one group that’s called our Highly Engaged Group. This is like if we send it, they are going to open it, and they’re probably going to click on it. That always pads our stats a bit if we send out to that group.
Then, there are kind of the larger lists or the combined lists, which are more of the announcement kind of e-mails. Those are things that are not just me musing about something, but something that’s more appropriate to send to the whole group. Certainly, I agree with the idea of more segmentation is probably better, especially if you serve multiple verticals and have maybe different flavor you might want to present your brand to each of those segments.
David Lecours: Yeah, you said something interesting when you mentioned this highly engaged group. How do you know that they’re highly engaged, and then what do you do about that in order to repurpose that highly engaged group?
Josh Miles: Yeah, that’s a good question. I think our full list is somewhere around 10,000 people. Our engaged list, the folks who would typically open an e-mail is about 4,000 combined, and then I think between Daniel and I, we each have somewhere between 750 to 1,000 a piece who we would consider are highly engaged, which is those are the ones that are most likely to open and likely to click as well. We’re looking at the stats that our e-mail service provider provides on a per e-mail basis, and we just try to go in there and update as we can and make sure that we’re keeping things really tidy, and that we’re not sending two e-mail addresses where somebody maybe switched jobs. This might be what’s called a hardbound, so the e-mail doesn’t go through anymore, or a softbound, so something where maybe they just got a delay or something.
Just trying to keep really tidy records and making sure that we know who’s getting what. If it’s something that we feel like just the choir is going to be interested in, we make sure we’re not sending that to the whole community.
David Lecours: Yeah, and I think any good e-mail service provider will give you metrics and let you know who opened your e-mail. Then, you can create a new list from the last campaign. Let’s say 300 out of 1,000 opened your e-mail, you can create this new list, and I would call those, “Engaged Viewers.” One of the benefits of working with, or using an e-mail service provider rather than trying to run your e-mail campaign straight from your e-mail, which would be a nightmare.
Josh Miles: Yeah. I think it’s good, too, to have a general idea of what your typical open stats look like. From an e-mail marketing response standpoint, you’re obviously looking for higher percentage. You’re seldom ever going to have an e-mail where 100% of people are opening the e-mail, but as David and I talked a little bit earlier, sometimes those stats may be kind of worst-case scenario. If the tracking pixel doesn’t fire or something, you may actually be getting more opens that what you’re showing, but we know that our lists are going to get anywhere between high teens to low 40’s in percent of open rates, so a 40% open rate is really fantastic, and the high teens is still pretty strong. I think you can see really lousy e-mails, might be below 10%.
Each time you send one, if you get different numbers, that’s actually a helpful thing. You start to get some feedback from your own audience. Not just industry list, not just trends, not just what somebody else is doing, but only your list is your list. Your list may behave a little bit differently than others. It’s good to try things like playful headlines in the subject versus something that’s really straightforward, and see which things start to perform better.
David Lecours: Absolutely. Yeah, I think our egos can get caught up in wanting to have everybody open our e-mail and read it, and it’s just not realistic. Like you said, your list is your list. I think the key is with this open rates, and any measurement, it’s looking for differences between one campaign to the next, and what can you learn from that, rather than playing the comparison game versus industry average. Seeing what type of content is resonating most, and obviously serving up some more of that, or thinking about is it a poor really written headline or subject line that is hampering that particular post, that isn’t … Just to throw out some numbers for you guys, MarketingSherpa, a digital marketing resource says anything about 20% is a good open rate. MailChimp says 15.5% is the industry average for the audience that my firm is trying to hit. The Architecture, Engineering, Construction. Those are just some basics that give me a sense of where we are.
That’s one thing, is open rates. You want to talk a little bit about click-thru rates?
Josh Miles: Yeah, we could talk about that too. I think when we talk about click-thrus, it sort of implies that you have something within the e-mail that you want something to click on.
David Lecours: Yeah, that’s a great point.
Josh Miles: I mean, there are so many e-mails that I look at that are … Sometimes this is the case, that it’s really just you want to share a message and there’s not really anything that you need to do. It’s just our internet service provider at the office will send us a message that says, “We just want you to know that we’ve got this regular maintenance thing going on, and it’s going to happen at 4AM tonight, and there are no expected outages for your area. If you have questions, give us a call.” There’s nothing to click on ever in those e-mails, so I bet their click-thru rate is pretty horrible. The goal was not to have a click-thru, it’s just to share that message, but it’s something to think about if you want someone to click on something, we always encourage giving them a couple different opportunities whether it’s hyperlink within the paragraph, or you mention the words of the thing that you want them to do, or even following up that paragraph with a button where it’s a really obvious, big, shiny button that has words on it that say, kind of complete the sentence of what it is you want somebody to do like download the white paper or get the goods, or something like that, or the button name is something more than just submit.
David Lecours: Right.
Josh Miles: I always like having something visual to help people want to click thru. As I shared in the last episode, we’ve always seen not only buttons, but also like faces and interesting images get lots of clicks as well. How about you?
David Lecours: Picture of people seem to really do well. I sent out an e-mail recently announcing this podcast, and it had our pictures on it. It was one of the highest open rates and click-thrus that I’ve had in a long time. I guess people like looking at us. I don’t know if they like hearing us, but they liked our picture. That’s something.
Josh Miles: Little did we know, it was like an aggressive click in the face. It’s like, “Get that guy out of here.”
David Lecours: Yeah, but I think this click-thru thing can be depressing. You see like an average click-thru of 6%, and you go like, “Oh man, that’s all?” They may open the thing and they don’t click on it, but like you mentioned, it may be because they got as much as they needed from your e-mail and opening it was enough. I wouldn’t get too hung up on those numbers. I think you should keep track of them and see what’s trending just for your own learning curb. The other thing I wouldn’t get too hung up on is unsubscribes. I would say we send out about 1500 per message, we get of like 10 to 12 on average unsubscribes each time. I have to admit, I look at those and see who’s unsubscribing and I track them down and call them. No I don’t. I don’t call them.
Josh Miles: Grab them by the lapels.
David Lecours: We all unsubscribe from lists. Sometimes they give you a reason why and sometimes they don’t.
Josh Miles: I think the reason in my mind, more often than not, is just they get too much e-mail. I think that’s also kind of code for “I’m not getting enough value out of all the e-mail that I have to deal with during the day. It’s just another reminder of how important it is to send out valuable messages that are not so “we” or “us” focused.
David Lecours: Yeah, and I think that goes back to what we talked about in the last episode, was that with great power comes great responsibility. That this medium is free and it’s easy, and as a result, we get lumped in with all the other e-mails. There’s this afterglow or aftertaste of somebody getting an e-mail from you, it already has, “Okay, now what? Another e-mail.” Your e-mails have got to be really compelling and interesting to cut through that haze, or that sort of maybe bad taste that somebody has about e-mail in general. Let your e-mail be this shining beacon of hope and inspiration, and whim, and whimsy, so that it does stand out against all the other stuff that people are getting.
Josh Miles: Speaking of that a little bit, do you think it matters when you send the e-mail out?
David Lecours: Yeah. This is the golden question. If I’m ever speaking at a conference people ask, “what day of the week and what time do I need to send my e-mail?” In most cases, I can’t answer that for you, but your data probably can. Look at and track these things, and see what is working best for you, which is why you need to look at the metrics. I typically don’t send things on Mondays because I feel like people are inundated, they’re just getting their week started. By the same token, I don’t send things on Fridays because I feel like people have checked out. I found Tuesdays and Wednesdays, mid day works, the numbers support it. It has been working well, but also maybe somebody catches something right before their lunch break and I’m hoping that they’re going to read it. This assumes of course they’re on my own timezone. Yeah, that’s been worked well for me.
By the same token, if everybody has the same sort of thinking and everybody’s sending their e-mails at the same time, your e-mail is going to fall into a whole batch of stuff. It’s a little bit of cat and mouse. Trying to figure out when you’ll stand out, and then also when you’re audience is more treceptive to receiving emails. Any tips you have for that, Josh?
Josh Miles: Yeah, I feel like that first thing Tuesday or right before lunch on Tuesdays is a stat that I’ve heard quite a lot. We’ve experimented with that. I think it’s cool that, and maybe more than just MailChimp offers this, but I just saw it in MailChip recently that they offer this, I figured they call it Time Machine or something, but basically you can set it for 9AM and then you can tell it to also send to 9AM east coast, central, pacific, so you can have it send within your given timezone at the same time. That’s kind of nice too, but I often feel like, “Well, I don’t want to send it to the west coast at 2 in the morning. The last thing I want is for somebody to be awoken by an e-mail from MilesHerndon. It’s cool that you can balance that out with that kind of sender.
I think you’re totally right, we all hear as marketers that first thing on Tuesday or 11AM on Wednesday is the best time to send, then you notice … I literally do notice how many e-mails on Tuesday and Wednesday I get at 11AM. It’s like right before I start to go to lunch, and I just hear the ding, ding, ding, ding, ding, ding, ding, ding, and they all show up at once. I’m like, “What is going on?” I think, again, test it out with your audience. I even heard that occasionally a weekend send can get a really great open rate, because in the right industry, people are kind of relaxed and they’re in that hang out and just playing on their phone, and maybe they’re more likely to open that e-mail when they’re in a different mindset. Something else to experiment with.
David Lecours: Yeah, I think the key here is this experiment and track, and measure, and then that’ll give you the answer. Josh, what about frequency? We talked about time a day, but how many e-mails should you be sending to somebody?
Josh Miles: When we were doing these very conversational e-mails from our firm, we were aiming for one per week, but I would send my list every other week, and Daniel would send his list every other week. Admittedly, there was only about 15% of overlap. It felt like we were doing a weekly e-mail, but in effect, it was really probably in every other week. That was still a lot to keep up with, just to write that many trying to be thoughtful and keeping the frequency and quality up. I think even moving to a monthly e-mails is not a bad idea either. It’s all about what kind of content calendar your firm can keep up with and how often you can commit to publishing and shipping. What do you guys shoot for?
David Lecours: Yeah, I think safe to say go for quality, not quantity. I think it’s good to commit to it, an editorial calendar where you’re going to publish just to keep yourself on target with some rigor and some discipline, but not sacrifice quality. If you just don’t have anything great, don’t put it out. I’ve been doing about once a month, and that feels right to me. Then just into it, if I don’t have specific metrics to back that up, I just feel like if I’m getting stuff from other people and it starts to get more frequent, and I start to tune out a little, this way, yeah I’d be willing to break that rule, of course, if there was something really interesting to send mid-month. Do you recommend doing any sort of testing before you send out an e-mail?
Josh Miles: Yeah, I feel like when we do e-mail, I end up sending myself a dozen or more tests before it finally goes live, because at first I’m like, “All right, nailed it, first try.” I look at that draft and I’m like, “Oh thank goodness, I’m proofing this again.” I always like to proof it both from that desktop view what it looks like in the browser and then also obviously looking at it on my phone, because so many people do that e-mail triage on their phone, and figure out if they want to delete or keep something at that point. Do you have any tips on testing as well?
David Lecours: Well, a good e-mail service provider will give you that view of what it would look like in a web browser on a desktop, what it would look like on a tablet, what it would look like on a phone, I think that is important. I think it’s key to send it to yourself and also somebody else. We’re terrible at proofreading our own stuff, so send it to a trusted employee or colleague or somebody just to make sure it reads right, the grammar is right, the spelling is right, and then, by all means, test all the links. Make sure that they’re not old and residual links from the last e-mail you sent. Make sure they’re the right link to the right place. If you’re including links. It’s just embarrassing. You don’t want to send that retroactive e-mail. “Sorry, I screwed up the first time.” In fact, I wouldn’t even do that. If you do that, just …
Josh Miles: Just let it die.
David Lecours: Yeah, let it go. Depending on your level of interest in testing, you can really get serious. The testing examples Josh and I just gave are the free ones that come with your e-mail service provider. There are services out there, the one that is coming to mind is Sauce Labs, where you can really get deep on what an e-mail is going to look like in all the different e-mail clients, all the different ways it might show up. It can run some tests about how effective deliverability can be. It just depends on whether you want to pay for that next level. Personally, I haven’t felt the need to, but it’s nice to know that that kind of service is out there.
Josh Miles: Yeah. We’ve used another one called Litmus, too, which is one of the industry leaders in testing for deliverability and all that good stuff.
David Lecours: Absolutely. That’s a good one. In fact, maybe Sauce Labs creates Litmus. We’ll get back to you on that. Note: Josh is correct, it is Litmus, not Sauce Labs.
Josh Miles: We’ll put those notes in the show notes. David, that seems like maybe a good point to wrap it up. Anything you want to add on the e-mail front?
David Lecours: Yeah, just know that there’s a lot of e-mail service providers out there. You probably have your favorite. I’m used to MailChimp. I can’t say that one is better. Try a couple, figure out what’s the best plan for you. Yeah, we covered when to send, we talked about segmenting your list, building your list, and then of course measuring. Making sure you know what’s working for you and what’s not. Yeah, just in general, I want to put it out to the audience, we really want to hear from you guys. We’ve done a couple episodes just Josh and I, specifically on this topic. What are the best practices that are working with you for e-mail marketing? We’d love to … If there’s a really great comment, we’ll pass it on to our readers. The way you get in touch with us is to go to www.psm.show, and scroll down to “contact us.”
Josh Miles: I love that even in the first few episodes here, we’ve already had several listeners filling out that form and sending this questions, and sending us ideas, and even pitching us as to if we’d be interested in interviewing or interviewing other people that they’ve thought of. That’s exactly how we want you to use that form. Please, as David said, head over to psm.show and check out episodes and show notes there, as well as tell us what you think.
David Lecours: Yeah, so that brings us to the end of episode 105 of PSM show. If you’re listening via the PSM Show website, going over to iTunes, Stitcher, or any favorite podcast player and subscribe. It’s a pain to try to seek this out and remember how great it is. Just put yourself on a regular drip so that it comes right in through your player and you can listen to it. Even better, if you like this show, the best thing you can do is go to iTunes and give us a rating. That’s going to help boost us in the rankings, and get this out to your colleagues who can benefit from. Absolutely, as we mentioned, if you have questions or comments, write to us via psm.show. That’s it from this episode of www.psm.show. From Josh Miles and myself, David Lecours, cheers for now.