May 28, 2020 - 02:49 PM
First, it’s worth noting that good, engaging content does so much more than court email subscribers. Good content makes for good emails, but it can also make for good social media posts, a source of organic search engine traffic, and so on. So when thinking about content strategies, make sure to remember that it’s not just about building a great email newsletter.
These multi-faceted benefits are just part of the reason the ROI of content is so difficult to track. Before looking at some brands known for their great email content, let’s look at why the answer to “Does it demonstrably increase sales?” is so complicated.The True Purpose of Content
It’s logical to wonder whether content has a measurable impact on sales, but this question is also a little short-sighted. As marketing expert Rand Fishkin has noted, there’s much more to content than just convincing people to buy. Instead, content plays an integral role in a long, complex customer journey, in which making a purchase is only the final step.
It’s fairly easy to track the ROI of ads, but it’s not easy to track the ROI of content. This is in part because ad platforms make ROI tracking easy, so people will keep buying ads. But it’s also because the goal of an ad is far more straightforward and simple than the goal of content.
While an ad is designed to reach a specific audience - people primed for a purchase - good content should be designed for a much broader audience. Content isn’t just an avenue for increasing sales; it’s an avenue for increasing awareness.
Great content creates a ripple effect. While it might convince a few people to make a purchase, it should also land in the inboxes of many who may not be ready for a purchase, but who are ready to share great content with their networks, raising awareness of your brand.
To put that another way, content is an avenue for word-of-mouth growth. Sure, everyone who gets your latest email may not make a purchase. But that’s not your goal. Your goal is to get the content of those emails shared. “Shared” could mean a forwarded email, a social media post, or a mention in a publication or an in-person conversation. The more your content gets shared, the more potential new customers you have.
According to Hubspot, 69% of customers don’t trust advertisements, while 71% don’t trust sponsored social ads. However, 81% trust the advice of friends and family members more than advice from a business. So, when someone sees your content shared by a friend, a trusted influencer, or an industry publication, that’s a compelling recommendation of your brand.
Sure, good content is expensive and challenging to create. But with such far-reaching effects, it’s more valuable than a simple ROI measurement might have you believe.Can You Measure Content ROI?
Since good content can reach so far and wide, is there any way to measure its effect on sales?
The answer is largely no - at least in the traditional sense. Yes, you can and should measure things like social shares, bounce rates, backlinks, and (of course) new purchases. You can and should track the cost of your content marketing strategy. But you can’t really put these numbers together and get an accurate ROI measurement.
The nature of good content defies measurement, because you can’t measure every win. How can you tell when someone privately shares your emailed content? How can you know when it comes up in a face-to-face conversation? You can’t.
But this private sharing will lead people to discover your brand just as well as measurable forms of sharing do. By amplifying your brand, both types of shares will eventually lead to new customers. However, those new customers may not buy something for weeks or months after first getting exposed to your content, so there’s no surefire way to trace their purchases back to your emails.
Over time, of course, a good content strategy will lead to a measurable uptick in customers. But you can’t expect to track content ROI like you can track ad ROI. Trying to do so might even falsely indicate that your content isn’t working.
Brands with Great Email Content Strategies
Good content shouldn’t aim to push people toward a purchase. That’s a narrow goal, and means your content won’t get shared widely. Good content - the kind that does get shared - aims to inform, entertain, and inspire, not sell. It establishes your brand’s personality and offers value, making readers feel like they’ve been invited to an exclusive club of cool information.
Which brands have successfully created such a content strategy? Here are a few to get inspired by.Brooks
Like many activewear brands, Brooks sponsors certain athletes as part of their influencer marketing campaign. However, it also takes influencer marketing a step further, by using influencer wins as a source of email content.
For example, one of Brooks’s sponsored athletes was Desiree Linden, who won the 2018 Boston Marathon. After her win, Brooks used their email content to highlight her success. Information like this is primed to be forwarded and shared, since it’s inspiring and exciting. Even though it’s not centered on selling stuff, it’s the kind of content that can drive new customers to a brand.InVision
InVision, a digital product design platform, knows that good content must be useful and interesting even to people who aren’t ready to become customers. So, their email newsletter is a roundup of recent blog posts relevant to everyone in their industry, regardless of whether or not they’re using InVision yet.
In a typical email, they might offer a free online course, a blog post about achieving the right work-life balance, and an interview with an InVision employee, among other things. It’s easy to see how industry leaders might see a post and share it, introducing the brand to a wealth of potential new InVision users.Cook Smarts
What should a meal plan service share in their emails? Recipes, obviously! In Cook Smarts’s “meal planning newsletter,” the recipes are also supplemented with related content, like a cooking tip of the week.
These recipes and tips aren’t designed specifically for Cook Smarts customers: they’re designed for anyone who likes to cook or eat. This makes them prime for increasing brand awareness, since recipes are popular items to share. An email that gets forwarded because it has interesting recipes becomes a word-of-mouth brand endorsement. For this reason, there’s even a handy “forward to a friend” button at the top of each email.Help Scout
This company sells customer service software, but their emails don’t - at least, not directly. Instead, the emails focus on tips to help brands put a human face on remote customer service.
Each newsletter has a roundup of interesting blog posts on this topic, and the greater world of remote work. For example, one of their recent emails included posts about acing a virtual interview, reconsidering KPIs during a crisis, and measuring customer service ROI.
Even someone who isn’t a Help Scout customer has an incentive to subscribe to their emails, and to share the useful content found inside. When the content gets shared by industry experts like remote-work thought leaders, many potential new customers get exposed to the brand.Glossier
This is a slightly unconventional example, but it’s worth mentioning because it’s such a great example of the power of content. Glossier, a makeup brand, was actually born out of Into the Gloss (ITG), a popular beauty blog. So, in this case, the content really came before the brand.
Subscribers to the ITG email newsletter weren’t there to learn about new products or sales - because there weren’t any products at first. They were there for beauty news and insider tips. But even though the content wasn’t “marketing” content in the conventional sense, it fostered enough positive awareness for the ITG brand to launch a makeup company. Glossier took off quickly, because ITG had already established the brand’s identity and following using great content. This definitely shows that good content shouldn’t focus on making sales, but on building the brand.
You mentioned in your question that even if subscribers love your content, they might not buy enough to justify the cost of content marketing. That’s true. However, let’s reframe your approach: your goal isn’t to get subscribers to buy enough to justify the cost of content. Your goal is to get subscribers to share your content enough to justify the cost.
If you’re trying to get subscribers to buy, you can only profit from a small portion (those who make a purchase) of a select group of people (your subscribers). However, if you’re trying to get subscribers to share, you can profit from a much larger pool of possible customers: your subscribers and their networks.
(Of course, that doesn’t mean you can never make a sales pitch in your emails or your content. However, your main focus should be on getting shares, not sales.)
So, the cost of email content is absolutely worth it, but only if you use your content wisely. You’ll waste money if you only create content that pushes people to make a purchase. However, creating content that makes people want to share it is a wise investment that builds a large network of people who know your brand. Some of them will become customers. Others will share your content yet again with their own networks, further expanding your brand’s reach.
And yes, this approach will demonstrably increase sales over time. However, it probably won’t do so in a straightforward way that lets you easily track ROI. Just because you can’t see fast, by-the-numbers results doesn’t mean the results aren’t there. In fact, your content results will likely be more powerful than your advertising results - but you have to give them time to work.