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Lifecycle Emails Gone Awry

Every run scored in baseball is worth one point, but not all runs are the same. An earned run occurs when the hitting team scores despite the fielding team’s best effort. An unearned run, on the other hand, is the result of an error by the defense—a dropped fly ball, a flubbed throw, etc.

The point is that unearned runs are preventable. They are errors of judgment, focus, and skill. You can apply this simple concept to just about anything, of course. But think about your lifecycle email program. Are you making preventable mistakes that are holding back better business growth and your brand?

Often, these errors are simply avoidable because they break the cardinal rules of effective lifecycle emails:

  1. Aim for one goal per message.
  2. Build trust for the long-term.
  3. Serve your customers by understanding their context, expectations, and goals.

Let’s take a look at some of the missteps we’ve seen in the wild, so you can learn to avoid making the same flubs:

Cancellations Aren’t a Mistake

Here are a few places the message goes awry, from the very start with the subject line:

  • Second-guessing a cancellation is a presumptuous move. Even if the customer did make a mistake, that’s probably something they’d realize and self-correct. Framing every cancellation as a potential mistake on the customer’s part is more likely a homerun to feelings of annoyance and anger (especially if the customer has to put in effort to make the cancellation, as is often the case).
  • This framing also makes the goal of this email unclear and sets itself up for failure. In most cases, the answer would not only be “No, the cancellation is NOT a mistake”— and it’s easier to hit “Delete” or “Spam” than reply to a silly question, especially after being accused of an error.
  • The personalization is broken or a bit too basic. Using your email address as if it were a first name in both the subject and the body, especially in this day and age, is counterproductive. It’s an overt attempt at personalization that ends up accomplishing the opposite of its intended effect at fostering a sense of relevance and relationship.
  • What does “Sent from Odenwald – Germany” mean? It might be an attempt at a personalized feeling, as if Camille was sending this message manually — but that charade is broken with the email-as-name personalization and failes to provide any helpful context otherwise…
  • Plus they CC’d a sales tracking email! If you’re going to use a CRM to track customers, at least keep the tracking in the BCC field.

Watch Out for Sales-y, Spammy Language

The student loan space is fraught with scams. There are plenty of unsavory types out there trying to get borrowers to consolidate for a fee or buy into fake loan forgiveness plans. Anytime you’re playing in the financial space, you have to be careful to avoid language and branding that people will associate with spam.

That’s why I was a little disappointed to receive this email from Student Loan Hero (a perfectly legitimate service).

Take a look at the copy in the first few sentences:

  • Asterisks
  • Bombastic all-caps words
  • Exclamation points
  • And big red text that reads “100% FREE”

This email does a decent job of relaying some important information to get started, and my guess is that this message reflects stylistic choices to connect with the youth. But this email ends up sending off signals. If people are already wary of the businesses in your space, you have to go out of your way to make them feel secure. (And that’s actually what the company does on their homepage, which touts security and trust-building social proof.)

Contrast that with this welcome email from LearnVest, a financial-planning platform. The message focuses on “bank-level security” and easy access to connect to human beings if you need help. It’s a completely different experience.

More Information Isn’t Better

Cratejoy is a subscription box marketplace, serving customers buying boxes and merchants selling them. Here’s an email they sent to a seller the first day they started a trial. It explains—in great detail—that you’ll be using a new, specialized version of the product.

The information might be relevant at some point later in the lifecycle, but it’s a ton of text to digest on day one. Also there’s a mismatch to the recipient’s context: presumably, the trialer hasn’t used the product before, so they don’t really care what the platform used to be like.

To make matters worse, there isn’t a clear call to action. There’s a lot of text and a lot of links to click on. That alone isn’t a huge problem, but the first few emails from a service sets the first impression. So if you start out with information overload and unclear guidance, it’s likely that the new user isn’t getting the help they need and that they’ll fall out of the habit of opening your emails.

Focus, not more information, is better for both you and your customers.

Product-Focused Emails Don’t Always Work

A 28% open rate is great for an unsolicited e-commerce campaign, but terrible for a SaaS welcome email. Groove founder Alex Turnbull was racking his brain to understand why his onboarding emails were so poorly received by trial signups.

After quite a bit of self-reflection, analysis, and conversations with a number of customers, he came to the conclusion that customers “simply don’t care about ‘getting more out of their Groove account.’” “Counterintuitively,” Turnbull writes, “a product-focused message was not the best performing post-signup email.”

So Turnbull and his team set to work testing new strategies for the all-important onboarding emails. The result is a message that sets the tone for the user’s experience with Groove. The 28% open rate was replaced by a 41% response rate—a massive improvement. They even use customer responses to tailor the rest of the onboarding process.

The improved email has unlocked other findings too—a better understanding of customers’ challenges and improved insights on building better relationships and messaging for customers.

It’s also just a better email: note that it’s pretty short, friendly, and readable. Instead of a link salad, there’s a focus on one request—to answer why you signed up for Groove. The message also sets up the expectation for a few more onboarding emails to come introducing the service, instead of stuffing the first message with all the information.

Practice makes perfect

Professional baseball teams are highly invested in metrics to improve performance. If you’ve seen Moneyball, you know exactly what I mean. Teams track data the same way a marketing or product department does. But pro baseball teams practice more than the average team working on lifecycle communication.

Errors are only avoided through better coaching and more reps. Better emails are the result of good process, quality control, and iteration. Get practicing!

Have you come across a lifecycle email gone right or wrong lately? Forward it along to marketing[at]!