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Gmail Killed Our Email Strategy


Over the last two or three years we've written a number of times about how email isn't dead as a marketing channel. And the data continues to show that email as a marketing tool itself isn't dead. But last fall our strategy for generating leads via email completely fell apart...

For nearly three years we had been building out an email strategy based almost completely around getting people interested in the general idea of franchising. Ideas around Affordable Franchises, Working From Home, Going Into Business with Friends - were some of the themes that we hammered home time and again with our database. We were focused on 2 things - growing our list and increasing our CTR. And it worked great.

Or at least it did for the first two years and then some things started to change. Google started to tweak and change their spam filter algorithms and we slowly started being delivered to fewer and fewer users. We didn't even notice this at first, because the drop in deliverability was masked by us growing our list faster than ever before. Last summer we noticed some indications that things were looking iffy on Gmail delivery:

But even still we thought things would be fine. It seemed like Gmail open rates had dropped but not catastrophically and it hadn't spread to any of our other domains. We tried to just trim down our list to cut out some of the non-engaged users. And that seemed to work for about a month. And then things fell off a cliff.

It looks like it could be a fun rollercoaster at least?

One of our biggest lead channels had basically been cut in half overnight. And we weren't even sure what we could do about it. So naturally we took the best possible course of action - EVERYBODY PANIC!

Step 1: Panic

After a few hours of everyone freaking out we started to talk to anyone we knew about how they thought we could fix our problems. We talked to email deliverability experts (there are surprisingly a lot of these folks), random marketers, a few developers, and realized 2 major things:

1. There were a lot of technical things we were doing wrong.

2. Our emails weren't really helping anyone other than us and our clients.

Part 1 of that is incredibly important, but not all that interesting unless you're in this situation, so I'll leave the full details of that to a seperate article. 

The second idea though is something we'd never really thought about before. We were generating leads for our clients from our emails. Anecdotally they were some of the highest quality leads we were able to generate. So how was it possible we weren't providing value through our emails? Or at least that's what we thought to ourselves. 

When we started thinking a bit more we realized that all we were really doing was hammering inboxes with the same click baity emails over and over again. Telling people that they should want to open a franchise without really explaining in good enough detail what that actually meant for them. We decided that this was one of the biggest ways we could improve our email strategy - we'd focus on making our email content as useful as we could to our users and the engagement and leads would follow.

Or at least that's what we thought.

We wrote a bunch of new emails to try to explain what franchisees go through. To try to more eloquently explain why you should be a franchisee. Why franchising might be better than going into business alone. And our engagement rates started to creep back up. Slowly. 

That is until the day before Thanksgiving when we logged into our Mailchimp account and saw this:

Apparently the changes we'd made weren't good enough. And this time we didn't just see our lead volume drop - we lost our ability to send altogether. So naturally our first reaction was: EVERYBODY PANIC!

Actually it wasn't this time. We'd learned from our earlier Gmail hit and knew we had to change course. We'd been building our own email sending tools simultaneously, and were planning on moving over to use those by the end of the year, so this just sped our plans up a bit. 

But there was still this lurking problem - our emails just weren't useful enough to our users. So we scrapped all of our email content and went back to the drawing board. We thought about what the biggest questions most of our users had and realized they were all around what their life would be like if they were the franchisee of a specific brand. Over the next two weeks we wrote a few hundred emails each one short and to the point about what a franchisee did for each franchise we work with. Things like how they make money, how much time they need to spend actively working, what their background should be, etc. All just focused on being informational rather than aggressively salesy. And then we launched another new email strategy.

And we waited.

And waited.

And finally we started to see engagement increase again. And not just engagement with our emails, but lead flow as well. It had taken four months but we had finally figured out email content that was useful to our users and let us get out of the dark abyss of Gmail's spam folder. Even after that it wasn't smooth sailing. We had gone from an email list of 600,000 users to one of 50,000 users. And we were still only generating 1/4 of the leads we used to from email.

So we waited some more.

And engagement continued to improve, and with it lead flow improved. We still haven't quite returned to our peak lead flow from email - but we keep growing and getting closer to being back. In the meantime we've had to test dozens of other marketing channels and have learned some invaluable tactics. It wasn't all bad, but it certainly was tricky to deal with. Ultimately we managed to recover our email effectiveness through 3 main strategies:

1) Cutting out bad users. We validated our entire email list, and now validate every email before we try to send to it. 

2) Technical improvements. As I said this deserves its own unique article.

3) Creating actually useful content. Simple right? 

Hopefully you don't have to deal with this yourself - but if your marketing strategies are being hampered by email deliverability or engagement issues let us know and we can try to help out. 

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