12 Hacks for Picking Web Apps

The world of web services has mushroomed in the past few years. This is great for buyers, except the vendor selection process has become more time-consuming.

You can easily build a comparison chart in a spreadsheet with feature comparisons, integrations, support and prices, but you’d miss the qualitative part of the story.

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Gmail changes: Users win, marketers adapt

Google made two significant changes to Gmail this year.

Marketers got into a tizzy.

More importantly… users yawned and gratefully accepted the changes.

Gmail Inbox Tabs

First off, incoming mail is now sorted (by an algorithm) into tabbed areas (Primary, Social, Promotions). This is pretty handy if you’re not a control freak. The worry for marketers was that their email blasts would get stuck into the Promotions “Purgatory” ghetto and never get opened.

Email diagnostic service Litmus was one of the first credible sources to report that clicks were down, in a characteristically candid post in August.

Well, someone at MailChimp dove into six months of data (29 billion emails, which I suppose is statistically significant) and came to a few conclusions:

  • Gmail open rates are down 1.5%, a bit more than average
  • Gmail clicks are down 1%, about average
  • Gmail unsubscribes are flat, better than average.
  • While we don’t know about the impact of conversions to sale (since that data is known only* to site owners) we can fairly assume that the effect is minimal.

So balance the decreased click engagement with the healthier unsubscribe measurement, and IT’S A WASH. As Matthew at MailChimp says, “If the data tells us a story, it’s that Gmail tabs are working as intended and helping people manage their inboxes.”

Marketers got off the ledge.

Cached Images

And then they got back on!

gmail-image-caching

(Or, more likely, we’re just seeing pageview-driven headline bait. Move along now…)

So this week Google rolled a change which means Gmail users will see images by default.

Previously, you had to “Click to display images” or whitelist a sender.

Google’s stated motivations were for the user experience, and it is a nontrivial improvement. Fewer clicks is better! Like the tabbed inbox, most Gmail users will appreciate the change.

Their technical modus operandi, serving the images directly from their own servers (aka image proxying), however, has an impact on marketers.

Here’s why. Email senders track email opens by serving up a tiny image, uniquely coded for the recipient. Since Google is now the intermediary for that image, marketers lose a number of things. Geolocation of opens, multiple opens, forwards, and so on.

Bright minds are still figuring out the impact. The more fevered commentators are raising questions about anitcompetitive practices and pointing to how this helps Google’s display ad business.

Netting it Out

Large-volume marketers are understandably interested in the particulars of the changes, since marginal changes in a send of 50,000 emails can mean a difference in dollars down the line. Smart marketers will adapt to technical changes, as they always have.

But if your company sends out a modest amount of email, don’t worry.

For example, “Company C” sends out a weekly newsletter to 5500 people in the B2B space. Gmail represents a paltry 2% of their user base. Inbox Tabs mean their weekly open rate will drop 0.01%. Their aggregate data on geography and multiple opens will be 2% less reliable.

Another sober view came from Campaign Monitor who correctly point out that the impact of these changes is dwarfed by other factors well within your control: creative, offer, design, send timing, and landing pages.

Oh, and how good your email looks on a smartphone, which is now where MORE THAN HALF of emails are opened.

That’s where you should spend extra effort to raise your email conversion to sale. Don’t worry about marginal Google decisions.

 

*and, um, Google Analytics… 

Competition is Good for Consumers, Email Broadcast Service edition

Out of all the email broadcast services that serve the SMB market, MailChimp is #1. Here’s one unscientific measure from new web app directory Best Vendor, and something more reliable from Google Trends.

Generally, MailChimp’s stature is deserved. One of my clients uses them for a regular newsletter, and we’re all happy.

But any market leader needs antagonists at their heels, or they become fat and unresponsive to customers.

Which is why I was glad to see Campaign Monitor add an RSS-to-email feature last week. MailChimp has had this feature for a long time, and Feedburner for even longer. This new feature is a bit hobbled with the absence of dynamic subject lines, but we should expcet that to come soon.

I have long admired the Campaign Monitor user interface — which IMHO is still preferable to MailChimp’s — and it’s reassuring to see them continue to develop their product.

MailChimp will probably never look like Ma Bell, but healthy competition means that outcome is even more unlikely.

A Tiny Failure to Sell

If you’re a college graduate, you know the drill when a rep from your alma mater calls you for updated contact information.

“It’s for the alumni directory,” they say.

“You’re here for my money,” you think.

The rep is actually with a firm like Harris Connect, who gathers information in return for the opportunity to sell grads their dead-tree directories. (As little as you look forward to a telesales call, you should actually appreciate this effort. Better data in the hands of the university means better networking for you.)

Harris’s telemarketer did their pitch. Harris’s email let me click straight to a form where I could change my info and save, and the following confirmation page pitched me on the “Deluxe Package Set, with hardcover book and CD-ROM” for $109.99, and four other versions of the directory.

A Tiny Missed Opportunity

But then I got a confirmation email from them. Here it is, in its entirety:

upsell-fail

 

Where is the link to buy the directory? If they had included one, I might have changed my mind later and bought the directory.

One or two things happened when someone wrote this email.

1) The product managers weren’t being thorough, in development of the user experience or when testing it.

2) The marginal effort of adding a better message was too high. I can actually understand this; they probably have a “legacy” email broadcast system which is hard to customize.

But there are partial measures. In decreasing order of preference, this is what they might have included:

  • A link to a Harris shopping cart page that knows who I am and what directory I might want.
  • A link to the Harris shopping cart, where I can search for my college’s name.
  • The email or phone number to buy a directory.

I’d be truly surprised if a Harris person told me that they couldn’t even put a phone number in the confirmation email.

And at scale, the tiny missed opportunities can add up to meaningful differences.

Sending emails to your list? Avoid this pitfall.

When you blast out a pretty email to your customer list, does it come out pretty?

Maybe not.

A clear majority of people now use email programs that block images from displaying, by default. This can affect your layout.

This is how it looks when you don’t take the proper steps. It looks sloppy and interferes with your message.

email01

And here is a better-formatted email. The images are still hidden, but the layout works and the selling copy is presented in the desired hierarchy.

email02

 

For comparison, here is the email once images are “allowed” by the recipient — either by a one-time clicks of “allow images” or “always display from this sender” i.e. whitelisting.
email03

 

What You Can Do

  • Create special accounts at Gmail and Yahoo just for testing emails.
  • Ask your marketing people to design emails that lay out properly when you (the sender) is “untrusted” .
  • Use a better email broadcast service, like Campaign Monitor or MailChimp. They have lots of testing tools, advice, and templates for designing good emails.

Easy Email A/B Testing

Testing two versions of something is a great way to 1) lift response and 2) gain a greater understanding of your customers.

Plus, the tools for testing your web pages and emails keep getting better, cheaper, and easier to implement.

How does A/B testing work? For a website, you would first build a variation of an important page. Then you would set your website to show that variation to some of your website visitors, and measure what happens afterwards. For a fuller definition, check out this glossary entry at Anne Holland’s Which Test Won.

What to Test?

So, what parts of your web pages and emails can you change?

  • Copy. Start here, by tweaking word choice. You can also test how people respond to different articles, which can give you insight into what buyers care about.
  • Formatting. Is a larger font better?
  • Layout. This is harder to do, but appropriate for high-volume response pages.
  • Images.
  • Button colors and size, especially anything that’s a call to action.

In an upcoming blog post I’ll review the web page testing tools. Today we’ll look at email.

My favorite service for blasting out emails, Campaign Monitor, has a built-in testing tool. It’s not exactly new, but oh is it easy. If you’re sending out a promotional email, there’s really no reason not to do this kind of test.

Dead Simple

Here’s how it works.

Say you have a list of 2,000 addresses. You take the email you’re about to send, and think of two different subject lines. Version A gets sent to 500 people, Version B gets sent to 500 people, and the service tracks how many people open and clicks. After a preset number of hours, the remaining 1,000 get sent the winning version.

You can also set Version A and B to have differing email bodies, or designs, or From addresses.

Below is the money shot from the Campaign Monitor help page.

139-ab-size-winner

The sizes of A and B are set with the grey slider.

If your mailing list has thousands of people, testing 30% of the list (as shown in the image) would be adequate. The people at Visual Website Optimizer have a nice tool for determining statistical significance.

Business Blogging – Five reasons why it might work for you

Let’s define a business blog just as a regular stream of commentary on a topic. Here’s how it can work:

Engages and builds trust with customers and prospects.

Your prospects are looking for a solution from someone that understands their problems. Show your customers how much you know about their business challenge, and they’ll believe your product addresses those needs… especially if you don’t overtly mention your product. You can also shape the issues faced by buyers of your products. If done honestly, that can directly benefit your sales effort.

Establishes thought leadership in your industry.

If you’re an expert in your field, a blog gives you an effective channel to put your knowledge on display. Blog content is inherently more sharable than a white paper, and more timely besides. HealthpointCapital, a private equity firm, is a notable model for a firm that used a blog to dramatically expand the reach of its research output.

Helps keep your website dynamic.

We all know the the main function of most websites is to develop and qualify leads, and that drives the main content and structure. However, a blog addresses two nonstandard types of user visits. First, buyers will occasionally visit your site and want to know what’s new. Second, your painstakingly written “regular” website content may not address all problems faced by prospects. A blog engages visitors in these two situations and nudges them along the selling cycle.

Lifts your website up the search engine rankings.

Google smiles upon sites with regularly updated content. That means higher rankings on the search results page, and more traffic for your site.

Complements your email and offline efforts.

This is multichannel marcom. For example: Interview a customer, and put it on your blog. Formalize the interview into a PDF case study, which your field sales team can use. Turn the material into a “customer win” press release. Excerpt the interview for your email newsletter to customers. Blogs fit nicely into any marketing campaign.

Does so by not costing too much. Blog software is cheap, and they can fit into your website without too much effort. That said, the commitment to keeping a business blog is steady and does claim a fair amount of time from your marketing staff. (Or, you can outsource it.)

 

Nifty Email Broadcast Service: CampaignMonitor

For years, I’ve been looking for the right email broadcast service for small- and medium-sized firms with a monthly newsletter. I’ve kissed plenty of frogs:

  • Topica. A hosted service for medium- and high-volume senders. For a test account, they mistakenly dinged my credit card $500 for four straight months. Although it did get resolved, it was not a pleasant process.
  • iPost: A great service started a few years ago by some nice guys (Steve Webster and Greg Fox) who were very accessible on the phone. They eventually joined their rightful place among the higher-priced services like EmailLabs, CheetahMail, and YesMail.
  • Campaigner. Inexpensive hosted service. If I remember correctly, their unsubscribe policy was awfully restrictive. If Joe Smith unsubscribed from one Campaigner-serviced newsletter, he was taken off all Campaigner-serviced newsletters… including your own.
  • ConstantContact: Another inexpensive service. It’s got good market traction these days, and I can’t complain about the deliverability and the end product. But the back-end interface is kind of clunky, and the pages don’t flow as you go from step to step. For example, the “send a test” function is in the Preview popup window, and the button doesn’t stand out. It’s difficult to delete a draft email. There are upsell links scattered through the first few pages. To be fair, ConstantContact is aimed at a non-technical audience. There are loads of templates, and the monthly pricing is predictable and cheap.
  • eZineDirector. Cheap hosted service. Terrible and unintuitive interface. Delivery can be delayed for hours after you click Send. Major data loss event took place in 2006.
  • DadaMail. An installed set of PHP scripts, written by an artist in Colorado. A nominally free package, but you have to pay to remove the DadaMail tagline. In 2007, the guy’s website would regularly exceed its bandwidth cap, leaving you without support forums. Now I notice that he’s selling links from his home page, a little bit of commercial sleaze which just confirms that artists often do sell out. And yes, the software was named after the surrealist.
  • PHPList. Much-used free PHP script package, but it’s apparently impossible to strip the “PHPList” tagline out of the email. Other customizations are difficult.
  • Feedblitz. Not a true email broadcast service. Instead, it’s a web app built to read RSS-formatted blog/CMS output and then send it out to your list via email. Like a complement to “traditional” RSS. Nearly all of my clients have websites built by some kind of blog/CMS application, so Feedblitz was worth a look. There is a rather bewildering array of features, which surely can be massaged into something useful for readers of a blog-centric company. Yet there’s a little too much FeedBlitz identity built into the output, and it’s more expensive than the cheap services. Not the best fit for my requirements, but one to keep experimenting with.

 

There are happy customers on all these services, but my search for the right blend of inexpensive/easy/fast/smart/brandable went on and on. Until today.

Campaign Monitor is a hosted service run out of Australia. How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.

  1. Inexpensive enough, for monthly senders. Per email blast, it’s $5 plus a penny per recipient. The simplicity of this a la carte model is very appealing, even if it’s about 50% more than the cheapie email services. Weekly mailers with lists in the ’000s won’t save any money here, I must add.
  2. Works Fast. It feels like the server is next door.
  3. Fabulous user interface. Here is where they really shine. As you assemble an outbound email, the pages flow naturally together in a wonderfully linear way. How did they do this? Information is chunked together well, button colors chosen sensibly and applied consistently, labels are consistent, and there is white space to set the important material off. Really, there is so much goodness here I should write a separate post about the UI. Bottom line for the user, a solid UI means less chance of a mistake and less time spent building the email.
  4. Focussed. Once you’re logged in, you don’t see pointers to other services the vendor offers. These just clutter the interface and take you off-task.
  5. Brandable. As far as I can tell, there are only two things in an outbound email that you can’t “own” with your corporate identity: the URL of the unsubscribe link, and the email headers. That’s as unobtrusive as it gets for a hosted service, at least at this pricing level.

 

Although I haven’t road-tested Campaign Monitor much, I have a feeling I’m at the end of my quest.