“Yeah, I love you too,” I said. My boyfriend and I were boating on the lake I grew up on. In Texas. In the blistering summer heat.
“But it’s SO HOT. Why did you stop the boat? Can we please go?”
Then I realized why he was saying so many sweet things to me – he was proposing. To marry me.
And I got excited.
Not about the usual stuff: a gorgeous white dress, table full of presents, wedding cake, the 200+ peeps who I wanted to celebrate that day with me, the honeymoon and, y’know, my future husband.
But also about something else.
Something only a marketing geek would think about in that moment.
More specifically, I started to wonder how I would use email to get my 213 ideal guests to:
- RSVP on time,
- Understand the logistical details and
- Not ask me a million questions at inopportune times, like in the 2 or 3 manic days leading up to the wedding.
It was a challenge I was totally game for. You get it. You’re reading this, so you get it – the interest in optimizing emails of any kind, even and especially for a wedding.
Fast-forward through the tough negotiations with my parents and in-laws – I loaded up my guest list into MailChimp. I was going to write one helluva show-up sequence for my wedding. I was going to email the sh*t out of my wedding. I was going to make Joanna Wiebe proud.
…Turns out only a little proud since I failed at automation.
BUT! I did get:
- An average 77% open rate,
- Only one unsubscriber and
- Just ONE truly epic failure that cost us a fair amount of money in the end.
Here are the marketing lessons I learned from treating my wedding invitations as an email marketing case study.
If my wedding email copy was going to convert, I needed to focus on one specific segment. Or the copy was going to be crap.
You sit down to write. And seconds, minutes, hours later, you’re still staring at that blinking cursor.
You’re not struggling because you’re a bad writer.
You’re struggling because you don’t know whom you’re writing to.
This was exactly the problem I had with our wedding email list.
My wedding invitation list was made up of people with almost nothing in common: single people, coupled people, heavy drinkers, non-drinkers, conservative friends, #imwithher friends… and people we honestly didn’t know.
(You had them at your wedding too. They gift well, so it’s cool.)
There was no way I was going to please everyone. Plus, trying to would dilute the quality of the content.
The bigger reason was I wanted to make sure they saw my emails. Lyris Annual Email Optimizer Report found that 39% of marketers who segmented their email lists experienced higher open rates.
I decided to focus on the people who I really wanted at the wedding but who were still on the fence about whether or not they were coming. The obligatory invites were gonna show up no matter what; I needed to convert the on-the-fence people.
In sales funnel parlance, I was gunning for the qualified leads. The people who had expressed interest but weren’t committed. My challenge was how to turn these qualified leads into buyers (aka attendees at my wedding).
How do you convince people with a half-dozen wedding invitations each summer to choose to go to YOURS?
Our wedding was going to be the 31st wedding we’d attended in five years. No, not a typo. Everyone we knew was being invited to a bajillion weddings every year.
My job was to identify the message my on-the-fence would-be guests needed to read to choose us.
I needed market research.
Luckily, my fiance and I – with 30+ invitations received in the last years – were fully immersed in the market. We were the market. And we knew this:
Emailing out professional photos of us lovingly gazing at each other wasn’t going to cut it.
In fact, it would have the opposite intended effect. If you’re on the wedding circuit, getting yet another invitation doesn’t get you excited for the wedding. Instead, you think twice about the several thousand dollars you have to commit to
flushing down the toilet spending on people you love.
Not to mention, our emails had to stand out in our guests’ inboxes. In 2016, an average of 33 emails was sent per day. Plus, our invitation had to stand out from all the OTHER wedding invitations they were getting.
We needed to emphasize the reason on-the-fence people go to weddings: FOMO.
So, we had to make it seem like we were a blast and that the event was going to be awesome. So awesome that you’d want to tell everyone you know about it. So awesome you wouldn’t dare miss it.
That was the strategy behind sending our save-the-date email:
Subject: Don’t make plans June 18th, 2016
Our “Don’t make plans June 18th, 2016” email had a 90% open rate.
Yay for a high open rate!
Next up: I needed to get people to RSVP.
The dead-simple, direct marketing tricks I used to snag a wedding unicorn: on-time RSVPs
Once people opened our emails, we needed them to actually read them and take action. On time.
This was tough.
I needed to make it as easy as possible for people to do what I wanted them to do.
I’d been in marketing long enough to know that no one does anything that requires effort. If it’s not stupid easy, they won’t do it.
No one does anything that requires effort. Like RSVP for a wedding. @copyhackers @margoaaron
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For a successful email marketing case study, I needed people to take two specific actions:
- Book their hotel room
And I needed #1 and #2 both done before the deadline. So we wouldn’t incur any fees.
But here was the problem. (It’s one you’re sure to recognize from your own marketing.)
We had a LOT of information to convey. Information that could be distracting. Information that could be overwhelming – so overwhelming that people would stop reading our emails and go do something else BEFORE taking action. Information like:
- Hotel info
- Things to do in Houston
- How to RSVP
Knowing overwhelmed people stop reading, I broke out my direct response toolkit. And I started thinking through how to [ethically] manipulate their behavior.
I used my DR copywriting background to write our save-the-date email.
Here’s what I wrote to make sure people took action (below the fold):
And here’s why this email worked:
- There were no giant blocks of text
- I strategically placed jokes to break up the dry, monotonous info
- We weren’t trying to sound overly formal or “professional”
- I used buttons – not hyperlinks – to ensure our CTAs were unmissable
- We used plain English
Most importantly: If we wanted you to believe you were going to have fun at our wedding, well, the emails HAD to be fun, too. So that was a focus for me when I was writing ’em.
And it worked. People began to RSVP immediately.
…But not enough people.
So I used 3 more direct marketing tricks to increase engagement rates and get people to RSVP sooner (because a yes now is better than a yes tomorrow). These are the 3 tricks.
Trick #1. Make strategic use of the P.S.
People ignore large blocks of texts and for whatever weird quirk of psychology always read the P.S. (and photo captions). So, I reinforced the important information in the P.S. in every email I sent out.
Subject: We support small businesses
Here’s another example where the P.S. had 19.5% CTR:
Trick #2. Break the left margin at the right places
When you think about getting people to pay attention to things, you need to think about how to interrupt patterns. The clean left margin is a pattern that needs interrupting to grab attention.
In this bad example, your eye is naturally drawn to the solitary line of text under the picture:
So we broke the left margin purposefully to attract our readers’ eye and highlight the important stuff.
Take a look at this email body – even if you skim it, you’ll know that you need to book your room.
Subject: Where to stay for our wedding (hotel details inside)
Trick #3. Set a deadline and remind people about it
We set a deadline and reinforced it over and over and over again. Like this great email from leadership mentor, Michael Hyatt, that uses BOTH the P.S. trick and deadline reminder:
No one wants to go back into their email and dig up important information. So we kept repeating it in critical places, like this:
Subject: It’s the Final Countdown
In the end, we only had to stalk a few people to get everyone RSVP’d on time and that was because they were legitimately not on email. Ironically, it was not my 87-year-old grandma – she is on email.
When you do things differently, you get more attention. From people who love what you do. And from haters.
This brings us to the actual wedding invitation, which was pretty epic, IMHO.
For our email wedding invitation, we sent our a well-edited professional video. We maintained the same quality direct response standards as our previous emails and even preempted the blowback we anticipated we’d get. This is what we sent…
Subject: Important message from Margo and Brian
Remember: we were focused on the on-the-fence people.
We knew the obligatory people were going to show up… and the judgy people were going to show up… we needed to win the undecided.
That, however, didn’t stop the judgy people from saying mean things behind our backs, like:
- “That’s not the actual invite… is it?”
- “Did you really let them do that?”
- “You’re going to send out a paper invite, right?”
TBH, that stuff says more about the judger than the judged, but it still sucks.
Instead of letting it derail us, we used it as a positive indicator we were on the right track.
If your copy is off-putting to some, it’s perfection to others.
If your copy is off-putting to some, it’s perfection to others – @margoaaron on @copyhackers
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Because those strong emotions are part of storytelling.
Good stories can move people to action. They can encourage sympathy and instigate donations. They can cause an uprising or a revolution. They can provoke a response or influence readers.
Our target market LOVED our invite. For proof, look at the analytics:
Of the 172 people who opened, they opened it 1,068 times!!! The people who loved it LOVED IT.
And they were showing all their friends. Of course, we were also tracking the YouTube video views, which were over 350. You’re never going to please everyone. Stay focused on your target market and ignore everyone else.
Which brings us to…
The always-ignored, uncomfortable truth about email marketing (because it has nothing to do with email)
The subject line is the most crucial part of any email marketing strategy.
If you can’t get someone to open the email, you’re dead in the water.
So our priority was to find compelling subject lines people would actually open.
Here were our subject lines:
- Don’t make plans June 18th, 2016
- We support small businesses
- Important message from Margo and Brian
- Who wants BBQ?
- It’s the final countdown
- Wedding Weekend Cheat-Sheet
Clear. Straightforward. Plain English.
And it worked. Our list average open rate was 77% with some campaigns at 100%.
I’d love to take credit for my awesome headline skillz, but the reason for that open rate was not just the headline – it was the relationship.
Your relationship with your list is more important than your copy
The people on our list knew my husband, our parents or me personally.
When you have a relationship with the person emailing, you look forward to their emails. It’s less about the copy and more about the relationship. It’s like someone seeing you speak at an event and then getting on your email list.
Humans are wired to want relationships. Psychologists Roy F. Baumeister of Case Western Reserve University and Mark R. Leary of Wake Forest University found:
At present, it seems fair to conclude that human beings are fundamentally and pervasively motivated by a need to belong, that is, by a strong desire to form and maintain enduring interpersonal attachments. People seek frequent, affectively positive interactions within the context of long-term, caring relationships.
In other words, if you’ve been reading and liking someone’s stuff, you’re more likely to WANT to hear from them – no matter what their copy says.
It’s why you don’t have to hear from Tim Urban or Mark Manson for like a month and they can write a subject line that says “poop on a stick” and you’re like, “Hmm, wonder what that’s about? CLICK.”
Because you already know you like them and you want more.
why a “poop on a stick” subject line makes you open an email, by @margoaaron on @copyhackers
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Building a strong relationship that makes people WANT to open your email is an exceptionally difficult thing to do. But it is the goal of strong content marketing and branding. And it was an advantage we had with our wedding list.
We were de facto in good standing because people liked us IRL or liked our parents (and we benefited from the Halo Effect).
That’s why we made a lot of jokes about our parents in the copy, like this:
But just because we got the relationship right and the majority of the copy right didn’t mean we got EVERYTHING right.
Let my confession begin…
At last, here is the HUGE mistake we made
When you use old-school print mail, you think about 1) reducing print and post costs and 2) households. As in, you send one print invitation to one household.
When you use email, you don’t have to think about print and post costs. And an address is not for a household but for an individual.
We didn’t think about that.
So we send email invitations to email addresses – sometimes multiple emails for a single household – and, as a result, people weren’t entirely sure who was invited and who was not.
Our assumption was that by sending one email to each individual person invited instead of to “couples,” people would understand that this was a specific invitation for them. As in, for ONE person.
Yeah… no. No one thought that.
Here’s why: people are accustomed to RSVPing as a couple or a family. We hadn’t considered that we were changing a social ethos. So, when people got to the RSVP page, they saw the prompt, “How many people are you RSVPing for?” and filled in whatever they wanted.
We had parents RSVPing for children who weren’t invited.
Single people bringing plus one’s just because they could.
One person even RSVP’d for their dog.
The strangest part: Not a single person asked us for clarification.
Because of that, we had to have some extremely uncomfortable conversations. So uncomfortable that we decided about 15 extra people could just come to the wedding because we really didn’t want to keep dis-inviting people. At an average of $100 per guest, that mistake cost us about $1500. It was money well spent, of course – but something that we hadn’t planned for.
It never occurred to me to test our assumptions (or even to identify this assumption!) – despite being a devout follower of Eric Reis, who abuses words like iterate and pivot. I learned this lesson the hard way.
Invisible assumptions sink great ideas. For 42% of startups, the #1 cause of failure was “no market need.” In other words, no one wanted their product.
You make tons of assumptions when creating something. Yevgeniy (Jim) Brikman writes:
“You assume you know what users are looking for, how the design should work, what marketing strategy to use, what architecture will work most efficiently, which monetization strategy will make it sustainable, and which laws and regulations you have to comply with. No matter how good you are, some of your assumptions will be wrong.”
It’s the same when you’re sending emails.
Lesson learned HARD: it’s hard to see your invisible assumptions.
You can’t see your invisible assumptions. How do you shine a light on ‘em? asks @margoaaron on…
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The marketer’s challenge post-campaign: Re-engagement
While I can’t comment on Happily Ever After because it’s only been a year (so far, so good), I can comment on reengagement.
Specifically, reengaging the list!
It was dormant since, well, our wedding was over. So, 288 days later, in true email marketing fashion, we sent an email titled “What’s everyone doing for our one year?” to wake it up.
It worked! 83.6% open rate and a lot of responses directly to my inbox, which I now regret not having counted.
So wedding season is right around the corner, and you want to test out your skills on an email marketing case study…
… Or just up-level your email marketing game …
Here are the top 4 lessons I learned:
- Know the goal for your email marketing (ours was to win over the undecided peeps)
- Know who you’re talking to (i.e. your audience)
- Your subject lines should be clear, straightforward… and play on your relationship with your recipient
- Figure out your USP (aka why someone’d want to come to YOUR wedding vs someone else’s) and use that as your campaign’s theme
Pick one (or all!) and get cracking