Thursday, 27 March 2014

Subject line (im)personalisation

If you're going to insert your recipient's first name into the subject line of your marketing emails, make sure you actually have their first name...


And if you don't have first name, use an alternative subject line. Menswear retailer Farrell have forgotten to actually insert my name in today's spring sale message. 

Inside the email, there's also a very odd choice of call-to-action button colour. Eye strain-inducing blue on green? Ouch.


Wednesday, 18 December 2013

A tale of two emails

I received two very different emails in the last week, both trying to flog me some wine to enjoy over Christmas. Both are from companies that I've bought from in the past and it's fair to say that both emails break every rule in the book. Not that there is a book or, indeed, any rules at all when it comes to email marketing. But you know what I mean - the "best practice" guidelines that are produced by email service providers and others who are associated one way or another with cluttering up your inbox.

In reality, of course, the unorthodox sometimes works and actually cuts through that clutter in an unexpected way. So we're left with just two types of emails: those that achieve the objectives you set out for them and those that don't. So whilst both these examples "break the rules", I strongly suspect that one of them will have achieved what it was supposed to and one won't.

First up was an email from Naked Wines founder Rowan Gormley. The subject was simply Thank you...
Now this is a tactic that they've used before. The from address and display name is Rowan's, so it looks like a personal email rather than a marketing effort. One benefit of this approach was that it was in my primary tab in my Gmail box rather than filed under promotions. And on opening, the first line reads
Dear Matthew,
For once I am not writing to sell you anything. I am writing to thank you. 

OK, go on Rowan. Just what kind of reverse psychology trickery are you up to?

He tells me how he got fired 5 years ago and how he and some of his team decided to start a wine business and why they've tried to do things differently. It was such engaging copy that I read through to the end. A genuine story and a genuinely interesting read, even if the narrative is a touch sentimental. There is a link near the end to a case of wine that they've put together, but even that is inserted in an almost apologetic way.

If you'd have stuck to "best practice", you'd never even consider approaching an email in this way. The best part of a thousand words, no images, no calls to action and one small link to their ecommerce site? I obviously don't know how effective it was at selling wine, but its objective was probably not that anyway. It was to make the reader feel good about having supported Naked Wines in the past and be more receptive to a series of emails that have followed from some of the winemakers who Naked have supported over the years. Whatever, it did the trick for me and I have duly placed my order.

Now for the ugly. The very next day I received an email from recently-rescued Slurp. This time a very singled-minded message with the subject Save on Spy Valley Sauvignon Blanc. I'm rather partial to a drop of Kiwi Sauv so I took note. What first struck me as odd was the pre-header text - it read Save 40% on Pinot Noir from New Zealand. That seemed to be a very mixed message displaying in my inbox. Is this about Sauvignon or Pinot Noir? On opening, there's a laughably out of focus image of the bottle on a white background that's been set against a blue background. It looks like the sort of image I find on my laptop when my kids have been playing with MS Paint. Only less professional.

Scroll down a bit and I'm addressed as Dear ,
Nice touch. You can't beat a bit of personalisation. Some interesting use of apostrophes and homonyms later and we eventually scroll down to the product itself, which is now displaying as a much clearer image with the awesome call to action button of SHOP NOW. There's no price or hint of what that saving was that I was promised in the subject. In short, nothing that makes me want to click through to the site.

And to finish off this journey through the craptacular, there are some uninspiring social links at the bottom. The Facebook one doesn't go to the Slurp Facebook page though. Oh no. It goes to the personal page of an employee of Slurp's new owners! Using work emails to try and get more friends on Facebook are we Tim?
See the Slurp mail in all its glory here.

I think it's fair to say that my preference was definitely for the Naked Wines email in this instance. And in homage, I've decided to make this an excessively wordy and image-free post.

Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Quality never goes out of style - now apply that to your site

I was asked by a friend to take a look at the UK site of Levi's this morning.  He couldn't believe how bad the checkout was and suggested it must be the worst ever. He's never had the pleasure of the the Virgin Mobile checkout, which I doubt will ever be bettered (or should that be worsed?), but Levi's have certainly created a ghastly nightmare of a site.

The first mistake I made was to look at the site on my mobile. There's no responsive design or dedicated mobile site and it's simply unusable, even on a big-screen phone. Bad start.


Having switched to desktop, I click through to the first product that catches my attention - a hoodie. The product page displays some size options, like you'd expect. I see that L is greyed out, which obviously tells me that they don't have this item in large. It's in the sale, so nothing too unexpected there and it's good to be able to see up-front what sizes are available. But I think I can still just about get away with a medium so I select M and click add to bag.

Uh? So the sizes that can be selected can still be out of stock? So why not have that size greyed out too? Maybe it's something to do with the different colour options. So I try to add a medium in all 3 available colours but it's out of stock for all of them. Frustrations levels are on the rise.

Next I look at a scarf, which only comes in one size; this should avoid any of the size complications. I click add to bag and I have another error pop-up: please pick a size. Yes, I have to click on "ONE SIZE" before I can add it the the bag. Please tell me why you're making me do this? Totally unnecessary friction.

I finally make it through to the basket page where I notice an additional sale message that says "Up to 60% off - See Cart DETAILS". I want to check this out. It's unclear whether it refers to the saving I'm making on this item or whether there's a further discount available to me . I guess we'll never know:


Clicking on Privacy Policy launches a light box, like you'd expect. The last thing you want to do is take customers away from the checkout at this point. But the policy isn't there. There's just some guff about how deeply committed Levi's are to our privacy and a link to the actual privacy policy - which then does take me to a new page away from the checkout. And within about two seconds a lightbox pops up to tell me "You have been selected to participate in a brief customer satisfaction survey to let us know how we can improve your experience."

I tell you how you could improve the user experience and improve your conversion rate - don't take me away from the middle of a checkout and then ask me to participate in a survey. What are you thinking, Levi's?

Having made my way back to the checkout, I resume with the personal details page. This is a bit clunky and there some really strange use of font sizes.

I forgot to tick that terms and privacy acceptance box, like I presume everyone does before they click next. The form shoots to the top where there's an error message: "Before we move on, please review the fields in red. They contain incorrect or missing information." I then have to scroll back down to the bottom to find the field I'd missed. Why not just anchor the page at wherever the error is and save me the hunt?

Finally to the payments page and I'm presented with radio buttons to choose my payment type. I pick my credit card type and nothing happens.

There's no next button or anything to suggest what I'm supposed to do next. So I scroll back up to the top the page and hunt around for a next or proceed button there. But nothing. Now I'm really confused. Only when I scroll back down to the bottom of the page do I realise that some fields have opened up for me to enter my card details. I repeated this several times and the average delay between selecting payment type and the reveal of the form was 5 seconds. That's so long that I'm sure lots of customers will do the same as I did. The abandon rate on this final page must be way higher than it needs to be.

I should point out that this was not a full review and test of Levi's UK site, by any means. This was a really quick run through - finding a product, adding to basket and checking out. I didn't go looking for issues and I'm 100% certain there will be more if I could force myself to stay on this shocking site for one minute longer.

What's totally clear is that the ecommerce team responsible for this site are not doing any user testing. They can't possibly be looking at real users' interactions with the site, otherwise these issues would surely be resolved. And this is not a small business that could point to budget as an excuse for this shoddiness. This is Levi's - a major global brand. And this total lack of quality and attention to detail will surely be harming that brand.

Monday, 5 August 2013

A lean recipe and market size assumptions

Making assumptions about the size of markets is important. It's why the big analyst firms like IDC, Forrester and Gartner have revenues that are often bigger than entire sectors that they produce reports on. (Do any of them report on the market for business analysis, I wonder?)

What's great for small businesses and start-ups is that much of this information is made public and is useful for understanding the market you operate in or would like to move in to. How is the market likely to develop over time? Core data about market size and forecast growth can help to validate key start-up assumptions.

What does your forecast growth look like in comparison to the growth (or decline) of the sector as a whole? Does that share of the market look reasonable at each key stage of the business? If you're looking at owning more than 100% of the market at any point then you clearly have a problem with your key assumptions.

But understanding market share on your growth journey can be important for a host of other, more strategic, reasons. What are your competitors likely to do as you acquire significant share? At what point do regulatory concerns have to be taken into account? What might consolidation look like in this sector?

Taking the size of a market should not, however, be used as the sole underpinning of a business plan and the assumptions about sales growth. This flawed argument works like this: We think we can achieve X in sales in year one, but we don't have any real basis for this assumption. It's a hunch. But X is only 0.1% of the total market therefore X is a perfectly valid assumption and we should therefore proceed and make decisions about the business on the basis of this forecast.

Imagine me estimating how many people I think will read this post. There are about 50 billion pageviews per day globally*. I'm pretty sure I can get just 0.002% of today's pageviews across the planet. That seems like a tiny proportion. Therefore, I'm going to say 1 million views is easily achievable and I'm going to pay for enough server capacity and bandwidth from my hosting company to deal with that demand.

The absurdity of this example is quite plain. Of course a more reliable guess would be to look at pageviews of previous posts. If none was available, maybe look at how many followers I have on the social networks that I post the link to and make an assumption about a 'conversion' rate from those channels. But in the absence of any metrics that could be used to even loosely estimate core assumptions, what do you do?

Well, you don't make any critical spending decisions or commitments on the basis of your initial assumptions. You have to take the "Lean Startup" approach. Build a minimum viable product and test it out. You can't start with a whole market and work back using a reductionist approach until you get to a share that sounds about right. That would be a sure-fire recipe for failure.

* source = top of head

Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Captcha - the Ryanair way

Econsultancy today published an article on some alternatives to using Captcha images to validate that a real person is trying to leave a comment or make an enquiry on your site. Captcha images are those distorted words that a computer trying to spam or hack the site can't decipher, but which a human is supposed to be able to read and type into a box.

They can quite often be deeply frustrating when you really can't tell what any of the letters in the word are supposed to be. Although it can sometimes be amusing for your co-workers when you find yourself trying to say the words out loud.

It reminded me of Ryanair's recent addition of a Captcha image to their site, presumably to stop competitors scraping all of their flight prices. They did what Ryanair would, of course, do in this situation: they figured out how they could make money out of it. So after you've selected your dates and destination, you're taken to a screen where you need to enter a Captcha image in order to proceed. But in order to display the words, you first need to click on a button that plays you an advert for a third party brand.


I think most of us are accustomed to and accepting of adverts that we know support otherwise free services, from commercial TV to YouTube. It's part of the contract we enter into when we choose to consume such content. But monetising what is a security measure on your own site? Really?

Aptly enough, I was shown an advert for a popular headache remedy.

Hat tip to @brucelauderdale for the Ryanair thing.


Sunday, 21 July 2013

Is Mike Ashley a philanthropist?

Long serving staff at his Sports Direct chain have just got considerably better off as a result of a generous share scheme and stellar performance at the retail group. Nothing unusual in that, of course. Plenty of businesses reward their managers well when performance is good. But what has caught the attention of many observers in Sports Direct's case is just who is on the receiving end of the bonuses. Not just the officer class, you see. Shop floor employees on £20k a year are set for an additional £75k in earnings from the share scheme this year.

It's wholly accepted that incentivising directors in line with company objectives is an effective way of aligning shareholders' and managers' interests. But I would argue that it's just as important, possibly more so, to incentivise those whose jobs are 'lower down the corporate ladder'. A company director or department head will often see their performance in their current role as part of their overall career progression. Hitting the numbers that were forecast to the city, outperforming the rest of the sector and winning industry awards can all be seen as fodder for the CV and more credibility towards that next step on their career path.

For the shop floor workers at Sports Direct, the overall performance of the group is unlikely to be felt in quite the same way. They are unlikely to be able to take the credit for the group's performance, despite the fact that, collectively, they are all just as responsible for success as the capos.

Did Ashley recognise this when he personally set up the share scheme 5 years ago? What's certain is that he took a fairly straightforward bet. By giving around 5% of the company to his staff, was he likely to get more value back because everyone had a stake in the success of the company? Put in those terms, it looks like a decent punt and one that has handsomely paid off for him. I hope that business owners and investors are looking at Sports Direct and taking note. 5% or 10% of company shares may be a small stake to lay for potentially great returns.

But was he being philanthropic? I don't know much about Ashley (who does?). Whether it was just straightforward good management or there was altruism in what he did, it must be a source of great satisfaction to see so many people doing well as a result of their own hard work. Thousands of people receiving a substantial amount of money must be more gratifying than seeing a handful of executives buying a bigger boat.


Sunday, 17 March 2013

Virgin Mobile - contender for worst checkout ever

I've just signed up for a SIM-only phone deal from Virgin Mobile. By far the best deal on the market for my usage requirements and I already have Virgin Media for home phone, TV and Broadband. It's always been easy to transact with them online so I assumed I'd get the same well-thought-out treatment from Virgin Mobile.

Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. It's difficult to describe just how awful their signup process is. The first annoyance came from Live Chat. I'm generally a fan of text chat customer service (so long as the invitation button doesn't contain a stock image of someone wearing a headset). It's usually a better option than making a call, battling through inane options and then holding for a customer service rep. I can do other stuff at the same time and the CS staff can handle more than one chat at a time, so everyone wins.

But popping up a chat invitation incessantly, despite it being turned down every time? Why? Make it easy to request a chat and pop-up an invitation once if behaviour looks like the visitor is floundering. I had to close the chat invitation four times.

Next, the form itself. It's long and poorly laid out. It's not clear which fields are compulsory and which are optional. The password creation part is confusing, with the option to create two passwords. There are two sets of terms and conditions to agree to and there's an essay to read about privacy and opting in or out of marketing permissions.

Error highlighting is simply abysmal. This appears at the top of the page but the sections that are incomplete or do not fit the required format are poorly highlighted, such that you need to go through the entire form again to find out what's wrong.

In my case it turned out that my mother's maiden name was too short. Not enough letters in it for Virgin Mobile, so I had to make up an alternative. (I haven't said anything to her, it would only cause confusion.)

Having rewritten my maternal lineage and made it beyond the personal details page, I moved on to billing. Another mammoth page that again popped up an error message when I had finally completed it and tried to continue. After trawling through I eventually found my error.


My bad, as I believe the kids say these days. I had failed to spot that the expiry date on my card needed to be entered with the year in YYYY format. Which is, of course, quite sensible. Virgin couldn't possibly know that when I entered 13 in the year, I meant 2013. I could have been using my other card which expires in 2113.

And who wrote that error message? Clearly someone who considers spelling and punctuation to be optional extras. Other error messages are equally ridiculous, including one that gives the remedy as calling Virgin on 789 from your Virgin Mobile. Errr, I don't have one yet. Come on Virgin, sort this out. It's embarrassing.