A Page from Airbnb’s Email Marketing Playbook [PODCAST]


In this episode of the Call to Action podcast, we have a story of how a clever blog post title halved our open rates. Then, we break down some email marketing tactics that Jimmy Daly, Head of Content at Vero, borrows from the likes of Airbnb, TripAdvisor and Uber.

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In this episode: Dan Levy, Unbounce’s Content Strategist, interviews Vero’s Head of Content, Jimmy Daly.

Dan Levy: It’s hard to know where to start when talking about email because it’s involved in so many aspects of marketing. So what do you mean by behavioral emails, and where do those fit into the funnel?

Jimmy Daly: Okay. That’s a good question, and a good place to start. So a behavioral email is, in the simplest terms, one that is sent to an audience of one. And what I mean by that is an email that is triggered based on a behavior, as the name suggests, and triggered for a very specific purpose. So the idea would be that you’re able to tie specific behavior by your customers or users to very specific next steps that you want them to take. So a great example would be like a welcome email. Someone signs up for you newsletter or your product, and you trigger a welcome email, and you ask them to take the next step.

So behavioral emails work best in a series where you’re sort of stringing people along from one step to the next until you get them to an ultimate goal. And in terms of where they fit in the funnel, they kind of fit anywhere as soon as you have their email address. So in order to track the behavior, you obviously need to be able to identify people. So once you have that email address, once they’re signed up for your product, once they have made their first purchase or subscribed to the blog, you can start tracking that behavior, and you can start triggering these automated behavioral emails.

Dan Levy: So we’re not necessarily talking about existing like paying customers. We’re talking, essentially, about subscribers.

Jimmy Daly: Well, both, really. So if you’re talking about customers, and you’re talking about ecommerce, there’s all kinds of ways to trigger behavioral emails that can help you with upsells, that can help you with replenishment. So if there’s a product we sell that is gonna run out and people need to reorder, that’s a great way to use them. But behavioral emails also encompass lifecycle email, which is obviously a really big picture marketing strategy, but the idea is just that you’re keeping your customers, your users, your subscribers engaged over a long period of time.

Dan Levy: Right. Well, I want to come back to lifecycle emails a bit later. But first, a big chunk of your post talks about ways to engage inactive subscribers on your list with what you call targeted retention emails. How do you do that without bugging people who just aren’t that into you?

Jimmy Daly: Well, with all email marketing, you have to be careful not to over send. The inbox is a noisy place, and ultimately, people just don’t have time to sort through all of your marketing messages. So the first thing I would say is to let your data guide you. And if people really are inactive, and they really are making it clear they don’t want your emails, just stop sending them.

Dan Levy: Leave them alone.

Jimmy Daly:  Exactly. But there’s some great ways to send really targeted retention emails depending on how inactive people really are. So in the post, I broke it down into three types of inactivity: initial inactivity, partial inactivity, and complete inactivity. So with initial inactivity, say someone signs up for your product, and they took the first step, which maybe was completing their profile, but haven’t taken the second step, which maybe is testing your primary feature, that’s initial inactivity. They’re obviously interested, so you need to get them in and get them moving before you lose them. And so it gets a little less specific as the inactivity grows. So by the time you get to complete inactivity, you don’t have a lot of data to tell you why these people aren’t engaged with your product or your service, and you have to start putting on your customer cap to figure out where their challenges are, where their pain points are, so you can help solve that for them.

Dan Levy: Yeah. We used to like to think of emails sort of like campaign landing pages, in that they have one particular goal, one call to action. But you put forward that in some cases, it’s actually okay to cast your net a little bit wider. Is that what you’re talking about here?

Jimmy Daly: Yeah, exactly. So by the time someone goes completely inactive, you really don’t have much to lose. Because if you do nothing, you will get nothing. They’re not gonna just magically reappear and become a paying customer. So yeah. It’s okay to cast your net far and wide because you don’t know what their pain points are. You don’t know why they became inactive. So that’s one of the few cases where it’s okay to cast that net very far and very wide.

Dan Levy: So let’s talk about another type of email, a transactional email, which you say are a totally underrated strategy for turning peoples’ attention into action. What are transactional emails, and what’s the opportunity here?

Jimmy Daly:  So a transactional email is not a marketing email. So we’re talking about receipts, invoices, monthly reports, things like this. What we have found is that these emails get opened at up to eight times the rate as your sort of traditional newsletters or promotional emails. So that’s a real opportunity. There’s a fine line you have to walk between delivering whatever that transactional information is and crossing the boundary into marketing, because you’re technically not allowed to do that, because transactional emails are not required to have an unsubscribe button. So what we recommend is – receipts are a great example. Like most receipts are really bland. It’s just, here’s how much you paid. That’s it.

But there’s an opportunity there to make those emails look really good, or to include a link in the bottom to your blog. And those types of small wins are something that we’re a big fan of at Vero because one of the foundations of lifecycle marketing is moving people through your funnel with small wins. So any opportunity you have, and any attention that you have, you should be doing something, just something, to keep people moving through that funnel.

Dan Levy: Could you give some examples of companies who have successfully turned their transactional emails into quasi-marketing channels?

Jimmy Daly: Yeah, sure. So there’s a couple that I talk about on the Vero blog pretty regularly. Uber is probably my favorite. So Uber receipts are incredible. They include so much personalized data, and so much context that you actually – when you get that email, you read through it. And you see what time did the driver pick you up. Here’s the exact route you took. How much did it cost. What was the driver’s name. How many stars did they have. All this information. And then at the bottom, there’s also a referral code. And so that’s the type of small win we’re talking about. If I pass that referral code on to a new customer, I get something, and they get something. And that’s the easiest way for Uber to get into my inbox and get my attention. And so there’s nothing for them to lose by having that referral code in there.

Dan Levy: Another type of email you delve into is the hail mary email, which are kind of last ditch efforts to engage an inactive lead, or perhaps a customer whose free trial period is about to end. I like to think of these as like nothing to lose emails, but do you really have nothing to lose? What about your dignity?

Jimmy Daly: Well, that’s a good question. I would advise people not to turn to the spray and pray method, where you’re just like blasting emails out with no real call to action. You’re not really sure what you’re asking them to do. But here’s the thing about hail mary emails. So say someone signs up for your free trial, and it’s 14 days. That’s kind of an arbitrary number, and there’s a lot else going on in your customer’s lives. So if they don’t have time to really test your software in 14 days, they’re not gonna be come a paying customer. So you need to approach it with some class, and it’s good to address pain points specifically. So in the case of a 14-day trial, you can approach the email like, “Hey, we know you might not have had enough time to check it out. Would you like an extension of your free trial?” That’s a good way to approach that, and like you said, there’s nothing to lose.

Dan Levy: That could be tricky though, right? Because often, a company’s free trial period or their onboarding process is calibrated over a certain amount of days. So how do you extend their trial while still successfully onboarding them in a way that makes sense?

Jimmy Daly: Sure. So one strategy you might consider for that is sending plain text emails directly from your founder. And the reason those work is because, one, they don’t look like marketing emails, and two, it’s a way for business owners to talk the same language with each other. And we’ve found that to be a really effective way to reengage people. So instead of asking them to click here to extend your trial, you can just put it out there, and just say hey, I know how this works. I run a business too. I’m super busy. Do you want a free trial? Is there anything you hated about our software? Just reply and let me know. And asking someone to reply as opposed to click starts a conversation, and it’s a good chance to learn what happened, what went wrong, and what you can do to fix it.

Dan Levy: Interesting. So you’re not just extending the onboarding emails that you’ve already been sending, but you’re kind of changing the tone of the conversation.

Jimmy Daly: Totally. And you can automate that.

Dan Levy: That’s always a plus. So it turns out you guys were once converted by a hail mary email. Can you talk about what that email looked like, and why it worked for you?

Jimmy Daly: Yeah, so this is actually – this is how we became such fans of hail mary emails. We were looking for help desk software, and we did a free trial with Help Scout. It was 14 days. We just didn’t have enough time to really test it out. And they, I assume, automatically triggered this email to us that just said basically exactly what I just described: hey, you might not have had enough time. Would you like an extension? And that was – the only other thing that was included in that email was a testimonial. The message was very clear. The call to action was clear, and there was a real value proposition in that email. And it worked. We became customers after that.

Dan Levy: Wow. And I guess that testimonial really spoke to you as a company. Like it was the right testimonial.

Jimmy Daly: Definitely, definitely. It definitely resonated with us. And I actually included that example in the post, too.

Dan Levy: So that’s a great story. But another great way to avoid sending a hail mary email in the first place is just to keep subscribers active so you don’t have to do that. You suggest one way to do that is through lifecycle emails. What are those?

Jimmy Daly: So a lifecycle email is one designed to net a small win. So too often, people think of email marketing as a channel for conversion. And it is, but it’s not – there’s a tipping point. So the idea would be that you get people interested, you net a series of small wins, and then you reach a goal at the end, rather than you send one blast promotional email, and people start paying you money. That’s just not really how it works. So lifecycle emails are letting people know about new features you have, or another lifecycle email that we’re a big fan of, we call milestone emails. So that’s rewarding people for good behavior.

So Canva sends great milestone emails. They’re a tool that lets you design little images and graphics for your social media and for your blog. And so they send these milestone emails. Once you’ve created ten designs, you get a silver badge. And then once you create, I think it’s 20 or 25, you get a gold badge. So they’re rewarding good behavior as a way to encourage you to continue using the service. So I’m already an engaged user, and they’re trying to double down on that by getting me even more engaged.

Dan Levy: Nice, so they’re not waiting until you’re inactive or you’re about to slip away. They’re being more proactive about it, really.

Jimmy Daly: Exactly, exactly. TripAdvisor does a great job of this also. So every time you write a review, they’ll email you and say, “Hey, thanks so much for writing a review. Here’s a few other places, similar restaurants or hotels, or nearby hotels or restaurants or whatever. Have you been to any of these, and would you consider writing a review for them also?” So it’s a way to build on momentum.

Dan Levy: Something that we often talk about in the context of search marketing is intent, which means understanding what brought your prospects to you in the first place, and catering your marketing accordingly. That seems to me to be a little bit more complicated when it comes to email marketing. But you give an example of how Airbnb sends emails based on peoples’ browsing history. Can you talk about that?

Jimmy Daly: Yeah, sure. So I wrote about this on the Vero blog as one of the best behavioral emails I’ve ever seen. And so how it works is I go onto Airbnb, and I’m looking at a listing in Portland, Oregon. And I sort of kick around. I find one that I like, I sort of look at the pictures, I read the reviews, but ultimately, I don’t book. 24 hours later, Airbnb triggers an email to me featuring that exact listing, as well as others in the same area and in the same price range. So basically what they’ve done is sent an abandoned shopping cart email one step earlier in the funnel. So it’s clear to them that my intent is to travel to Portland. They want to make sure they get to me before I go and book a hotel, for example. So it’s a really powerful email. They just do so many things right in terms of copywriting, design, responsiveness. It’s really – they do a great job with it.

Dan Levy: Is that something that you think more marketers could take advantage of, really drilling down to like a subscriber’s intent?

Jimmy Daly: Absolutely. I mean, if you’re sending any type of marketing emails, you are able to collect data about peoples’ intent. And so that can be as simple as what blog post they read, if they’re clicking through in a newsletter, or it can be as sophisticated as what pages they view on your ecommerce site. We hear often from people that, well, Airbnb can do this, and TripAdvisor can do this because they have huge marketing budgets and big teams. But it’s actually not that complicated. Like if you think about the email that Airbnb sent, they’re just basically – they’ve written a very simple email, and they have placeholders that they can fill in based on that customer’s data and their browsing history. So it’s a big effort once to create the template for that, but it triggers over and over and over again, and every email that is sent is totally personalized to the person it’s being sent to. So it doesn’t actually cost that much money. The time investment is minimal, and you can get a huge ROI on these emails.

Dan Levy: Right. One of the most tried and true email marketing techniques is personalization, which at the most basic level, means including someone’s name in your subject line or your greeting, as in, “Hi, Jimmy.” Dot dot dot. I was surprised to learn that 70 percent of brands don’t actually do this. Why do you think that is?

Jimmy Daly: That’s really interesting. The answer truly is, I don’t know. I think that in some cases because the people handling the email marketing just aren’t technical, and they don’t feel comfortable doing that. I think in other cases, the time and attention that is designated to email marketing goes into things like design as opposed to cost action and copy. But it’s really – using liquid templates, it’s really easy to do. Pretty much every email marketing provider offers that. It’s a really – for marketers, it’s an easy and small win, and everybody should be doing that.

Dan Levy: Totally. What are some other ways to personalize emails beyond “Hi Jimmy”?

Jimmy Daly: Well, there’s a whole range of personalization. So putting someone’s first name in the subject line is sort of on the low end. And then on the high end, you have emails like Airbnb sends that are personalized based on browsing history, geo-location, price range, and other things. And then there’s everything in between also. So simple ways would be sending emails with recommended products, sending emails based not just on time, like a typical auto-responder, but based on behavior. So for example, when someone take the first step in your onboarding, but doesn’t take the second step, if you trigger an email based on that – I mean, that’s personalization. So it’s not just about the content of the email; it’s about the context as well.

Dan Levy: Right, right. So I like to usually end these interviews on a super actionable tip. But I want to get to something maybe a little bit more philosophical, but just as important. You write in your article that this is all not just about retaining subscribers or customers, but really about making them happy or providing a great experience. How do you do that, and why do you think more marketers don’t seem to feel this way?

Jimmy Daly: Well, I think that most marketers do want to give their customers and their subscribers a good experience, but I think that too many get hung up on data. And so, they’re only using open and click rates to guide their marketing. And that’s shortsighted. So a long-term email marketing strategy could potentially result in a lower click rate or a lower open rate initially. But if you’re really dedicated to building a great experience, that’s okay. And it could also mean fewer emails. So like one way to give people a great email experience is to unsubscribe them from your emails, and that’s really hard to do. And so that’s probably one reason that people don’t do it.

Dan Levy: And of course, that’s probably actually going to give you better open and click-through rates. So providing a great experience and improving your data aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive, are they?

Jimmy Daly: No, that’s very true.

Dan Levy: So where’s the best place to start if marketers want to take advantage of their behavioral emails?

Jimmy Daly: Well, I think the first place that any marketer should start is with a great welcome email. So it’s not sophisticated to send. It sets the tone for the entire customer or subscriber experience with your emails, and it’s the best place to build on momentum from the signup. So a great welcome email not only introduces you and your business to your new subscriber, but it also moves them to the next step. This should be the primary goal of a welcome email. It is to build on momentum, and net your first small win. So I think that’s a great place to start. After that, committing to just one behavioral email is an incredible way to get real ROI from your email.

So if you think about how people send promotional emails and newsletters, they’re creating them all the time, maybe one or two every week, and sending them over and over and over again. But if you create just one behavioral email, and you just do it one time, and you set up your triggers properly, and you automate it, it’s gonna work by itself forever. It’s gonna be personalized and contextual, and it’s gonna convert way more people than those promotional emails that you’re creating all the time as well. And so that would be my best advice for getting started.

Dan Levy: That makes a lot of sense to me. Starting at the very beginning with the welcome.

Jimmy Daly: Yup, exactly.

Dan Levy: All righty. I think that’s a good note to end on. Thanks so much for taking the time to chat, Jimmy.

Jimmy Daly: Cool. Thanks so much for having me, Dan.

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About Stephanie Saretsky
Stephanie Saretsky is a former multimedia producer at Unbounce. Producing projects like the Call to Action podcast and The Landing Page Sessions by day and a radio DJ by night, she is a lover of all things multimedia. Find her on Twitter: @msbeansie
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