Sunday, May 27, 2007

E-mail Marketing 101: Mistakes to Avoid

A number of folks I know have started to get into e-mail marketing for their own businesses, some with better results than others. Those who get the zen kitchen's newsletter know that, while it's not the only thing I do to promote the studio, I'm a big fan of e-mail marketing; it's an easy, cheap and effective way of keeping in touch with a growing base of people who care about your business so that, when they do eventually need your services, you'll be top of mind.

If done right, and e-mail newsletter provides value to the reader in a way that doesn't intrude on their time, and helps them get to know you much quicker than the traditional "cold calls, several coffee meetings and occasional e-mails to each of 50 people I'm trying to court right now" route. If done badly, however, you can lose readers, get lost in SPAM filters, or what's worse, completely embarrass yourself. Here are a couple of quick mistakes to avoid when crafting your e-zine.

Mistake #1: a nondescript subject line, or none at all.
Your subject line should give the reader a clue of what's inside; on my newsletter, for example, I usually give a 2-word description of the blog entries I'm featuring along with the name of the recipe and a case study name, if I'm doing a case study that much. Whatever you do, don't ignore the subject line; it's a sure-fire ticket into most SPAM filters, and you risk readers getting annoyed or deleting your e-mail without reading.

Mistake #2: using Outlook or a personal e-mail program to send mass messages.
There are so many problems inherent with doing this it's almost too long to list. For one, many programs set limits on how many addresses you can send to; it's not too bad for 10-12 people, but at 50 names and up you're risking e-mails getting lost in transit. Additionally, programs like Outlook and Lotus Notes often don't have intuitive ways to hide the e-mail addresses of recipients; if you aren't savvy, this automatically creates the potential for readers to not only request OFF your list, but to be really aggressively mad at you. People are very protective of their privacy; respect that and they'll respect you.

For my newsletter, I use Constant Contact; not only are they local to me (an acquaintance of mine in Saugus, MA works for them, in fact), but they have reasonable prices, easy-to-modify templates, and they take care of all the list-management stuff for me, make sure the e-mail gets to the recipients, and they send each e-mail individually, which means that there's no list of addresses floating around. Plus they have really cool tracking features that help you figure out how successful your e-mail campaign was - last month's newsletter, in fact, seemed to be the most successful yet, as I had launched the new tzk website and changed the format of the newsletter to something shorter. I've also heard wonderful things about Emma (which, for those of you who are designers yourselves, offers a really cool "Emma Agency" feature I just found out about for sending campaigns for your clients - something I'll definitely have to look into).

Mistake #3: Having a FROM field that isn't a real person.
People want to open e-mails from people they know. Having a FROM field that reads "Sell your house NOW" is, frankly an instant ticket to the SPAM folder. You have two options that work well for the FROM name: one, which I personally use, is name and phone number (this makes it really easy for clients to recognize who it's from and reminds them to call me to chat about their project); the other, which also works well, is [business] newsletter. You can also do the name of the newsletter, which works especially well if you have different kinds of newsletters to send.

Mistake #4: stressing out about folks who unsubscribe.
When I had my first two unsubscribes on the zen kitchen newsletter, I'll admit I was a bit bummed. Did I do something wrong? Did I offend someone? Nowadays, I'm much more relaxed about it; the list has grown from about 118 folks in March of last year to 272 at today's count; and of that total, about 40-50% actually open the e-mails when I send them (which is pretty darn good for e-mail marketing, from what I've heard), and maybe one or two unsubscribe each month.

Unsubscribes, honestly, are a fact of e-mail marketing; while it's important to keep an eye on who takes themselves off the list to make sure they aren't someone you REALLY want to be marketing to (that's a sure sign you need to fix up the newsletter), most of the folks who unsubscribe are either really busy and need to pare down some of the things they subscribe to (as I do periodically) or they're people that aren't really in your target anyway. Don't worry so much about it. Rule of thumb: if you get more than about 1% of your list taking themselves off after a series of mailings, it's time to revamp the newsletter.

Mistake #5: no call to action.
This is a biggie - after all, this is a MARKETING piece, remember? Your newsletter really shouldn't be too sales-y (unless, of course, you're having a sale!), but it should have some easily-located info that helps the reader figure out a) what you do, b) why they should work with you, and c) how they can get the process started. And it should be brief; on my newsletter, the call to action is a total of two sentences at the end of the intro, along with a brief "about the zen kitchen" blurb that repeats the call to action at the bottom. That seems to work very well for me.

Mistake #6: making it a pain to get off the list.
I see this a lot with big corporate newsletters and with nightclub/discussion list newsletters, and it annoys the heck out of me: it's these lists that require you to either a) log into an "account" to get off the list, or b) CONFIRM your unsubscription by clicking a link in another e-mail. If someone wants off the list, let them off. Don't send them more e-mail asking them if they're SURE they want off; just let them off. You'll make a lot more friends that way.

Mistake #7: buying a list, or putting folks on your list who haven't agreed to be on there.
It's very tempting to take the "spray and pray" approach to e-mail marketing by purchasing a list of 600 strangers and sending them all your newsletter (and I'm sure they're dying to read it; really). But the reality is that doing things that way will upset more people than it's worth; not to mention that it puts you at risk for excessive SPAM reports, which will put you out of commission faster than you can click "unsubscribe." The same goes with adding the folks from all those business cards you collected at that BNI meeting you attended; if you haven't chatted with them for more than a minute, and you haven't specifically asked them if they'd like to be added to your list, don't bother.

Now, this doesn't mean you should just throw away all those business cards you got at the networking event you attended. Take a look at them and see if they're folks you want to keep in touch with; if they are, send them a quick e-mail thanking them for giving you their business card, introduce your business a bit and invite them to join the newsletter list. You'd be surprised how many people are happy to sign up.

There's certainly more to e-mail marketing than just these mistakes; my buddy Neil Tortorella has a good primer for getting started with the e-mail THANG. And if you have any questions about how you can improve your e-mail marketing, feel free to drop me a line sometime.

Friday, May 25, 2007

"Being Green" as a Marketing Tool: is it Enough?

The other week's discussion of Dreamhost's decision to purchase carbon offsets being marketing-driven got me thinking about a recent discussion I had with Mike Harder, one of the founders of Boloco (which, by the way, is doing some really cool things) about the whole idea of marketing oneself as a green company. The question raised: is being green enough of a reason to convince people to use your company? Oddly enough, I don't think so.

Here's the thing: the zen kitchen is a green company with a fairly strong social mission, and I want to work with companies that have similar values and missions, both as a service provider and as a customer. But beyond the values lies another key component which, in fact, actually comes BEFORE the company's mission and values - do I like what the company does? Are they providing a product or service that a) I genuinely need, and b) is good quality?

The same holds true for my clients' expectations of my business; I can be as green as I want and they love me for that, but the main reason clients work with me is because a) I'm a great designer, and b) I get really excited about their business, and they pick up on that. It's that extra level of commitment to their needs that gets me the business - the green thing is just gravy, and helps me weed out the clients that aren't in line with where I see the zen kitchen going.

Mind you, I'm still green, and I wouldn't have it any other way.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

SEO: Some more basics

Lately, I've been getting a lot of questions about SEO - what it is, how to do it, do I do it, can I help them? To be honest, I don’t do what some people call SEO – I don’t submit sites to search engines, or buy adwords, or any of those other things that people who publicize their SEO services. But what I do - well, do - is build well-put-together websites that Google seems to like very much (for example, my website is currently #4 for Somerville MA Graphic Designer) using clean code and web standards with appropriate keywords, descriptions and indexing calls so that search engines can find it. I also consult on content to make sure that the appropriate keywords are actually in the body of the website – this convinces search engines that you legitimately fit with that keyword. Just to give you an idea, I’ve seen sites where “photographer Boston MA” is a keyword, for example, but nowhere on the site did it actually say that he was in Boston MA. Result? No Google.

That said, SEO is an ongoing process – you can buy adwords to get to the top of Google, for example, but if you want to get there for free, there’s a lot of sweat equity that goes into it – most of that is getting your URL in as many other websites as possible. Blogs and forums actually make that pretty easy, but it does require reading blogs/forums that are relevant to what you do or what your audience needs and leaving insightful comments on the posts. The software gives you a free, easy and completely legit way to insert a link to your website, and you’d be surprised how much traffic I get from that method. Also, getting in as many appropriate (and legit!) directories as possible is always a good thing. I’m listed on quite a few directories, and gotten work from all of them.

Some things that I’ve learned along the way in terms of SEO:

  • Search engines like well-built sites, especially sites that are built using standards. Since standards naturally separate content from presentation, it’s easier for them to figure out what a page is. This means higher rankings.

  • They also love pages that are updated frequently (note, this DOESN’T mean dynamic. Search engines often actually have problems with dynamically-driven pages). This is one of the reasons that blogs are so popular – they’re always well-built, have tons of content to search through, and they’re updated frequently.

  • Search engines HATE FLASH. They can’t read it, they can’t use it to figure out what the page is or what’s on the page, and unless your average user is a teenager with way too much time on their hands who wants to sit there playing web games, users don’t really like it either. The average user wants to get in, find the information they’re looking for, and find out how to get in touch with you. This is one of the problems I tend to have with a lot of designer websites – it’s all Flash with no substance.

The best way to draw people to your website, ultimately, is by advertising it everywhere – in your e-mail signature, in your signature on posts in blogs and forums, and on all your marketing materials. E-mail newsletters are also good ways to keep your site top-of-mind. The biggest myth people seem to buy into regarding their website is that a) people are just going to “find it” once it’s built and you don’t have to put any effort into promoting it, b) metatags and keywords are all you really need to promote your site, and c) once they find it, they’ll stay on it and pore over every page. They just aren’t. You need to make the content interesting, and you need to spend the time promoting the site through giving people the URL and talking about the site.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Green Trade Show Graphics?

Recently, I had quite the dilemma here at the zen kitchen; Krista Botsford, owner of 5-trees (and one of my first clients when I opened the studio), asked me to do some tradeshow graphics for an event that she will be doing in June. Mind you, this is not quite a challenge for me graphically; I've done all kinds of print design from book layouts to packaging and back again. But the main concern was how to make the graphics sustainably - after all, the tradeshow industry is huge but wasteful as all get-out, and environmental concerns don't usually seem to be something that even blips on the radar of most folks who do print for tradeshows.

Fortunately, a fairly extensive Google search led me to Eco•Systems Sustainable Exhibits, a company based in Michigan that makes a variety of exhibit systems that meet LEED standards for greenness. A quick look at their exhibit materials is pretty fascinating; from flooring made with recycled tires to boards and panels made of sorghum, bamboo or PET (made from plastic soda bottles), it's certainly an impressive list of sustainable materials.

I haven't had a chance to try them out JUST yet, but the pricing looks reasonable as well; drop them a line to get more info. I'll let you know more after I try them!

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Marketing 101: Do Your Homework BEFORE You Waste Your Time

One of the advantages of having a business name like the zen kitchen is that it's intriguing; I can't tell you how fun it is to have people walk up to me after they hear the name and say, "I really want to know what your business is!" It's really one of the smartest marketing moves I've made to date.

The drawback, however, is calls like this:

Caller: "Good morning Maam, I'm calling from [stupid company name] dot net; we are a professional web hosting and web design company. I'm calling to see if you have a site online."

Me: "yes, actually—I am a professional print and web designer."

Caller: "oh. okay - thank you for your time."

Me: "yes. have a good day." *after hanging up* "schmuck."

Lately, it seems like I'm running into instances like this fairly consistently - where some business or another, that sells something that I either DON'T need or something that has NOTHING to do with my business, calls or e-mails me trying to sell me something, and they obviously haven't actually even bothered to check out my website to find out what my business actually IS. Twice now, I've gotten e-mails from random individuals informing me that they've placed a link to my website in some random directory and asking me to return the favor - only to find out that said directory is for places that sell kitchen and/or restaurant equipment. And what's worse, repeated e-mails informing these folks that my business has no reason to be linked to their site have gone unheeded. Honestly, how do these people expect to actually get customers like this?

Actively researching and targeting potential clients is one lesson that I've actually learned for myself fairly recently when I re-examined the studio's marketing plan - I realized that if I was going to find clients with budgets that would support the studio and convince them that the zen kitchen was right for their needs, I had to spend time learning about the company to find out a) what their needs might be, and b) whether their corporate culture, mission and style were a good fit for the studio.

It took a while to get the list together (and it's still growing as I meet more people and learn about their businesses), but since I've moved in this direction I've felt an overall shift in the direction of the studio - I'm getting more projects that I'm truly jazzed about, and I'm getting more clients with larger budgets whose needs go beyond the simple brochure or business card into more comprehensive marketing packages - which is exactly where I want to be. It's much more effective as well - while I spent hundreds of hours last year going to networking events, meeting people wherever I could, and having meetings with potential (unscreened) clients that ended up netting me moderate results, I'm finding myself doing less work overall, and I'm able to be more choosy about the events that I do attend - so I can save my time for more fulfilling activities.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Terrapass does weddings now!

Since it’s coming up on June, and so many folks are gearing up to get hitched, I thought I’d share this tidbit from a recent TerraPass newsletter: they can now help you make your wedding carbon neutral. The amount of travel involved in planning a wedding, on the part of both you and your guests, is the single biggest eco-impact your wedding will have.

Now, I realize that there’s been some debate about the whole TerraPass/Carbon Offset THING (especially on TerraPass’s usually interesting blog), but honestly, I think it’s a great idea. While it would be wonderful if we could all switch to wind or solar, and all drive hybrid cars, the reality is that some of us are bound by location and/or finances to be unable to do these things; for example, the electric company that services my part of Somerville doesn’t have the option to use renewable energy (although in my former home, in Cranston RI, I did actually use 100% renewable), and honestly – I can’t afford a hybrid right now. So, I compromise by driving my car surprisingly little (I think I’m down to three days a week, maybe?) and walking or using the T most places. Plus, I donate pretty heavily, and have volunteered design and marketing services on occasion to green organizations. To me, TerraPass is a good option for those who don’t have the alternatives available; since it helps fund renewable energy products. With more funding, more renewable energy becomes available; more renewable energy, less fossil fuel dependence; and then, one hopes, the Terrorists will Lose.

Want to make your guests’ travel even more eco-friendly? Try to pick a location that’s close to the bulk of your guests, and see how many of your guests can ride down together or take the train instead of flying.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Theatre as design training?

I don't really talk about this TOO often, but I didn't start off my career as a designer. In high school, I discovered a love of the theatre that I have (in a much more limited capacity, admittedly) to this day. I switched schools my junior year to join Hope High School's Theatre program, and I chose Rhode Island College for undergrad because their theatre program was considered one of the best in the country. And I was pretty darn good, too, if I must say so.

But somewhere in the middle of that, while working at Kinko's in my second year of college, I discovered that design was, well, kinda fun. And I was darn good at that too. And so, given the choice between taking on a career in theatre (where I'd likely never Make It Big), and a career in design - well, you can already tell where this is going.

But a while back now, I was chatting with a reporter for an interview that appeared in one of my regional newspapers, and we were getting into the whole history of who I am and where I've been, and he asked me what I did with my theatre training, and why I wasn't doing it anymore. I think the answer I came up with was that I still do presentations and public speaking on occasion, and I worked my theatre training into those activities - but honestly, that felt lame, and it didn't feel true to me.

The other day, while chatting with a new client about what I do and how I work, something hit me that I haven't been able to shake, and it has been making me smile all this week. I realized that what I do for my clients is actually incredibly similar to what I did as an actress, and I love design for all the reasons that I loved acting. Great design tells a story, and creating a great brand is really no different than creating a great character - it's up to you to get inside that character's (or in this case, a business's) head, figure out what their story is, and play out that story to the audience watching it. That's what I loved about acting - not just the attention (because, I mean, COME ON) or the applause, but the fact that I had an opportunity to literally experience what it was like to be someone else for a while. And now, I get to do that again, but this time, I get paid better for it and I don't have to stand in front of a room full of people and explain why my headshot doesn't look like me (which, by the way, is because I've seen exactly TWO pictures of myself that actually looked anything like me in person).

So, how can you (as a designer) bring a bit more theatre into your design work? By asking yourself, and your client, the right questions - and remembering that ultimately, you're doing this to tell a story. It's your job to find out what that story is, and who needs to hear it - and to tell that story visually in a way that means something to the people watching. The Creative Brief is an important part of that story, as is all the deliverables that come along with it - whether you're doing a full-out branding campaign, a website, or even just a simple brochure or business card. It's all about the story, and who needs to hear it.

And, every once in a while, applaud yourself when you do something really special. If others can join in too, even better.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Green Hosts: David vs. Goliath?

It looks like my recent post on green web hosts has gotten a bit of attention from another green host, Ethical Web Hosting in Canada (which looks like a good company as well. Hi there – thanks for stopping by!). In the comments, Ethical applauds Dreamhost's recent decision to go green, but questions their motivations for doing so:

While i applaud dreamhost's move (well done) I don't feel its actually done in the spirit of caring about reducing their GHG's but rather jumping on it as a marketing ploy before the other large hosts do the same thing. I think it is more important to support the smaller guys that do a lot more in all that they do to reduce their GHG's such as living in an area where you don't NEED a car to get to one fo the 2 offices, but can take the subway, walk or better yet, work from home.

He raises a good point - after all, I started the zen kitchen partially so I could decrease my carbon load by working from home and taking public transport more often. At the same time, however, I always get a bit bothered by arguments like this because they ignore a few key things:

  1. Big business is (and will continue to be) a part of our culture, whether we like it or not.

  2. Big businesses use more resources, and as such, a decision on their part to reduce their GHG's, no matter what spirit it's done in, has the potential to make a huge impact. Can you imagine, for example, what the impact would be if Wal-Mart (which, mind, I still won't buy from until they reform their labor policies) decided that they were going to power all their stores with wind energy? We'd have new turbines up all over the place in a year!

  3. Whether we tree-huggers like it or not, all the high-minded idealism in the world isn't going to sway the leaders of big business until they see how it relates to their bottom line. They move on these things sometimes because it just makes good eco-sense, but usually it's because climate change is on the minds of their shareholders and customers - THAT'S what makes them move.

And honestly, what's wrong with that? In my opinion, a step in the right direction is a step in the right direction, even if it's grudgingly taken. And while I still support many smaller local businesses that are doing the right thing (just ask the folks over at Cambridge Naturals - I'm in there every week!), I do believe that it's also important to support larger businesses that are doing the right thing. Sending them the message that you're going to refuse shopping there because they aren't independently owned only sends a message that you, as a consumer, don't care whether they get involved in the climate change conversation, which makes it less likely that they will make the effort. There's room for everyone, and there has to be - positive change can't occur if we're excluding a large portion of the population.

That's just my 2¢ on the situation - what do you think?

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Eco and Foodie Joy at Trader Joe's Cambridge

I have a couple of posts for you this week, which I'll work on tomorrow (I promise!) but I had to share this: when I was doing some food shopping at my local Trader Joe's in Cambridge (right on Memorial Drive, near the Charles) I was not only able to pick up the most INSANELY GOOD baby heirloom tomatoes and some orange-muscat champagne vinegar that's going to make a mighty tasty vinaigrette tonight, but, because I brought my own bag, I was offered a chance to put my name in for a drawing that this particular Trader Joe's is having to show their appreciation for helping them save paper by recycling bags. Apparently, once a month the grand Tiki God statue at the front of the store will spit out a name (much like in the Harry Potter book) and the lucky person will receive a $25 TJ gift card.

So if you're local, show them some love (and get some of these tomatoes - oh. my. goodness.)