Email Marketing is Oftentimes Better Than PR

In September, I had the pleasure of spending a good chunk of time with a founder who has built an early-stage social product that I absolutely love. He’s built this in a crowded space, relatively speaking, but the depth to which he and his team have crafted and designed their product is awesome. I wish it was something I could personally invest in. He and his team have a rare opportunity because of their timing, with iOS and Android being the rocket ships, as well as how deeply the founder has gone to build the technology and team. Knowing that I’m a fan and having read some of my stuff, he did politely ask if I could write about it — to which I said, “No, but I don’t think it will matter for you.”

This slightly awkward moment in the conversation actually turned into a fascinating discussion. It was my belief that this product could actually use a variety of email marketing techniques to start building the momentum and buzz that the founder originally thought he could get through playing the PR game. One could say that every marketing channel is flooded or doomed for some reason, but as many folks know, email, if done right, can be quite performant. As a result, startups have tried to tie even the most meaningless interactions to a notification email, such as “Your friend Justin Bieber has started following you on Caninegram.”

Given that every channel is flooded but email is still delivering, there are some startups that are using email marketing in delicate ways to start getting their brand out there. Some that come to mind for me are Timehop (which sends you reminders about what happened a year ago), Newsle (which has a smart twist on social news, centered around your friends/contacts, not the news kernel itself), and PandaWhale (which selects just five top links from the previous day’s activity). Of course, there’s Quora, which has done a wonderful job of using signals to personalize content for their each individual user. In many discussions with founders around email newsletters, Quora is often cited as the example to draw from, and those accolades are well-deserved.

Back to email…as our conversation continued, my gut instinct was to encourage the founder to study these companies above and craft his own strategy for taking interesting content from his application and delivering it to me via email. In my mind, it’s way more powerful at connecting a brand with users, and if done right, can actually create more word-of-mouth lift than most traditional PR efforts while also being more efficient in terms of time and money. At least a few times per month, I’ll forward an email from Timehop to my wife — and now she already knows what it is. A few times a month during startup pitches covering news, I’ll inevitably mention Newsle and remark how their slight spin on the object makes it unique. This kind of stuff isn’t really measurable, though some of it does leak on to Twitter, but I do think it’s invaluable. And so forth….email done right and personalized has the ability to give you a chance to drive this kind of subtle attention, the type of buzz maybe only Don Draper could generate.

Haywire is written by Semil Shah, and is published under a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA license. Copyright © 2014 Semil Shah.

“I write this not for the many, but for you; each of us is enough of an audience for the other.”— Epicurus