Saturday, August 16, 2008

Is there an "Experience" in Transactional Emails?

Since starting this blog, I have occasionally shared a minor disagreement with other bloggers, but I've never had quite the adverse reaction that I had while reading Aaron Smith's Email Insider column. In Email As Experience: Punch Up Your Transactional Messages, Aaron writes about how consumers seek a "memorable experience" from companies, and he proceeds to offer advice on how transactional email messages are a "chance to give them something special at every turn."

Let me first start by saying that I do not believe transactional email messages offer the opportunity for a "memorable experience." Certainly every communication and interaction between brand and consumer provides some level of an experience, but I think we need to differentiate--in language Aaron uses in his article--"Big E" experiences from routine experiences. Transactional email messages are functional communications that can enhance relationships by being especially helpful and informative, but there's a big difference between function ("Small E") and Experience ("Big E").

Function is the theme park map you use to navigate to the rides--done right, it enhances the visitor experience, but no one would call the map memorable--while Experience is the incredibly frightening, exciting, or overwhelming theme park attraction that has you sharing your memories months later. Function is table stakes and merely reinforces existing brand relationships while Experience creates the emotional bonds that increase awareness, consideration, and loyalty.

If you disagree and believe that transactional email messages can create a memorable "Big E" experience, I'd welcome you to share examples that you found unforgettable--ones that aren't merely well designed or full of best practices but truly memorable. This isn't to say that I haven't received some memorable email messages. Many have been funny, heartbreaking, or thought provoking, but few of these memorable messages have come from a brand and certainly none have been transactional in nature.

But this isn't really where I disagree with Aaron; instead, I took exception to Aaron's advice on how to create a "Big E" experience in a transactional email. His first piece of advice: "Include your company logo and colors to make transactional communication feel consistent with your other marketing materials." His second: "Use text treatments, color and graphics to maximize usability and legibility." The rest of his tips--such as upselling relevant products and showing product photography--were equally absurd in the context of an "Experience" discussion.

The reason I found this article so grating is that too often marketers seem to believe that an experience can be created merely by executing well. It can't--executing well is expected, and experiences are created by violating expectations. You can't do what you've done in the past and create an experience.

(There are exceptions to this rule, but they are rare; 99.99% of TV advertising is forgettable and thus creates no experience, but every now and then the right creative idea and execution can result in something that violates expectations and creates an emotional experience. Examples include VW Cabrio Pink Moon, Apple's 1984, and Telecom New Zealand's Father and Son ads.)

More importantly, experiences aren't created by focusing on yourself but by focusing on the customer. In other words, you cannot create an experience with your logo, font, or how you upsell. Brand consistency is important--the lack of it can harm a brand--but consumers aren't going to find your consistent visual identity noteworthy.

Lastly, experiences are created by engaging consumer's emotional or physical senses. I do not believe email is particularly well suited for engaging emotions, and transactional messages have less emotional opportunity than other types of messages.

I don't dislike marketing email. It serves several important purposes: It keeps brands top of mind, generates traffic, offers consumers news and information, and provides a vehicle for promotion and direct response marketing. But theorizing that a logo and some nice product photography in a transactional email message can create an emotional bond with the brand is like suggesting a very attractive theme park map is what brings park guests back year after year.

By all means, execute your transactional email messages with care and brand consistency, but look elsewhere for the unexpected, customer-centric, and engaging experiences that really create memories for the consumer and value for the brand.

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