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5 Ideas for Adding “White Space” to Your Emails

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by: Loren McDonald (@LorenMcDonald)
12 February 2014

Most marketers understand that to break through the clutter in subscribers' inboxes, you must send messages that stand out, not just with a catchy subject line but also with content that interests them.

Yet while this may seem obvious, many marketing messages wind up saying little more than “buy-buy-buy.” For a high-volume retailer who averages three to four broadcast emails per week, that's 150 to 200 hard-sell emails each year. Is it any wonder that many subscribers eventually tune out?

The answer isn't necessarily to cut back on frequency. Instead, look for ways to make your messages more irresistible, to drive more engagement so that subscribers will pay greater attention when something does strike their fancy. One approach to consider: "white space" email messages.

“White Space”: More than Space

In design, "white space" gives the reader's eyes a break from constant stimulation by content and images. When used correctly, it makes a page or piece of content more readable and engaging.

"White space" messages do something similar. They interrupt your regular stream of promotional email with content that's intended to inform, educate and entertain. They can sell, too, but with an indirect pitch. (See tactic No. 1 below.)

Make no mistake: These messages aren't just saying, "Hi! How ya doin'?" Each one is part of your overall strategy to deepen and widen your bonds with your customers and, ultimately, to drive more revenue.

If you’re sending something like 150 to 200 promotional messages per year, some of these messages should be designed to increase the likelihood that subscribers will open and engage with the messages that follow them.

Five “White Space” Tactics

How many ways can you help your customers buy more, buy smarter and be more satisfied with your products and services? That's how many different kinds of "white space" emails you can send. Below are five messages to consider incorporating into your email mix:  

1. Buying Tips

A major national retailer, whose emails I've received for years but largely ignored (irrelevant content), caught my attention with an email that focused on men's jeans.  

Instead of just trying to sell me a pair of expensive designer jeans, the copy included five product photos, each illustrating a different jeans cut: classic, skinny, boot-cut, etc. Each image and explanation also linked to search results on the store's site showing jeans in that style or cut from a variety of brands.

That email was the first one I opened from this brand in a very long time, simply because it broke through the constant selling messages. Like many older men, I find jean cuts confusing. This messaging spoke to me and provided some value. The email can still drive sales – either immediately or in the future - but it sells jeans through education.

Buying tips and content like this example can increase customer satisfaction (critical for high-consideration sales), reduce returns or complaints, and encourage subscribers to save your messages for future reference.

King Arthur Flour Seasonal Tips example2. Seasonal Tips

Add seasonal copy that not only promotes in-season products but also speaks to your customers' time-sensitive needs. For sports retailers, it might be bicycle tune-up tips in the spring or sharing a ski-waxing video in the fall.

Example: Last September, the King Arthur Flour Company sent this email (see screenshot at right): “Fresh pumpkin tips: roasting seeds, making purée, and more.” The email is a great example of a helpful season tip — in this case, what to do with pumpkins outside of creating jack-o’-lanterns. The message includes a link to 50 delicious uses for pumpkin, including no less than 11 pumpkin pie recipes!

While the email shares helpful ideas and recipes, the net result is likely increased engagement and brand affinity toward King Arthur Flour and sales of ingredients to make the recipes.

3. Product/Service Usage Tips

Your emails can show customers how to use your products more effectively, whether they actually own a related product, aspire to own it or have never seen it before.

For example, a wine retailer might share tips and videos on how to properly taste or store wines. An airline could share tips on selecting seats, how to get to the next status level more quickly or how to get into the TSA’s Pre-Check program.

These emails can link to product pages where customers can buy the products (e.g., wine decanters and wine storage units from the above example). However, the emails should focus on the tips rather than overtly promoting the products or services.

Where do the topic ideas come from? Many will be pretty obvious, but others could come from asking your customer service reps or store associates, from product reviews and survey feedback, or from discussions in your customer community or Facebook page.

Note: Don't confuse these broadcast messages with automated emails you send to follow up with customers who either bought or browsed specific products. For more about triggered messaging, read "Three Emails that Drive Engagement and Revenue" or "Post-Purchase Emails that Drive Higher Revenue, Engagement" on the Silverpop blog.

Moosejaw Personality and Humor example4. Personality and Humor

Every Moosejaw Mountaineering email reflects the anti-establishment sense of humor that infuses the company's entire marketing program. That same approach to humor might not work in your company’s email programs, but that shouldn't stop you from adding some personality to your messages.

A recent Moosejaw email had a subject line saying, “First ever scratch 'n' sniff email.” It's a typical white-space email from the outdoor sports retailer. This email was an infographic of made-up facts about their emails, with my personal favorite being “What our average subscribers eat while reading Moosejaw emails.” The results? “24% Sushi, 18% cheese wheel, 12% kale smoothies, 46% gummy worms.”

You don't need Jimmy Kimmel's writing team to write these catchy emails. Just imagine what you would say to your typical or ideal customers if you were sitting with them at lunch.

You might share an employee’s take on Groundhog Day, a personal note from your CEO on a recent customer interaction, an update on a trend or development in your industry, or a story about an awesome volunteer effort from store employees.

The key, however, is to make sure the effort is consistent with your brand essence and would be intended to bring a smile or good feeling to your subscribers.

5. User-Generated Content

People still buy frequently from other people, right? So, give people a voice in your emails and feature customers and influential fans.

Some sources: Glowing product reviews; interesting comments or pictures on your social media boards; letters to customer support; favorite recipes or photos showing a customer using one of your products. 

Add a note to your emails asking subscribers to check out photos on your company Pinterest page or videos on your YouTube page and to share their own photos or videos.

Repurpose the Content You Already Have

I can hear you muttering, "Sounds great, Loren. Where do I get all this great content?" That's the best news: You probably already have it, or most of it, but you just might not realize it.

Check out these sources:

  • Web copy and images
  • Older broadcast, one-off campaigns
  • Product copy
  • Social media posts
  • Product/how-to videos
  • FAQs
  • User/customer forums that you own
  • Direct-mail assets
  • Customer-service scripts or conversations
  • Customer review/recommendation engines
  • Survey results

If you’re seeing declining engagement and growing unsubscribes and list churn from pounding your subscribers with email, consider adding some "white space" messages to the mix.

Caution: Don’t just try one and move on. Make these value-added or fun messages a regular part of your email program.

Related Resources:

1) Ebook: “Print Money Today: 7 Emails You Should Automate to Drive More Revenue

2) Blog: “Happy Birthday Emails 2.0: Now with Dynamic Awesomeness!

3) Blog: “10 Questions to Ask to Help Enhance Your Email Program

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