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What Email Marketers Can Learn from Steve Jobs

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by: Loren McDonald (@LorenMcDonald)
12 October 2011

Like many people, I was surprised at my reaction to hearing that Steve Jobs had died. I was in a hotel that night and found myself staying up until 2 a.m. watching coverage of this entrepreneur's amazing life.

I'd never cried over a CEO's death before. But Jobs was not just any CEO, as Silverpop CEO Bill Nussey pointed out to me at lunch the next day and in his own blog post. He was likely the greatest business leader of our time.

Since then, thousands of people have written tributes to this amazing innovator, including one of my other favorites, from Guy Kawasaki: "What I Learned from Steve Jobs."

In my role as a marketing evangelist, I wondered what wisdom the Apple founder might have imparted to a gathering of email marketers. The following is what I think his sage advice might have included:

1. Don't focus on your competitors. Years before the company adopted its "Think Different" slogan, it aired the 1985 Macintosh Office commercial "Lemmings," featuring briefcase-toting office workers falling off a cliff.

Jobs was as fierce a competitor as the modern business world has ever known, but he didn't build products in reaction to what competitors did. His focus was always simply on building the best product and consumer experience.

Lesson for email marketers: Don't obsess with the competition's tactics, design styles and email marketing approaches. Understanding this context is important, because your subscribers probably receive emails from at least one of your key competitors. Focus instead on creating an email design, copy and brand experience that delights and exceeds subscriber expectations.

2. Go with your gut. Jobs knew that asking consumers what they want is a recipe for mediocrity. To create breakthrough products, you have to envision a future beyond today and solve problems that consumers don't even realize they have.

Lesson for email marketers: Jobs would have said that you know your customers better than anyone. So, create breakthrough emails that enable an email experience unlike anything they've seen.

This doesn't mean that testing is bad. Rather, the "test, test, test" mantra in email is a recipe for incremental improvements in response rates from disconnected elements of your email program. It’s like breaking down the iPad down into a dozen components to see how people use and react separately to the power button, the volume button, the touch screen, the Safari browser or iTunes.

In fact, the overall experience rather than individual elements is what makes an Apple product great.

3. Focus on the brand. Apple's products are innovative and intuitive. This has contributed to Apple's amazing brand affinity. Many of its products almost sell themselves. Apple's marketing efforts reinforce and promote this brand affinity.

Lesson for email marketers: Most marketers view email as primarily a direct response medium. However, email's branding value is one of its greatest attributes. A regular cadence of well-branded emails keeps your company, products and services top of mind, even with limited recipient engagement.

More importantly, email can create a bond between your brand and the consumer. Too many email programs simply sell-sell-sell, offering up the latest discount and free shipping promotion. Use your emails to intrigue, surprise or educate. These approaches will differentiate your brand and emails from look-alike competitors.

Silverpop client Moosejaw has used email to promote a tongue-in-cheek "break-up service" and its company "Fridge-Cam."  These humorous emails are consistent with the Moosejaw brand but succeed because they help increase engagement and brand differentiation in a competitive outdoor sports retailing market.

4. Usability is critical. Apple products aren't just beautiful and innovative. They're easy to learn and use, as you can tell when you watch a young child or grandparent use an iPhone for the first time. This intuitive design and navigation is the heart of the difference between Apple and its competitors.

Lesson for email marketers: Are your emails easy to navigate, even for new subscribers? Can they quickly and easily find links to update their email addresses, modify preferences or find shipping and return policies? Or have you overwhelmed them with a slew of social media buttons and a dozen calls to action?

Email design and content must be simple, straightforward and focused, especially in this era of short attention spans and growing use of mobile devices. (See an example of this in my recent blog post, "Holiday Quick Tip: Do the Math in Discount Promotions.")

5. Pay attention to detail. Steve Jobs was fanatical about every aspect of Apple products, right down to the slides he used for presentations. Even certain shades of black weren't black enough, Kawasaki noted in his tribute.

Some might argue that Steve was a micromanager, but to Kawasaki, it showed how this attention to detail left nothing to chance. Every aspect—from marketing to packaging to product design—added up to define the customer experience.

Lesson for email marketers: Many emails have become a hodgepodge of old templates and continuous tweaks and additions suggested by outsiders. In the process, the message has probably lost its soul and focus.

When you tweak body layout, CTA buttons, preheader text and administrative footers, make sure you understand how the changes affect the email's overall design and goals. Do they enhance your brand and the consumer experience? Or, have you simply followed the latest best-practice suggestion at the expense of the email's overall experience?

6. Create an amazing initial experience. Jobs has been called the greatest introducer of new products. Apple product launches are legendary and choreographed like a Broadway musical. The Apple retail store experience is also like no other.

Lesson for email marketers: I often tell marketers that the "welcome" email may be the most important one you send. Why? Because for many of your subscribers, it’s their first email experience with your brand. For some it might even be their first interaction with your company.

This is your best chance to create a good first impression. Don't treat it like a simple confirmation email. The worst mistake of all is no welcome email. It means that you have no idea what a new subscriber's first email experience will be. It could be an apology email or a price hike or the third email in a series that now has no context.

Instead, create a world-class welcome series that onboards new subscribers systematically. This reinforces your brand and email program value, reminds subscribers of preference and privacy settings, offers up additional services and programs and provides immediate value through content or incentives.

I don't know if Jobs ever paid any attention to Apple's email marketing program. If he had, I imagine he might have directed his staff to heed some of this advice.

What's Your View?
Whether you’re an Apple fan or admirer of Steve Jobs' business success (or neither), what might an email marketer learn from this man, whom many consider one of America's greatest business leaders? Please share your thoughts below.


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