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Baked beans are off!

July 11, 2011

Originally when I was planning on writing this post, it was going to be about the KitchenPC User Survey that was sent out to about 2,000 users this morning.  I was planning on going over why I sent out the survey, how the various questions tied into pending business decisions, and about using the opportunity to cross-promote my other company, Qwk.io.

During the course of the day, I became distracted with another subject.  A rather important business question that I have not really seen discussed in any detail recently.  Is the medium of electronic mail a still viable approach for connecting with your user base?

One of the benefits of launching a product is it puts you in the quite convenient position of having users.  These users represent extremely valuable data points that [at least should] influence every decision you make; from relatively minor features to major business pivots.  This is the theory behind RERO and other MVP-centric software development philosophies.

However, once you actually have those users, what’s the best way to really close the loop with them?  Just because they took some time to sign up for your site doesn’t mean they care one way or another about your website, or lose sleep at night thinking about how they can empower you to create the revolutionary new product your hard work entitles you to.

Social networks provide a great way of reaching your customers.  Twitter and Facebook in particular provide a unique way for pushing new information out to a group with similar interests and allowing social interaction to organically grow.  They can create a culture for your brand; not just a guy with a giant microphone on top of an ivory tower.

My goal, in this case however, was to solicit direct feedback from my existing user base in order to help me assemble my plans to re-visit some of the thinking and assumptions that went into KitchenPC.  My Twitter feed basically yields zero interaction; the entire medium, in the opinion of this humble entrepreneur, is nothing more than companies pushing meaningless dribble amongst themselves with no one actually reading anything anyone else is saying.  Facebook is not much better.  KitchenPC related news posted on my Facebook page might yield a feedback rate of around 1%, which equates to about 4 or 5 users actually interacting with the content in any way.

This leaves direct email as the most viable option for trying to reach out to my existing user base to answer a survey.  My weapon of choice was MailChimp, as it provides a whole host of features for managing email campaigns and offers a free-tier suitable to amateur spammers such as myself.  I spent a good chunk of the weekend crafting a survey and piecing together an email to send out to my modest user base of around 2,000 registered users.  To apologize for the intrusion and encourage detailed feedback, I decided to offer a few existing prizes for the most helpful feedback as well.

I did my best job to make the email as friendly and non-spammy as possible.  I was careful to only send the mail to users who had the “Join Mailing List” checkbox checked in their user profile (more on that later), and I even decided to make the “Reply To” address a real, monitored KitchenPC account so recipients could even reply to the email to yell at me.  At 7am this morning, the email went out and by the time I woke up, I already had several “alerts” from the folks at MailChimp.

MailChimp, and props to them for this mentality, is heavily anti-spam.  They do an excellent job tracking user interaction with emails, will assist you in complying with federal anti-SPAM regulations, and allow recipients of your emails to report abuse directly.  MailChimp will tolerate a “complaint” percentage of 0.1% (basically one out of a thousand) before it sends you a warning.  If complaints still persist, your account is suspended.

Out of the 2,000 or so emails I sent out, there were 7 complaints.  All reported the mail as “spam”, and only 2 people bothered to use the “Unsubscribe” link provided.  Thus, my account was shut down on the very first email I ever sent out.  I was a spam outlaw, no better than the Nigerian drug lords and penis pill people.

Now, in my opinion, these numbers seem pretty reasonable.  I’m pretty sure any time you email a few thousand strangers, at least 7 are going to click the “Spam” button.  Different people have different ideas of what spam actually is.  Very few are aware of the actual legal definition, and treat this as “Well, I don’t find this email interesting so I declare it spam.”

MailChimp is also very pushy on an opt-in approach, which seems fantastic in theory.  If you have proof of opt-in, it’s not spam, right?  In my experience, this approach is futile.  When I first launched KitchenPC, I decided to make the “Join Mailing List” checkbox off by default.  However, after a few hundred user signups, there were exactly zero users who had turned on the checkbox.  Even though the checkbox was clearly visible and people were most definitely visiting the account settings page, strangely enough no user looked at this checkbox and thought to themself, “Oh I absolutely must get in on that action!”

I figure you’d probably need hundreds of thousands of users before you could collect any sizable mailing list using an opt-in approach.  In other words, having an opt-in email news letter for your site is probably about the same as not having one at all.

When I changed the default to “on” for my mailing list, very few people bothered to turn it off.  Last night when I imported the current user list, only around 60 people has manually unchecked that box indicating they were not interested in being contacted.  My reasoning on the subject was that opt-out is perfectly fine, as long as you’re not running some scam site and allow people to easily unsubscribe from future emails.  Worst case, you send out one email and a bunch of people unsubscribe and are not bothered again.  I have absolutely no interest in bothering people who are simply not interested in KitchenPC.  I knew I would never be one of those ridiculous sites that have a message saying, “Your request has been received.  Please allow 60 business days for this to take effect.”  Or the sites that simply error out when you unsubscribe, or do nothing at all.  I spent over 6 months trying to get out of TicketMaster’s mailing list, including several phone calls.  Yet, my subscription is simply re-activated every time I purchase a new concert ticket.

Unfortunately, the culture of email has shifted towards the paranoid.  People have been trained over the years to never trust an unsubscribe link.  In fact, the majority of unsubscribe links will just alert the sender that they’ve reached an active email address, and will result in them sending you more spam.  Thus, this approach doesn’t work too well either.

So, an opt-in email list is basically unfeasible for a small start-up since far less than 1% will opt-in to anything.  Sending out emails with a working and valid unsubscribe option is out due to the mistrust of the average Internet user.  Using a site such as MailChimp to send emails requires you to comply with federal regulations governing complaint limits and other practices, which basically only harm small businesses trying to legitimately connect with their customers; actual spammers simply laugh at these rules and ignore them completely.

This begs the following question; is mass mailing a viable approach for closing the customer loop?  Right now, my opinion is no.  I believe this will certainly be the last email I send all my users for a while.  I’m pretty sure any further email campaigns I do will once again result in my account being suspended due to complaints.  This would, of course, lead to ISPs and mail providers adding my domain to a list of potential spammers, which is definitely something I don’t want.  Before I could consider continuing down this route, I would really need to rethink a lot about the right way to manage these sorts of email campaigns.  Can I integrate in with MailChimp’s APIs to handle unsubscriptions in real time?  Can I stop emailing a user if they never read nor opened the previous email?  Is there a viable way to reach a few thousand users without pissing off more than 2?

I’ll end this post on an optimistic note.  Even with the less than 1% complaint rate with the survey email campaign, both Qwk.io and KitchenPC have been extremely active all day.  Over 100 visits to each site, as well as a huge spike in blog traffic, Twitter traffic, and Facebook traffic.  Almost 30% of the receipients opened the email, and over 9% clicked on at least one link in the mail.  Only around 5% of the emails bounced (meaning 95% of my users put in valid email addresses.)

As of now, 60 people have already filled out the survey, anxious to win that brand new Cuisinart food processor.  Perhaps annoying a few people is just the name of the game when trying to connect with your user base.

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