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How to Build a Beloved Product Without Email Marketing

How to Build a Beloved Product Without Email Marketing

My co-founder and I consider his sister to be a trusted confidant. So when she told us that she’s uncomfortable providing her email address to companies—including ours!—and didn’t want more email clogging up her inbox, it made us stop in our tracks. 

Could this be true across the board? We dug into our data and quickly discovered that our users shared her sentiment.

Based on what we were seeing, we decided to take a risk. We stopped requiring users to provide an email address upon signing up—which ultimately meant that we ditched our email marketing efforts altogether.

In the time since we decided to stop our email marketing, our business has grown exponentially. Our account registrations went up by 53%, meaning our users were investing further in our site, increasing their chances of returning. 

Wondering how to encourage users to engage with your product again and again, without constantly popping in their inboxes? Here’s how we’ve done it.

Why we decided to stop collecting email

To give you some context, my co-founder and I operate a website called Solitaired, which ties classic card games to brain training. If I’m being honest, our user base was growing rapidly with email marketing. So you may be wondering why we decided to stop collecting email addresses, especially if it was working.

Before I go any further, it’s important to note that this strategy probably isn’t right for all businesses. In many cases, customers are more willing to give out their info when rewards are at stake, like discounts or sales. But our business doesn’t operate in that manner, which is just one of many reasons that we explored the possibility of pausing our email marketing.

However, we didn’t decide to ditch it without digging into our data even further. Before we made a final decision, we wanted to benchmark and understand the value of a sent email.  

To do so, we emailed a small subset of our users. Our open rate was great, at 37%, with a 7% click through rate. Both were above industry benchmarks, which was something we were really proud of. But when we took a closer look, we discovered that, even if we scaled our email campaigns, the users who received our emails represented a measly 1% of our overall revenue. 

We launched our second campaign a week later, and the story got worse. The open rate and click through rate dropped by more than half. Email blindness was setting in.

Armed with that data, and based on the initial feedback we received from my co-founder’s sister, we were also concerned about the potential annoyance of continuing these email campaigns. This was something we saw on a broader level. In general, open rates and click-throughs have decreased 45% since 2010 as users have become fatigued by email marketing and more concerned about their privacy.

This was more than enough data to suggest that we should at least consider pausing our email marketing efforts. But we also knew we needed to replace it with something. 

Our new strategy was fairly straightforward. 

Rather than emailing users, we’ve opened up avenues for two-way communication. Based on the feedback we receive, we make updates to the website. This approach has been far more effective for us than the traditional one-way, brand-to-user email communication. In the time since we stopped our email marketing efforts, we’ve seen increased user (non-email-based) registration, engagement, and returns. 

Our monthly sessions per user, for example, went up from 3.66 to 4.87, a 33% increase in return rate.

But that’s just the start of building a beloved product without email marketing.

 Here are a few areas that we’ve continued to focus most of our energy on.

Strategy #1: Build features users want 

Statistician Lee Baker is known for coining the phrase, “Data doesn’t lie. People do.” While this quote has been used in several different applications, it’s particularly true when you’re trying to build a product that customers love—especially when you’re trying to accomplish that goal without an email marketing strategy. 

We rely on three tactics to leverage data thoughtfully to build features that our users actually want:

1. Follow the data

Even if you have a hunch that users want one thing, the data at your fingertips will paint a clear picture of what’s working. More importantly, it’ll make it abundantly clear if something isn’t working. 

Recently, we implemented Google Event tracking on all of our buttons and features to understand our most (and least) used features. Some of our most-used features weren’t in prime places on the site. When we moved them, we saw an increase in product engagement (both clicks and bounce rates).

Our bounce rate, for example, dropped a whopping 48%, from 17% to 9%.

Now, this new layout wasn’t how we would have designed the site—but as the data showed us, small changes can have a big impact on how users interact with the product.

2. Use “Painted Door Tests” to test potential features

Many companies (my own included!) have built products they think people want before they test that assumption. Instead, we build what we refer to as “painted doors.” Unlike a traditional minimum viable product (MVP), painted doors are mock features that allow us to see if users engage with them before we invest to build it.

One of our recent “painted doors” involved offering cash prizes to our users. When we launched our test—a button to win a $100 cash prize—we discovered that users weren’t nearly as interested as we thought they’d be in cash incentives. 

We tracked clicks to this button, and realized that the unique users this represented was a tiny proportion of our users. 

3. Run user tests on HotJar 

When considering a new feature, or deciding between two, run a few simple tests on a site like HotJar to see what option your users actually prefer.

For example, one of our users told us that she’d prefer a different design on the back of the cards. That didn’t matter to us, but it really mattered to her. To figure out who was right, we ran a quick test. HotJar showed us that she was right— other users wanted this too. 

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In short, taking the time to understand what features users actually want through data and testing—and then building them—has improved our bounce rate, our time on site, and our user return rate far more than an email could have.

Strategy #2: Create a sticky experience

Everyone in tech is chasing what’s known as a “sticky” experience. Stefan Thomke of MIT’s Sloan Management Review recently wrote that memorable experiences can drive customer decisions as much as price and functionality. But Thomke also adds, “Yet recent research reports suggest that there have been few, if any, meaningful improvements in customer experience over time.”

So when we think about creating a “sticky” product, we need to think about ways to improve the customer experience. It’s easy enough to say that we want to create an addictive solitaire game, but how do you do that with a card game with origins dating back to the 18th century

We feel that we’ve achieved this by prioritizing the following tactics:

Gamify the product

It might be easy for me to say because I’m in the gaming industry, but gamifying a product experience works across many industries—from Audible to Uber—as users are driven to outperform themselves and others. Superhuman has even worked to gamify email.

We’ve built gamification into our platform by serving users their personal stats, like the time and the number of moves it takes to win. We’ve also incorporated a leaderboard so users can see where they stand compared to other players. When someone wins a game, they’re given their scoreboard showing where they rank compared to others and the number of games they’ve won.

It is too early to tell how the impact of these features will move the needle for us, but based on anecdotal feedback we’ve received, users are following their trophy growth. 

Gamification isn’t the domain of B2C or gaming sites alone. There are ample ways of bringing competition and interactivity to B2B processes, too: think bringing quizzes to webinars, adding certifications to professional development add-ons, and creating in-app experiences that make completing a task a joy. I personally would love to see internal JIRA badges for team members that complete tickets fast, close our milestones, or move our business forward. 

Zig when others zag

In our card game research, we learned that the earliest card games were meant to teach players about historical events. We saw that as an opportunity to infuse Solitaired with interesting content and education—something we’d never seen another online gaming site do.

We launched several collaborations with universities and museums, including decks about the suffrage movement and civil rights, and the features ended up being newsworthy. 

That press drew additional users to our site that dwarfed what we would have gotten from email campaigns and led to even more collaborative opportunities.

The lesson: Being innovative has its own rewards. You don’t have to tell people why your product is awesome when you can show them through creative content, campaigns, and collaborations. 

This should look different for every product and business, so get creative. Invite your team members, or even users, to help you brainstorm: What’s the history of your product? What are some non-traditional uses? What has no one in your industry ever done before? Think about partnerships or content that could help you infuse some of these stories and ideas. 

Strategy #3: Show users you care

It’s no secret that customer experience is a top priority for companies across all industries. And the ramifications of a poor customer experience strategy are staggering.

In its Future of Customer Experience report, PwC found that one out of three customers will leave a brand they love after just one negative experience. Additionally, 92% of customers would abandon a company completely after two or three negative interactions.

Even though your users might not want to hear from you through email marketing campaigns, they do want to know there’s a human around when they have issues. When we decided to remove the email requirement from our signup page, we also knew that our customer service program would be even more important. 

As painful as it was, this meant revamping many aspects of our existing customer service strategy. Here are two ways that we did just that. 

1.  Be incredibly responsive 

When we first built Solitaired, we had an online help center. We knew that we didn’t want to spend a lot of time answering questions and responding to support tickets, so we thought this would cover any potential issues our users came across. 

But after my co-founder had a frustrating experience with another site’s help center, he started to question that decision. Soon after, we switched to a manual support system and almost immediately saw results. Our customer satisfaction score (CSAT) increased from 65% to 73%. When we committed to responding to all inquiries within two hours, our CSAT score increased from 73% to 89%. 

This isn’t something every company can do, especially in the very early days when there aren’t many hands on deck. But know this: You don’t have to be immediately responsive to be responsive. We saw benefits in customer satisfaction even after 24 and 48-hour response times.

2. Have your feet on the ground

About 25% of our user base consists of power users, and many of them have emailed in more than once. Through our interactions with them, we’ve been able to get a better grasp of their needs, learn about their feature requests, and have longer conversations to flesh out potential features. 

A few questions we like to ask them: How did you find us? How often do you play? Are there any features we are missing? While we always balance in-depth feedback with quantitative tests, listening to our customers has helped us build a site people enjoy—and want to return to time and time again.

These shifts are not the only changes that we plan on making to our customer support strategy. However, the data that we’re seeing in the early stages confirms our hunch that prioritizing customer support over email marketing was the right decision for our business. From last month to this month, our NPS grew from 40 to 46.

Conclusion

Building a beloved product without email marketing might sound impossible to many startup founders. But as we’ve discovered while building Solitaired, you can ditch email marketing—if you’re strategic about what you replace it with. While we were able to grow our company without email marketing, it did require us to:

  • Take a step back and refocus on our data;
  • Think about ways to create a sticky user experience;
  • Redesign our customer support strategy.

Also, remember that creating a beloved product will never be a one-and-done effort. It requires:

  • Constantly looking at the data;
  • Gathering user feedback;
  • Incorporating those learnings into your product or platform.

It didn’t happen overnight, but everything we saw suggested that it was the right decision, and we haven’t looked back since. 

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  2. Thanks for the article! Always thought the email is a must for any business but this piece puts things in a different perspective.

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How to Build a Beloved Product Without Email Marketing

What’s on my mind

Hi, I'm Peep Laja—founder of CXL. I'm a former champion of optimization and experimentation turned business builder.

I do a lot of thinking, reading, and writing around business, strategy, and optimization. I send a weekly newsletter with what's on my mind on this stuff.

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