Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Tasting the Bacn

Email is not a marketing channel I have given much thought to over the past few years. A quick review of my own email consumption behaviours, habits and patterns proved informative about the utility of the subscription emails in my inbox.

Inspired by both this month’s resurgence of the debate on the Death Of RSS and the idea of auditing and optimising one’s Personal Knowledge Network, I have been tracking and analysing my inputs and outputs. Currently, I still get most of my information via RSS. So I chose to begin my audit with email, as that is a more manageable target. I reviewed the Bacn, those one-to-many periodic email communications that I allow into my attention stream. (In another naff Internet neologism, ‘Bacn’ is email which is one step up from spam.) Beyond unsubscribing from particularly egregious, annoying or tedious specimens, I have never reviewed or actively managed these before.

My review has revealed that the Bacn which retains my attention has the following characteristics:
— Educates me rather than informs me.
— Improves me rather than promotes you.
— Is opinionated rather than diplomatic.
— Is really well written (or, failing that, is really written the heart).
— Is exclusively email content, rather than being re-purposed from other channels.

The more it delivers on those characteristics, the more likely I am to read the majority of the email communications. I also have found that the ideal volume of content is related to the frequency of publication.

One interesting facet of my review is that, despite all of the time and effort people put into designing their email layouts in MailChimp or Campaign Monitor or other email services, to me it is those emails that are the least designed and more text-based that are more successful and most useful. Email is more of a reading-based medium than a looking-based medium. Given that email is increasingly being read within the narrow proportions of smartphone screens, the more over-designed an email template is then the worse it can potentially look. Optimise for content and not for style.

For some more specifics, I have grouped some example Bacn into five categories, from high to low engagement.
Prime Bacn — Where I read all of the emails I receive.
Here are two informative examples, interesting for how different they are as well as how similar.

Seth Godin’s email newsletter. These are short, pithy fortune cookies for businesses, published on a daily schedule. This is a blog delivered by email. I could just push this into my RSS reader, but then I would end up reading four or five at once. The one-a-day metronome is key to why this works for me. My reasons for reading all of these emails are: great content, personal tone and consistently challenging ideas.

The Jason Nation mailing list. These are essay-length emails, each covering one topic in depth, published on a loose monthly-ish time line. There is definitely a length-of-email to frequency-of-publication ratio at work here. When one of these lands, I know it's going to be a long read and I need to set aside some time to digest it. My reasons for reading all of these: this is newsletter-subscribers-only content, with exclusive ideas not published under different channels. Great content with opinionated, provocative writing. (This has just been rebranded with a new name: ‘Launch’, and a new focus. It was  the ‘Jason Nation’ email list until now.)

Sub-Prime Bacn — Where I read all, but do not necessarily finish each email.
My reasons for not reading all of these are that there is usually too much volume to keep on top of, along with a variable signal-to-noise ratio. Some examples in this class include: Quora Updates, GTD Newsletter, and Linked-In Groups Updates.

Aggregated Bacn — Where I skim through the emails.
These are automated emails delivering summaries of content posted in the last week/month. Content is list-based rather than in prose form. Usually I have subscribed in cases where I don’t visit the site regularly, but grabbing the RSS feed would sent way too much content my way. I skim the contents of each email, but generally don’t follow up on most of the web links. Some examples in this class include: The New Ideas Report from PSFK, ChangeThis, Fluffy Links, Fast Company and BrandChannel.

i-Bacn — Where I may either read or delete based on the email headline.
Mostly updates from online services and iPhone apps that I use. Some examples in this class include: LinkedIn Blog, Foursquare Blog, 37Signals Newsletter, Moo Newsletter, and Field Notes Newsletter.

Bacn Schmacn — Where I usually delete without opening the email.
Generally these are newsletter-style updates from photographers, illustrators, printers, and image stock libraries I have used in the past. Really I should do these people the courtesy of unsubscribing. This category of Bacn can easily become digital barnacles that need to scraped off periodically.

What works for you?

As a reader, which Bacn emails are most useful to you? If you publish periodic email communications, what kinds of content and frequencies of publication give you the best results against your goals?