“Email Conversion Strategies Ft. Val Geisler” (Inbound Success Ep. 65)

How does one of the world’s top email conversion strategists help clients improve conversion rates and reduce churn?

Val Geisler

Val Geisler

This week on The Inbound Success Podcast, email conversion expert Val Geisler shares how she approaches working with clients to revamp their email workflows, boost conversion rates and reduce customer churn through email. 

From the discovery process she uses to craft email strategies, to how she determines who the sender should be and how to format emails, Val digs into the details that enable her to deliver impactful results for the clients she works with.

Listen to the podcast to learn more about Val’s approach to email conversion strategy and how you can use it to improve conversion rates and reduce churn at your business.


Kathleen Booth (Host): Welcome back to the Inbound Success Podcast. My name is Kathleen Booth, and I’m your host. This week my guest is Val Geisler, who is an email conversion strategist. Val came to the podcast because one of our previous guests mentioned her as someone who was doing inbound marketing really well. So I’m very excited to have you here Val!

Val Geisler (Guest): I’m excited to be here, thank you so much.

Val Geisler and Kathleen BoothVal and Kathleen recording this episode

Kathleen: I ask my guests every week in the podcast, “Company or individual, who do you think is doing inbound marketing really well?” Because I’m always curious to see best practice examples and also to discover new people to follow and new companies to watch. And when your name came up, it immediately piqued my interest and I thought “ooh, I really need to interview her.” I’ve been looking forward to it.

Val: That’s awesome, I love having these conversations, so it’s my favorite part of my day. Actually, I just realized I have my space heater on, I’m gonna turn it off.

Kathleen: Go for it, yeah. And while you’re doing that, it’s funny, Val and I were talking before we started the podcast about how I really like to do these interviews in a very organic way. So sometimes the dog barks and sometimes the space heater needs to get turned off. And today, I can guarantee you that I will be coughing throughout this podcast because I’m on the tail end of a late fall head cold. So for everyone who’s listening, bear with me as I cough in your ear for the next hour.

Val: Yeah, for the people who are listening like to old recordings next summer, they’ll be like “head colds and space heaters, what’s going on?”

Kathleen: Right, it’s the week before Thanksgiving, November 2018, and it’s definitely fall turning into winter.

Val: No kidding, yeah we have snow today.

Kathleen: Ugggh. Yeah, we had nasty freezing, sleeting, grossness yesterday. So I’m glad the sun is out!

Well before we dig into our topic for today, I wonder if you could tell my listeners a little bit about yourself because I think you have an interesting story and you focus on such a fascinating niche.

Meet Val Geisler

Val: Oh, sure. Like you said, I’m an email conversion strategist. And what that means is that I work mostly with software companies and eCommerce companies on their lifecycle emails.

So that is the onboarding emails, ongoing retention emails, anything that’s campaign-driven. You know, I’m just wrapping up a few Black Friday / Cyber Monday campaigns. Those kind of things where you can really see a start, a middle, and an end.

Not the ongoing email marketing that brands do. But when it’s really about that overall customer journey.

And they always like to say that it’s like a Trojan Horse really, because what you come to me for and what you get is emails, but what you really get is a better idea of who your customers are and what they need and the kind of journey they want to go on with your brand and what’s gonna keep them around long term.

Kathleen: That makes a ton of sense.

I’ve worked with all range of different types of businesses. I was an agency owner for 11 years before I joined IMPACT. So I’ve worked with B2B, B2C, small, medium, enterprise. And one of the things that I find fascinating is how much the sales process really changes so fundamentally based on industry and company size, particularly in software and SaaS.

I’ve always found it interesting, in some respects, for a lot of those companies, that your email marketing is your sales. A lot of those companies, especially the lower priced SaaS solutions, you’re not getting on the phone with a salesperson to go through a long and considered sales process, so if you’re email marketing strategy is not tight, you’re essentially gonna lose the sale. That’s always how I’ve looked at it.

It plays such a fundamental role and so I’m fascinated by what you do because so much is riding on it.

Val: Yeah, the software example is an interesting one because in most cases, you’re coming up against a free trial. So the industry standard is to have some kind of free trial, or a you know, first month, 30 day money back guarantee, kind of something like that. Which is essentially a free trial, right? You’re going to refund them if they ask for it that time frame.

So you’re doing everything that you can to go from, they’re no longer at the top of your funnel. They’re much more mid funnel or they haven’t quite yet made the decision to absolutely become a customer of yours. You’re still on tenuous grounds, as it were.

But you know you do have this opportunity where you are still selling to them and you want to treat them as though they already are a customer. And I think that is what’s the most magical thing about email is that you have this really personal way to connect with somebody. If you think about it, our inboxes are like our virtual living rooms.

Kathleen: Yeah.

Val: You don’t let just anybody in your inbox these days. So how do you treat your customers like they gave you that free pass to their living room that you can come by anytime?

How are you going to respect that and then also treat them like the customers they already are and help them see themselves as a customer of yours?

Kathleen: That’s so funny. I love your analogy about the living room. All I can think of in my head as I hear you say that is that my living room has a lot of people in it that have overstayed their welcome, because my inbox is so full!

Val: Oh yeah. Mine is not a good example because I actually collect emails for my blog on a regular basis. I write onboarding tear downs and retention tear downs and so I collect a lot of emails in my inbox. So mine is not a great example either.

Developing Email Conversion Strategies

Kathleen: Now if a company is coming to you for help with this, walk me through your first conversations.

Where do you start when someone says “I want you to help me with my email strategy”.

Val: The first place I start in every instance is the customers. And this is a non-negotiable really of working with me is that we need to interview your customers. We need to talk to them, find our more about them, about them and not abut the product, right?

So the typical conversation with potential clients of mine goes something like “hey, so the first thing we’re gonna do is talk. I’m gonna talk to your customers” and they say “we already do that, we talk to our customers every single day”.

I say “yeah, I hear you and I know you talk to your customers about product and maybe there’s a little bit of conversation about them or their business in those conversations. But the conversations are by and large about the product.

What I’m gonna talk to your customers about is them. What they need. Why they came to you in the first place. How they’re growing their business or what they’re using your product for. How they make decisions. Who influences them?

All of those things go into the buying process. To know that is pure gold. I have taken those customer interviews in the past and copied and pasted real sentences customers have said from the transcripts I get straight into onboarding emails that have an incredible conversion rate because of those exact words the customer’s were using. And there’s not way that we could get those from, you know help tickets or conversations that really are about the product.

Kathleen: Yeah, I also think, I was having this conversation with somebody recently about buyer persona research in general. And I also, in my experience, found that your customers are never gonna be as honest with you as they will be with somebody from outside of your organization.

Val: Yes.

Kathleen: So even if you’re diligently doing customer research and really working on those buyer personas, you’re still never gonna quite get the same story as someone who’s considered to be impartial or third party will get.

Val: 100 percent. The answers that I get from the customers. Most of the conversations, my clients will introduce me to their customers as someone they’re bringing in to do these interviews and this is the why behind the project. Then I get on the calls and the customers talk to me like “well you know, you guys do this, and I found you” they always say “you guys” you know like I’m part of the brand.

In almost every single interview I’ve done I remind them that I’m actually not part of the company, I’m an outside perspective. Sometimes they joke and they say “well in that case, let me give you some feedback”

Kathleen: Right, “Here’s the straight scoop.”

Val: No, they do. They tell you what they’re often afraid to tell somebody who works at the company. Kind of like, you don’t want to tell the waitress something about your order in case the kitchen might spit in your food.

I think of that as a very similar feeling in software and especially for smaller software companies. A lot of times the founder, CEO, is the original product builder as well. Customers don’t want to offend you by saying something that, even if it’s not directly about the product, that could hurt your feelings about how your marketing or who you’re talking to.

Kathleen: Right, it’s like telling you “you have an ugly baby”

Val: Exactly, so they’ll tell me. There’s an inherent promise that I make to all of the customers that I’ll get testimonials. Sorry, not testimonials, I’ll get transcripts which we can turn into testimonials with their permission.

So I get transcripts of all the conversations, so I have their exact words. But my clients never know who said those words unless the customer gives me explicit permission for that.

Kathleen: You know, it’s so fascinating to hear you talk about this because you’re touching on something that came up in another interview I did a couple of months back with a woman named Kristin Zhivago, who’s written a book on buyer persona research and she talked about how, even if you’re doing this research in-house, like as a marketer, if you’re doing it in part to try and convince the C-suite of a change that needs to be made or a particular strategy that needs to be followed. What she talks about is how important it is to pull actual quotes from the research so that it’s not you as the marketer saying “well here’s what I see as the takeaway from the research”.

It’s literally like “We asked five people this question” and here are quotes from five of them coming right from their mouth, what they said. It’s really hard to argue with that.

I think it’s fascinating because not only is it hard to argue with that, when you go back to a software company or a client or your boss. But it’s also interesting that the buyer themselves, you know you described a process where you put a quote in an email, and I think it’s like the buyer themself is reading that and thinking “wow, it’s like they read my mind”.

Val: When in fact we interviewed you, you know?

The quotes come in handy not just in that onboarding process, but I used them a lot in long term retention sequences.

So, after I work with a client on onboarding and we have that really nailed, then we dive into long term retention. So what kind of communication are your customers getting beyond that first like 30 days and is it regular newsletters, cadence, and that’s it.

They only hear about product announcements and new blog posts on your blog? Or are they getting other targeted communications about their use of the account, about things that will matter to them as they grow their business.

Those comments that they make, those quotes that we have from the onboarding process, using them throughout the retention sequence to remind people why they made the decision that they did six months ago, twelve months ago, just putting those words back in their head that they were using about their buying decision.

There is a period of time where we start to reflect on hopefully everyone is going through their expenses and seeing like “hey, what am I spending money on that I’m not using?” How could I be using that better or do I want to stop using it. It’s a smart business move to do that.

So you can’t hold your customers at fault for canceling a subscription that they aren’t using. If anyone’s at fault, it’s you for not talking to them about why they aren’t using it, helping them get the most out of it while they’re still there. Don’t try and win them back as soon as they want to cancel. Stop it before it starts.

Kathleen: It’s so funny, because I literally just did that this morning in my role as a buyer of martech. I have a budget that I have to, that my team needs to stick with for marketing tools, which is essentially all the software that we use. That’s one of our biggest line item expenses for my team and I literally this morning, before I got on with you, was going through that and thinking “What is the fat that I can cut from this?”

There’s a new product I want and in order to get it, I have to cut something else. You’re 100% right. If there’s something we’re not using, or we’re only using it casually, and it’s not delivering full value, it’s gone.

Val: Yep. So, we need to continually remind them of the value and that values-based conversation is how everything should be positioned, moving forward. So, the product announcements are about the value that those new features are providing the customer.

It’s not about, “Hey, we spent three months building this feature,” and, “We did all this,” and, “We, we, we.” It’s about you. “Here’s what you said you needed, so we put it into action, and we heard you, and wanted to create this for you, where you can learn more about it.”

I remember, as a kid, my mom taught me that if you use, “I” statements, you get a lot more convincing done when you’re arguing with your brother and sister. Right? So, I think, “Man, everything you need to know about business, you learn as a parent,” because all those things that you tell your kids are things you can use as your clients and customers do.

Kathleen: So true. You know, I think what you just talked about with the “You” statements, can be applied even beyond emails.

We do that when we look at customer websites. If you go to the home page of the website, and it’s saying, like, “We, we, we,” like, “We do this the best,” and “We created this product,” instead of, “Our customers have this problem and come to us for X.” It’s almost like you can count the pronouns on the page, and if the number of “I” and “We” statements exceeds the number of “You” and “They” statements, there’s a mismatch.

Val: Yeah, absolutely, and it’s also an indicator of the working relationship, long-term. As a buyer, thinking about investing in a product or a service, you want it to be about you because you’re spending the money, and you’re deciding to hit that “Buy” button and sign up for that product.

It just makes sense to put the statement back on the buyer and take it away from you.

Kathleen: Yeah. Yeah, yeah. True. Now, you begin with that persona research, the buyer research, learning more about the needs they have, the challenges they have, the problems they’re trying to solve through the product.

If I’m hearing you correctly, you get certain takeaways from that. The value that they’re searching for becomes a little bit clearer.

What’s the next step, then? Is it to really, then, look at the product and the customer journey through the product and marry the value statements to that so that you can, kind of, map out a sequence? How do you, then, take it forward?

Val: That’s exactly it. If I’m working with a company that’s been around for a while and has data collected, where they can say, “Hey, here are the things that our most successful customers do.” It’s usually a combination of several different events, but our successful customers do these five things in the first 30 days.

Then, you wanna make sure that your messaging is around … and maybe not even all five things, but what three things are the absolutely most important? Building a framework of emails around that, so that you’re not throwing every single feature, under the hood, at your customers from day one, but how are you helping them become the most successful customer you have in those early days?

How are you helping them see the value that they wanted out from your product through those email communications?

Val: Most of the time, email isn’t actually about getting them to use the product, but it’s about building a relationship, staying top of mind for them, and reminding them of the value that they have at their fingertips.

We know that most of us are reading emails on our phone, and we’re not in front of a computer, or we’re checking our email in between calls, and we don’t have a dedicated hour to sit down and do something.

So, use those emails to provide value, to teach them what’s possible. The call to action on the email can certainly be to login to their account, but just know that, that’s not necessarily what they’re gonna do, maybe, the first time they read the email.

You’re there simply to stay top of mind with them, because people often sign up for software and then hop onto a call, or go into a meeting, or go grab lunch.

You know, they signed up, but they don’t remember that they did it, even an hour later. So your job is to remind them that they did it, remind them why they did it, and remind them, what you provide for them … what value you can give them because of the decision that they made.

Kathleen: Now I have a million questions that are really detailed, nitty-gritty things that I want to go into.

I guess I will start with … You talk about reaching out to customers through email to remind them that you’re there, to stay top of mind. When you work with software companies, how do you advise them about who the email should come from?

Do you suggest that the email should come from, like, a specific person, like a Customer Success Manager? Should it come from the company? The sender … How important is that?

Val: It’s important that it’s personal because, again, your base emails, especially these initial onboarding emails, are building relationships.

So, I like an initial welcome email to come from a CEO or a Founder. I like the following-on onboarding emails to come from a mix of that same Founder or CEO and a head of Customer Success or, if it’s a more technical email, maybe, a Director of Engineering chimes in on those.

I do like to introduce other people on the team, because they’re people that your customers are building relationships with, inherently, over time. If they send in the support ticket, who might they hear back from?

Who is leading the helm in this particular area of the products? That’s the person you want to introduce … one, because it shows a buyer, a customer, that there’s more than just you behind the brand. When every single email comes from Founder and CEO, it’s like, “Okay, but are you the entire team?”

Kathleen: Right. Smoke and mirrors.

Val: Right.

Kathleen: Is there just one guy back there?

Val: Right, ’cause we all know there are plenty of software companies that are, like, the Founder and CEO is also the Director of Engineering and the Head of Marketing. S

o, it’s really important that they know that there are other people behind the brand, and it is super simple to turn around from a piece of software, from this inanimate object you have no relationship with.

When you start to build relationships with other people and, even if that’s a one-sided relationship where they’re just emailing you and you’re not necessarily interacting with them, you’re reading their name. You’re seeing their words.

There is a little bit of a relationship that gets built, and it’s so much harder to turn away from a person, and it’s even harder to turn away from multiple people, to tell you, “Hey, Kathleen, I’m sorry. I’m not really using this software that I signed up for. I know I made the choice to sign up for it. I’m not really using it.” That’s a harder statement, for me, than to go into a piece of software and click cancel.

Kathleen: I could not agree with you more. I use a lot of different software products, and I sign up for a lot ’cause I like to trial things and, kind of, understand if there’s something better out there.

I find, first of all, that not a lot of software companies do this well, and the small number that do do it well, where, from the beginning, I establish a relationship with a person or a group of people, you totally hit the nail on the head. It’s almost like I feel like I’m letting them down if I cancel.

Val: Yeah.

Kathleen: There’s, like, a sense of guilt almost.

Val: Yeah, and even though we’re marketers. We know those emails are automated. We know that there isn’t somebody on the other end personally typing it out to us, but it’s a little tougher decision to make.

So, there’s lots of reasons for making it from a person. I do always like it to be the person’s name and, then, from …

I was just using Drift as an example, yesterday. So, I’ll use Drift. So, instead of it saying, “The Drift team,” it would say, “Dave from Drift,” and it also wouldn’t say, “Dave Gerhardt,” as the only name because, then, it’s confusing.

In your inbox, you’re immediately like, “Who is this? Who’s spamming me? Who’s this person?” If you have some kind of reference point, “Dave from Drift,” “Oh, okay. It’s Dave from Drift. Got it,” then, I’m more likely to open that email.

Kathleen: You know? That’s interesting, too, because we are not a software company at IMPACT. We have a very large readership for our content, and we A/B tested the difference in open rates if we send an email from Ramona, who is our head of editorial content. If it says, “Ramona from IMPACT,” or if it’s just her email address and her name …

It was funny going into it ’cause my theory was that her email address and the name would get opened more because it more closely approximates if it was a person you knew emailing you, that’s what it would look like, but you’re right. When we A/B tested it, I found out I was wrong and, “Ramona from IMPACT,” actually got better results.

Val: It does. Yeah. It’s, like, friendly and familiar. It’s comforting in knowing there’s a point of reference because, also, you have to remember that this is a new relationship.

This is, kind of like, when you are talking to a friend about somebody else, and you, kind of, always have to mention their last name until that friend gets used to you talking about that person. Then you can just use their first name.

You know what I mean? It’s like you need to mention the company name as a point of reference for who you are and why you’re in their inbox.

Kathleen: It’s not pretending to be something that it isn’t, like, if you don’t have a really deep relationship, it’s not pretending and trying to come into your inbox in disguise as though you do.

Val: Yeah, totally.

Kathleen: My next question … These are all, by the way, totally selfishly motivated because we spend a lot of time in my team talking about email. So, I’m really psyched to see if you can, maybe, help clear up some questions that we have.

Val: Oh, okay. So, this is a consult call.

Kathleen: In disguise, it’s a podcast interview. No, no, no. This is why I was so excited to talk to you, because email is a topic that is so top of mind and there aren’t a lot of really concrete black and white, right or wrong answers. It’s different depending upon industry, depending upon what you’re emailing about, but-

Val: A hundred percent.

Kathleen: Yeah, the other thing that we debate all the time is the format that emails should take, meaning, when should you use a more traditional designed email with, like, a banner header and-

Val: HTML.

Kathleen: … Yeah, and when should you use something that — I mean, let’s be honest, it’s not plain text, it’s like, plain HTML — something that looks like it came out of your Gmail inbox-

Val: Yeah, text-based.

Kathleen: … What are the use cases?

Val: The way I like to think about that is transactional emails, HTML all the way. Put all your images in, put your header and your logo and all that stuff. So that is like monthly invoices, anything about the product, anything that is future releases, your regular blog post newsletter, that kind of thing. Those are all pretty transactional emails. Those are great for HTML, templated, beautiful, whatever, kind of emails.

Relationship-building emails are where I love to use text-based emails. Relationship-building emails are the ones that I write for my customers. They’re the onboarding, the retention emails. They’re the campaigns about something really specific going on. That’s where you wanna, again, really hone in on that customer journey and the personal aspect.

So, if it feels like it’s relationship-building, stick to relationship-building, stick to text-based. If it feels more transactional, then, template it up.

When I say, “text-based,” it’s really important to know that I don’t mean text only. You can certainly have images. You can even use a header if you want. Add your logo at the bottom. Whatever you wanna do. Text-based means at least 60% of the email is text.

Kathleen: Now, does that actually improve deliverability as well?

Val: It does.

Kathleen: Have you noticed any particular … Is there X percent more … How impactful is that from a deliverability standpoint?

Val: Deliverability varies by inbox since you have to think about where your customers are receiving your emails. If a lot of your customers are on Outlook, then good luck to you. Truly, if most of your customers are on Outlook, then, … Outlook is, like, tons of corporate customers. Right?

So, if that’s the case, then you really do wanna stick with text-based emails because Outlook does not like a lot of HTML emails. They just look horrible, and email developers and designers will tell you that Outlook is like the bane of their existence It’s their kryptonite.

So, if that’s the case, stick with text-based as much as possible, even for those transactional emails.

Kathleen: Yeah. There’s just so much potential for things to go wrong. We ran into this all the time when I had my agency. You would design what you thought was the most beautiful newsletter and it looked great, and you preview it in some of the different email clients, and then, it goes to an Outlook, or something, and all of a sudden, it’s just a disaster.

Val: Yes. It’s a total mess. Again, on mobile. What’s it gonna look like on mobile? Are they gonna have to scroll around on mobile ’cause nobody likes to do that. So, just considering that, as well, but as far as deliverability goes, it really depends on the inbox.

I’m in this community of email geeks, and we all talk about this a lot. The deliverability experts there have told me that, really, the more text in a email, the more it looks like an email from a friend, even if it’s being sent through an email service provider.

The more an inbox can read text, it thinks that … because, again, it’s AI. It’s not a real person making a decision. It’s an algorithm, and so it’s saying, “Okay, this is a lot of text. This person probably really wants to see this email,” versus, “This is a ton of images. It’s probably more promotional, or even SPAM.”

I want to be certain to say that the Promotions folder in Gmail is not the SPAM folder. That Promotions folder is, often, a good place to be. I know a lot of consumers who get really upset if a brand is trying to sneak into the main inbox, because they rely on that Promotions folder.

They go to it to look at what deals they have available to them … especially in the world of eCommerce. What’s the next offer in their inbox? They’ll drag those emails over to Promotions, left and right, when they land in their main inbox.

So, be really careful about your industry, but also know that the Promotions folder is not like a garbage can. It’s a place people actually really enjoy going to.

Kathleen: Amen. You know, in my case, it’s interesting. I subscribe to a lot of email newsletters just to, sort of, stay up to date on what’s happening in the world of marketing, the world of technology, and also because I like to see what best practice email newsletters look like because we just launched a new one.

You collect emails, I collect email newsletters, and they all go to my Promotions tab, or the vast majority of them do. The few that don’t, I do move over because I have an hour blocked out in my day just for going to the promotions tab and reading everything in there because I really wanna see that information, but I want it categorized in such a way that I’m able to use my time efficiently.

So, I couldn’t agree with you more.

Val: Right, and if you’re an eCommerce brand, and your emails aren’t in the Promotions folder, and somebody goes to the Promotions before they make their buying choices, and if your competitors are there, but you aren’t, guess who they’re gonna choose?

Kathleen: Right. That’s a very good point. That’s a very good point.

Yeah, the issue of images and text-based emails is interesting to me. I’ve really been looking at that closely lately because we’re trying to make some decisions about the newsletter that we send out.

I’ve noticed, even in Gmail, watching my own habits, I have Gmail set up so that it doesn’t automatically download images. So when I go into these newsletters, if they’re very image-heavy, they look really messy because, by default, those images are not opening, and I don’t always click that little Gmail link that says, “Display images below.”

So I find myself gravitating more towards emails that don’t have a lot because they’re easier to read and digest without having to load the images. And if an image looks like it’s gonna be really relevant I’ll hit that button but there’s something to that, you know to making something easy to read and cohesive without having to rely on a bunch of particularly decorative images as opposed to useful ones.

Val: There’s so many use cases that you just have to consider the majority of your customers and then do the best that you can by the rest of them. Use the alt text, uses few images as possible, you know all those things.

Kathleen: Yeah the alt text … we had a conversation yesterday because somebody on my team did a text based email that had a video in it and the video didn’t show up in it by default. The alt text did and the alt text was like ‘webinar promo’ and we talked about how there’s a real opportunity with alt text to change it to say ‘click here to see a special message from,’ you know? Just not something that you normally think about but I think it’s those little details that can really improve results.

Val: Yeah, absolutely. And the alt text has an opportunity to give more information. Like it shouldn’t be a repeat of the heading on the sentence below the image. It should be its own stand alone piece of information.

Kathleen: Yeah. That’s so interesting. I love those little details. I must be a huge email geek as well.

Val: You are. You’re a secret email geek.

Kathleen: I am. I’m letting my freak flag fly today.

So we’ve talked about formatting and what these emails should look like. Where do you generally see — in the SaaS customer onboarding and retention funnel — where do you generally see the most leakage from the funnel and how do you use email to shore that up?

Val: In the world of SaaS — we’ve talked a lot about eCommerce I’m gonna transition back to SaaS — the biggest concern is churn. And churn looks like revenue churn for most SaaS companies.

The leak in the funnel is really around right when somebody converts to being a paid customer. Those first 30, 60 I’d say even as far as 90 days are absolutely crucial to nail the customer experience.

There are too many software companies that are getting to conversion, so maybe they have an onboarding sequence set up and they’re getting to conversion once their customer becomes a paid customer. That’s it.

They hear nothing else from the company until, you know, they get their monthly invoice and they get added to the newsletter segment and that’s it. There’s no other communication.

That is a huge problem for battling churn because they’re still a new customer, they’re still trying to figure things out.

Just because they’ve decided to go ahead and pay for month one doesn’t mean that they’re sticking around long term. I think once you get past month three, definitely past month six you have a dedicated customer at that point.

But you know the biggest problem for SaaS is getting through those first couple months as a paid customer. And if you aren’t paying attention to your customers in that time then you’re gonna see pretty high churn numbers.

You can drop your churn numbers just by paying attention to your existing customers. Stop trying to battle churn by bringing in new customers and increasing your conversions on new customers; everybody tries to battle churn by doing webinars and adding sales people to the team and going out and getting new customers because we have to get two customers for every one who churns, or you know whatever math they work out.

If you just focus on the customers you’ve already attracted then you don’t have to get any new customers. You can just keep the ones you have.

Kathleen: Right. Plug the leaks in the bucket as opposed to pouring more water in the leaky bucket.

Val: Exactly. Yeah. And you know, especially if your pricing model is based around the growth of your customers. So you know if you have something where they have some kind of tiered plan based on their usage or based on the number of subscribers or website hits, any of those things, if you educate your customers and help them grow their business then they’re gonna move up your pricing plans and the more you educate them, the more you help them grow the business while they’re moving up the pricing plans they are also seeing you as a valuable resource in their business in general, right?

You become a trusted advisor as a brand and then they’re not going anywhere and now you have them not going anywhere, loving your brand, probably evangelizing your brand and they’re at one of your higher price points so that’s a win for everybody.

Kathleen: Now during those crucial first few months, if I were a software company that decided, “Okay I’m really gonna double down and make sure I’m treating these new customers well. I’m nurturing them so I’m encouraging product usage and adoption,” I imagine it would be very easy to kind of tip the scales in the other direction and overwhelm them with email communications.

So how much is too much and how often should these companies be having a touchpoint with their customers?

Val: Well you definitely wanna make sure the left hand talks to the right. What I see often happening is that the product team will send out emails about the product while the marketing team is sending out emails about the blog or the newsletter and they’re overlapping one another, they’re creating this weird cadence or they’re just crowding up an inbox.

So you definitely wanna make sure that things are consolidated.

And I’m not saying put everything in one email. I’m just saying make sure that you understand the send cycles in the calendar. There should be kind of one master calendar for all emails going out to your customers.

And then there’s segments inside of there too. So customers who aren’t actively using your product but are paying for it you wanna talk to them a lot.

You wanna know why that’s happening. Because it’s way better to … honestly it’s way better to let them churn out early than to have them on for months and months and months and then come back and say, “Hey I really haven’t been using the product for six months can you refund me at least three of those?” Like that sucks.

So you know I think a lot of founders are afraid of talking to people who aren’t using their product because maybe they have a whole bunch of customers who aren’t using the product and it’s like, “Well then I won’t have any customers left-“

Kathleen: It’s like there’s something very, very wrong with that entire mindset.

Val: Yeah, yeah. And also you don’t really have any customers right now. Like you have people who are paying you. But they aren’t your customers, they aren’t using your product, they’re not doing what you intended to have done with what you built. So they’re just people who happen to be paying you money and probably forgot about it.

Kathleen: Right, they’re like zombie customers.

Val: Yeah, yeah. I actually have an article that I wrote about the customers, those zombie customers.

There are vampire customers who are the ones that like suck your customer support team dry of everything, they’re not great customers.

There’s ghost customers who are customers who maybe sign up for a trial, never converted but have experienced your brand before.

And there are zombies that are like out there in the wild running around trying to figure out how to use your product and maybe even forgetting that it’s available to them.

So yeah those are two great areas of opportunities to focus on is those ghosts, those customers who were around at one time and then vanished because there’s a level of familiarity with the product and especially if you’ve done some major feature releases making sure you’re reaching those customers in that process.

And then yeah the customers who aren’t actively using your product — get them on board and talk to them a lot. If they are actively using the product, that’s where the cadence changes.

They maybe get less emails, but the emails they get are more of a congratulatory and a support from a level of, “We see you, we see you out there working hard. We wanna support you however you need it, here are the ways that we can do that.”

Versus someone who’s not using it at all like, “Hey, we wanna help you be successful, whatever that means. Here’s some of the opportunities that are available to you we’d love to hop on a call with you.”

Get your customer support team on board with really supporting those people in doing one on one calls or setting up group Q&A hours, webinars or whatever you need to do. Try out different tactics because what works for one business won’t necessarily work for another.

Kathleen: That makes sense. Now you’ve worked with a lot of different companies on these types of email strategies. For companies that do it well, what kinds of results can they see in terms of reduced churn or increased trial to customer conversions?

Val: Well the results … results may vary. They really do vary depending on what area the company’s focusing on. And this is the one thing I caution people on is trying to do too much at once.

I think you’ll get no results if you try to do too much at once.

But you will see results and they might be incremental, but a one percent decrease in churn can have a massive impact on your bottom line revenue.

So if you focus on one segment of customers and maybe you focus on churn reduction for those zero to three month customers and really hone in on that instead of trying to cover all the way from new trial onboarding all the way through 12 plus month retention, just focus on a small segment of that and see how that can move the needle for you. And then replicate it.

Everything about email is testing. Like if you aren’t testing things … like I love when my clients say, “Hey we wanna work with you and understand that these emails might not have the best results immediately so it’s all about testing and we wanna have AB tests and we wanna run different segments through various email campaigns. And we wanna see what doesn’t work because then we know what will work.”

Those are my favorite clients. The ones who say kind of like, “Let’s break it and make it messy …” because usually they come to me with a, “It can’t get any worse from here” kind of mindset.

So yeah, you can see a significant change if you focus on one segment at a time. If you’re trying to do too much at once you really aren’t gonna see much improvement.

Kathleen: That makes a lot of sense. Well I feel like I could continue asking you questions forever and picking your brain and having my free consultation-

Val: Yeah, let’s do that. Any time.

Kathleen: But you know as I said earlier you came to the podcast because one of my guests mentioned you as somebody who was doing inbound marketing really well so I wanna ask you my two questions that I always ask and see what you have to say.

Kathleen’s Two Questions

Kathleen: So company or individual who do you think is doing inbound marketing really well right now?

Val: I love Tara Robertson at Sprout Social. So Sprout Social’s a really special company, they do social media distribution I suppose — she probably knows a better word for it. But Tara’s really focused on that customer retention piece and talking to customers. She does it so beautifully and is an advocate for customer relationships in her company. And she’s really made a big change internally and also with their customers.

So I love … I got to spend a little bit of time with Tara recently and I wanted it to be days and days and days. So I love her, yeah.

That’s a great one and it’s funny that it hasn’t come up yet. I know Tara pretty well. She’s also a friend of IMPACT’s so it’s great to hear her name come up on this podcast.

Val: Yeah, for sure.

Kathleen: Now my second question is digital marketing changes so quickly, how do you stay up to date and keep yourself abreast of the latest developments?

Val: So my biggest resource in the world of email is Litmus. So they’re kind of like the email mecca I suppose. So Litmus is both a tool and they kind of aggregate all the email marketing news and really stay on top of things in the world of what’s happening from an email design development strategy distribution. All categories of email they are covering on their blog, in their community and at their conference.

And so I’m a huge part of the Litmus community and I don’t know where I’d be in email without them.

Kathleen: Oh I will definitely be checking them out as soon as I get off of this conversation.

Val: Yeah and they have a really powerful tool too for email testing. You can see what your emails will look like in various inboxes. There’s a one simple button that you can see what it’ll look like without those images displayed so it’s really handy, yeah.

Kathleen: That’s neat, I’ll have to check that out.

Well thank you! This has been so interesting, I’ve learned a lot. You’ve definitely cleared up some sources of, I don’t know if confusion’s the right word, but you’ve helped to resolve some of the debates we’ve been having on our team about emails so that’s awesome.

Connect With Val

Kathleen: If somebody’s listening or has a question or wants to reach out to you what’s the best way to get in touch?

Val: So my website is a good place to start, it’s valgeisler.com. I’m also pretty active on Twitter and I’m at @LoveValGeisler. It’s G-E-I-S-L-E-R.com. So come say hi to me on Twitter, tell me you listened to the podcast I would love to meet you.

And if you LinkedIn request me I’ll get back to it in like three months, my quarterly checkup with LinkedIn.

But Twitter is where I am on a daily basis.

And then come join my own email newsletter. I send out my regular blog post, I write onboarding tear downs. In 2019 I’m writing more on retention and the overall customer journey and I would love to see you over there as well.

Kathleen: So I do subscribe, it’s great. That’s a little plug for anybody who’s thinking of that. I love your writing style — it’s really different but it’s really kind of authentic so it’s a great example. Well and I also love your Twitter handle by the way.

Val: Oh thank you.

Kathleen: Well speaking of Twitter if you’re listening and you liked what you heard here consider tweeting me at @WorkMommyWork to give me some feedback. I’d love to know what you think about the podcast, if there are more topics you’d like to see covered or if you know somebody who’s doing kick ass inbound marketing work I’d love to hear about that because I want to interview them.

And if you like the podcast, give it a review on the platform of your choice. I would really appreciate it.

That’s all we have for today, thank you so much, Val, this was a lot of fun.

Val: Thanks for having me, Kathleen.

Kathleen: Thanks.

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