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Email has changed the way we communicate. We don't talk on the phone nearly as much as we used to, and we don't even meet in person quite as much, all because so much of that communication has been replaced by emails. But with all that in-box traffic, how do you make sure you're sending emails that will actually get opened and read?

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In this episode, we're joined by Mike Donnelly, the co-founder and CEO of Seventh Sense, a software company based just outside of Washington, D.C. At a high level, Seventh Sense helps you increase your open rates by optimizing send times. Mike is a recognized sales leader in the tech space, which means he knows how to leverage technology to drive revenue.

In particular, we'll focus on two aspects of email marketing that can really increase engagement. The first is understanding content. What makes good content, what's interesting, and why that is such an important part of your email strategy. The second part is segmentation, which includes understanding who you're sending your emails to, knowing their preferences, and understanding how that impacts open rates.

In this issue:

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4:00 - Seventh Sense and Send Times

ED: Mike, I tried to give a high-level explanation of Seventh Sense. Can you take us a little bit deeper into Seventh Sense, maybe how you even got into this, and maybe that will help people better understand the state of email through that description, as well.

MIKE: Yes, absolutely. If you think about human beings in today's digitally connected world, we're all just receiving gobs of email. In fact, you look at a lot of decision-makers within corporations, and you think about yourself, we'll get more email this week than we did last week, and last week we got more email than the week before. There's really just this deluge of email communication that's ever increasing.

And it's not just email communication. It's social notifications. It's phone calls, although phone calls are dropping off more and more, but we're still getting them. There's a lot of noise trying to grab our attention, and as an enterprise sales rep, that became a huge problem for me when I was trying to do outreach to prospects, and even existing customers. So, what I would do is, I would pay attention to, if I want to reach Scott or Sarah, I knew intuitively that Scott would respond to me, because I paid attention to his patterns, between 9 and 11 in the morning. And Sarah, she would respond to me between 9 and 10 at night.

And as I continued to formulate this idea, what I started to recognize is that just like people are creatures of habit, where they get out of bed at certain times of day, they commute at certain times of day, they have standing meetings at certain times of day, they are also more apt to engage and respond to communication at certain times. But my schedule is different than yours, which is different than Sarah's, which is different than Scott's. And as we use these marketing automation platforms, as we sent emails, etc., we're generating all of this engagement data. It's when is Sarah opening emails, when is she clicking on emails, when is Scott opening emails, when is he clicking on the emails? But we're doing nothing with it.

So, what Seventh Sense does is we go off and we mine that data out of the marketing automation platforms, and then we build a profile on each individual, to try and determine when I have the highest probability of Sarah engaging. And we also train our system to try and target these people on their desktops versus mobile phones. When do I have the highest probability of reaching Scott by the time of day and day of the week? Also, just to add a little bit more context, the reason we target people on their desktops is, as much as everybody says to make your content mobile-friendly, etc. I don't disagree with that, but mobile phones are great for reading, but they're actually horrible for taking action.

So, if you're trying to get a club member to register for an event, set up a tee time, something along those lines, they're not going to do that on their mobile phone. They're going to do that on their desktop, because typing with your thumbs becomes, you know, we all get tired of it. So, at a very high level, we not only expose that data on the individual, but rather than blasting an email to 500 club members about the most recent or an upcoming event, we empower you to personalize in an automated way the send time to each individual through your existing marketing automation system.

ED: Just to touch on that, it's interesting you say that people don't take action as much on their mobile device as they do on their desktop. Because, thinking about my own behavior, if someone says, "Hey, do you want to play golf on Saturday?" I'll jump into the app to look at tee times, and if I've just got to make the tee time right then, I'll try to do it, but a lot of times, I'll just look at it to see if it's available, and I will wait until later to book it on my desktop. Why is that? It's really interesting. It's almost like you're just trying to learn, and, like you said, educate yourself, but then take action in another way.

MIKE: We all kind of take that same approach. Now, if you do have an app that's like a one-click app, and this is where I liken it to Amazon. If Amazon sends me a marketing email and I like something there, I have the Amazon app on my phone and it's literally one click to make a purchase. I don't have to do anything more. Amazon knows exactly who I am, and I don't have to fill out any other information. If anybody else sends me a marketing email about purchasing x, y, or z, if I like what I see, I just don't delete it, because I'm an inbox zero person, and then when I get back to my desktop, I'll actually make the purchase. Because it's just so much more efficient and much faster to take those actions on your desktop, and it's really the way that we've trained our brains to interact with content.

9:16 - How To Avoid Brand Fatigue

ED: You've got a lot of information, a lot of knowledge to share, and let's start with content. We'll start away from you and then move more towards the technology if that's good with you. Knowing you've done a lot of research in emails and emailing and understanding that, you can have the greatest technology in the world, like Seventh Sense, that's going to tell you exactly when Ed is opening his emails, but if you don't have anything really interesting to offer, or if you've conditioned them to believe that you don't have anything to offer because you've spammed them, they're going to delete your email without even looking at it, right?

MIKE: Absolutely. I agree that no matter what time you send it, if you've just spammed your audience to death, it's just going to become irrelevant. It doesn't matter when you send it. And, going a step further, you can sometimes get lost in the noise — what I call fatigue or brand fatigue. You can get brand fatigued if you're not sending the right content to the right individual. And then the individual will tune your brand out and they will just stop interacting with your emails because you constantly send them content. Even though this email might have been interesting to them, they're not even going to interact with it because the last 10 emails that you sent them just did not apply to them whatsoever.

11:09 - Remember When Getting an Email Was Cool?

ED: How do you think the importance of content in email has changed through the years? Remember when you got your first email, and it was like, "Oh my gosh, I just got an email!" And it was the coolest thing, and there was this novelty for it, and it has slowly become the bane of our existence. How do you feel like the content and the importance of content has changed over the years? And what are the trends in that?

MIKE: If you look back even three years ago, the average business professional was receiving about 50 to 60 emails a day. Three years later, the average business professional receives around 120-125 emails a day. And when you look at executives, it's far more. I have plenty of executive friends that deal with daily inbox emails of over a thousand a day. So, we are spending so much time in our inboxes that psychologically, we're actually having to train our brains in how to deal with it. But each individual is training their brain the way that they want to train their brain or the way that they learn how to deal with it.

Your email is no longer a novel place. It's actually a very stressful place. When I get an email, no matter who it's from, I'm like "Oh gosh, another email." Even if it's somebody saying we're ready to move forward, it's like, "Okay, that's one more thing that I've got to put on my plate." Even though that should be a very exciting piece, I've already got 50 other emails that I'm trying to interact with at this point. Therefore, as long as you're sending relevant content, you can really keep people interacting or engaged with it. But, most marketers are not respecting what their audience is telling them purely based on their engagement. And the reason why is, if you think about sending email, sending email is a commodity. I've got a subscriber base of a thousand people and I've got a marketing automation system that I'm paying for, so it doesn't cost me anything to send them an email. But the cost comes on the opposite end of that. The cost of the attention of the recipient. And back to your original question about where things have changed from 10 years ago, 10 years ago we didn't have the level of data on each individual that we have today. Marketing automation systems have gotten far smarter in the way and the types of data that they're capturing on each individual. They also didn't have the capability of doing all the types of segmentation that you can now do with a marketing automation platform.

17:15 - Why This Matters for Club Marketing

ED: The intelligence has changed so much, and I'm just thinking about the content, thinking about club marketers and what you're saying, and the lack of respect in many ways for the recipient of that email. If as communicators, club communicators, we think of that email communication as something that we can offer to help people or provide valuable information for them, rather than just got to get the information out. It can change the whole experience for the members.

MIKE: Let's just go to a "for instance," or make it a little bit more tactical. So, say I'm a club member, and it's very clear that I like golf and I am a golfer. So, I first become a member. I'm opening emails, but I'm really only clicking on events that we have upcoming that are golf-related. But now there's not a golf-related event for the next month and a half. But my club also has tennis. They also have a pool. They also have the dining specials for the week. But guess what, I don't care about any of those. I want to know about what's going on in golf. But because you're sending me the weekly specials with dining, you're sending me a weekly email about the tennis club, you're sending me your weekly email about what's going on in the pool. Then what happens is, I start to just tune the brand out, because every one of those emails is not relevant.

Then what happens is, you send another email about the next golf event, and guess what, in my brain, I psychologically tuned you out and I pass you by. What would have been better to happen is take those cues to say, "Mike is not interested in tennis, golf, the pool, or the dinner specials. Let's not send him those emails." So, when I do get an email from the club, I'll say, "Oh, it's golf." I'm going to immediately open and click on that and therefore I stay engaged.

The other component that can actually be a very bad thing is as you get more and more people disengaging, that creates a physical email deliverability issue, which we spend a lot of time on today. What can happen is the people that actually want to get your emails, they're actually going to land in the spam folder because your engagement rates are so low. So, by simply segmenting what people are interested in and focusing on that, you can have dramatic increases in overall engagement, and therefore you're making your club members far happier in the way that they're interacting with you.

20:15 - How to Fix the Problem

ED: Let's jump into that in a second. I do want to follow up one thing that you said. I can almost hear member services people saying, "okay, I pissed off all my members" or "made people frustrated because I've been sending the wrong emails." How do you reverse that? Do you have an email saying, "I'm really sorry we've been spamming you." Is there anything from a technology perspective or in your experience that you'd recommend?

MIKE: Tactically, I think you could do a couple things there. But yes, it's certainly going to take time to win them back. For new members, you could send them an email that says, "what types of emails are you interested in receiving?" And then only send them those emails. Don't spam them with the tennis and the pool and those types of things. But for existing members that have just tuned the brand out, go off and do a little bit of research into what they're interested in. Most clubs do a phenomenal job of really understanding "Hey Mike really is the golfer persona, let's send him emails about golf." So, therefore, start suppressing him from receiving other types of emails, and then all of the sudden Mike will start saying, "Oh wow, there's a golf event." Psychologically he'll just start to recognize that. He actually probably won't even know he's doing it, but he'll recognize that he's just getting emails about golf.

ED: So, it's an idea of opting into certain emails, opting into certain conversations that are happening at your club, and not getting things you don't care about. So, from a tactical perspective, how do you do that? It could be an email. There could be an announcement. There could be, through member communications, acknowledging we're going to change the way we're communicating with you, our members. And we want to find out from you what is valuable for you. So, providing people, ideally electronically, so they can opt-in. And then, depending on the platform that you're using, you can automatically start segmenting members into different buckets of interest. You could do it manually, and you could have manual lists, because let's face it, a lot of you in the club industry are technologically challenged, and resources are really tight. A lot of member services people use Excel spreadsheets to manage contact lists and things like that. You can do it manually, but the important thing is to get those people on their lists, and the more automated it is, the more efficient you can be. I mean, for you, Mike, this is kind of the way the world works, but for a lot of people in the club industry, this isn't something that they're used to thinking about.

MIKE: Even internally, before we send an email, and this is what I encourage all marketers to do, whether or not you're an expert or you're just getting started is, think about what have I hired this email to do? If I were to receive this email, why would I engage with it? And back to some of the tactics that you can use, take the team into a room for an afternoon and start developing what the persona is. Golfer Mike, Pool Sally, Dining Sarah. And then what you can do is build lists off of those personas, and just assign an initial persona to each member and each member of their family. And then what you can do, again, start segmenting your contacts to who it's going to.

25:20 - Understanding Your Email Audiences

ED: Once again, we talked about this last week with blogging, which is that it starts with knowing your personas. Know who you're going to talk to. And what's really cool about clubs is that we all know who these people are. And rather than even having some alliteration of some name like Poolside Pattie or something like that, it's like, "No, that's actually Karen Johnson. She is that person." And if you think about Karen Johnson, you're writing to her, and it's going to cover a lot of members who are just like her. The look-alike audience, in some way.

Let's talk about the external use of email. In some ways, I feel like it's the most over publicized thing about the club world is that private clubs are struggling, and for sure golf is in decline, although I actually just saw a neat piece saying that golf, in general, is starting to stabilize. But marketing tactics for a lot of clubs — some have changed, a majority have not. Word of mouth has always been super, super important for clubs. And yet people will call, they'll inquire about membership, or they'll inquire about events at your club, or they might inquire about weddings and things like that, and in many cases, a lot of the people that I talked to, they don't have a way of following up. Not only they don't use a CRM, or a CRM is not in use, but there is no email communication, as well. And while I think we who are associated with private clubs get that we want to be high touch, we want to show personal service, we don't want to badger people who are inquiring. The truth is, the world has changed and people, in some ways, expect that communication, they expect ongoing interaction from the organizations and businesses that they're interested in. An email is such a big part of that. Can you add some more context to the changes? The demographic has shifted. So this idea of high touch — yes, but we also need technology as well, do we not?

MIKE: Absolutely. Let's unpack a little bit more about what you said. If I'm looking to join a club, it's going to probably be a pretty big financial investment for me. And it's like anything in the world. I want to be educated on why I should join. Maybe I've made the decision to join a club, and I've set aside a family budget to do so, but I want to be educated on why I should join your club. And while word of mouth is still important, and we'll think about that kind of like in the business to business world, that's inbound. There are these inbound leads, people are reaching out to us based on the word of mouth. But there's also, "I just moved to the area, I'm inquiring about the clubs." I want to know, hey this club has a pool, this club has tennis, this club has curling, whatever my interests are. And it can be, as part of that inquiry, I understand that for a club to continue to facilitate outreach, that can become incredibly expensive. Especially if you're calling people. Or even if you're sending them one-to-one emails. But you should really be automating that process, and the way through automation is marketing automation. This person inquired about golf. Let's send them a series of emails that talk about our golf club, the etiquette of the club, what to expect as far as available tee times. How many events do we do? How many events do we do for the members?

ED: Good content. We would even say, meet a member. Send them a bio, maybe a link to a story or a link to a video about a member, or some way to help them figure out is this the right place for me?

MIKE: Exactly. Do the same thing with — this person inquired about golf and pool, so clearly they have a family. We're capturing that data at the beginning. So, maybe I send them a series of, here's what to expect from the golf club. Here are the events that we throw at the pool every summer. Here's what Pool Sally had to say about why she loves the pool, and do it, as you mentioned, as a video. Here's what Scott the Golfer had to say, and do it as a video. And what you're doing is you're facilitating that education in an automated process which can dramatically reduce your cost of acquisition for a new member.

32:02 - Seeing the Value of Automation

ED: Right, because your alternative, and what a lot of people will do, is they may have a tickler file of some sort. But it's not automated, for sure, and they may not always think to go through and say I was supposed to follow up with Karen Johnson's best friend unless they're really active in the buying cycle. But guys like us, we might take three or four years. I mean this courting and hemming and hawing about whether to join can take a long time, and without automation. You talk about the cost of acquisition, you're either going to lose those opportunities or you're going to spend a ton of time manually doing some of these activities.

MIKE: Yeah. You're going to spend a lot of money or you're going to lose those opportunities to the competitive club that has invested in that digital communication.

ED: We're unpacking this whole idea of entertaining the idea of automation and how that can help. Was there more that we wanted to go through with that?

MIKE: Don't try to boil the ocean from the beginning, but if I were a club owner or somebody that was handling customer acquisition, start with something simple like getting a CRM in place so you have all of this in one centralized location. And there are free CRMs out there. There are some really, really good free CRMs that literally cost you nothing.

ED: Yeah, HubSpot's CRM is fantastic.

MIKE: Exactly. We utilize HubSpot, internally, ourselves. So, start with that and then start trying to define what your personas are so you can start bucketing them. And then, that's where you start getting into what type of content should we be sending out? How often should we be sending it out? If you don't have the time or energy to boil the ocean, that's where you come to somebody like yourself, Ed, that has the expertise and can deliver that expertise, not only from a consultant perspective but also from an implementation perspective.

34:34 - Adapting to Change

ED: It really is one of those things where if you want to grow your membership, you want to grow the revenue, the things that you have always done, if they haven't worked, then it's time to try something different. And there's so much great technology out there, why wouldn't you start to implement change and move in that direction? So, let's bring this a little closer to Seventh Sense because, at the top, we were talking about the busy executives and all the emails that they get. And let's face it, for a lot of private clubs that is, or that is part of, their demographic that they're after. They are looking for people who lead very busy lives, that are managing multiple schedules, that have a lot going on, and probably receive a lot of emails. But Seventh Sense and the technology that's offered through email platforms like yours, and there aren't many like like yours, they make so much sense. So, can we adapt the thinking behind the customized emails and bring it home a little bit more to a membership director who's managing, it's not a huge database. Maybe 500 names, maybe 200, could be a thousand, depends on how many different types of contacts. It could be could be potential members, it could be real quick turns, like wedding inquiries. We're interested in having our wedding at this private club, and that decision is going to be made really, really quickly, but that could turn into, "Oh my gosh, well now we have to have the rehearsal dinner, grooms dinner, or the brunch the day after." So, some of that communication looks like that, or it could be galas. A lot of clubs host galas, as well. But when you think about people who are making those inquiries, and know that they're going to receive emails, or not, let's talk about how we could potentially help them make sure that these busy people are seeing their emails.

MIKE: I'll give you a "for instance." My sister-in-law works for a very large catering company and she works weddings and things along those lines. Every time we talk, and she's in sales, every time she talks, she has the same problem that we've been discussing. I've got a spreadsheet. I've got a tickler file. I forget to send this person email, and the next thing you know, the next time I call them, they've already gone with a competitor. Had I sent them that email a week before, I probably would have gotten their business because we were having a great conversation. And every time I come back to her, which is, "Why don't you automate this? Why don't you automate the ability to reach out to these people?" "Well, because my company is not willing to invest in it."

And my response always is, "If you would've won that last opportunity the ROI would have already been there with one opportunity." It's a little bit of this shortsighted component. Now, when it comes to Seventh Sense or you're looking at what tools to use for marketing automation, what's an all-encompassing solution? I'm a huge proponent of HubSpot. I know that's a lot of what you work within, Ed, because it is that all-encompassing solution. CRM, automation, etc. Where Seventh Sense could come in and lend value is we're going to go out and analyze all that data from every time send an email, and the system, it's all these things that you hear on the news, A.I., artificial intelligence, machine learning, but we're not going to get into that, we have all that for you. And our system handles all that for you, and then we automate the process of facilitating that outreach. So that's really where Seventh Sense comes in from an automation perspective.

39:25 - Talking About ROI

ED: You bring up a great point with the ROI because that is one of the things that membership directors, sales, and marketing leaders within the club industry understand. Sometimes it's difficult to position that with either the board or with the general manager or the owner, if it's privately owned. And I think that one of the things that people tend to forget is that in this digital age, it's all measurable. You can actually run a report that shows how effective the tactics that you've been using have been. That's one of the most remarkable things, as far as just reporting and proving out ROI in a very tangible, "here look at this report," kind of way. What are some of the analytics that you have visibility into today that we didn't have 10 years ago?

MIKE: It's a great question, and the answer is that it's night-and-day different. The ROI that you receive is incredibly measurable. And I think a lot of membership directors, if they went to their board, their board would say, "What do you mean, we're not already doing this?" I mean we all live in this digital age, and just like the businesses that are not taking this digital approach, Amazon's going to overtake them. And in the private club space, there are clubs that are already implementing this. And there are clubs in every single locality that are already implementing these strategies. And if you're not, your cost of sale, or cost of acquisition of a new member, is just going to continue to skyrocket unless you really think about it. I'm not saying completely automate the process because then there's not the true human touch to it, but at least automate some of the processes. And, again, with the investment that club members make, in a lot of instances, if you get one or two club members by taking this new approach, then the whole approach gets paid for by itself. You then start adding member three, member four, member five, member six because you're doing a much better job of educating that member on why they should be a member, and the ROI of building it out just skyrockets.

ED: Yeah, especially you can look at things like initiation fee, downstroke, sometimes depending on what that is for a club, that alone can pay for the technology and the services for at least that year if not longer. But then you consider the lifetime value of a new member which reaches into the hundreds of thousands, based on industry average, so there is plenty of ROI that can be proven out. People have just become so used to this idea that you can't measure marketing and advertising, just can't do it, it's just about getting the word out, but it's not that way anymore.

MIKE: Right. And back to your point that you made earlier. Right now, I am not a member of a private club. But in the next few years, I will be joining a private club. And next to me are Washington Golf, Riverbend, and Argyle. Those are the three that I would consider. This is going to be a three-year quote-unquote sales cycle for them, and they need to do a better job of marketing to me so that when I'm ready to make that decision in three years, I'm highly educated on what each one provides.

43:40 - The Future of Email Marketing

ED: Yeah, that is a great point, you just said three-year sales cycle. And if people could look at some of the strategies, not that they're not, I mean there are a lot of visionary people in this industry, but to really lengthen the lens of that sales cycle and say this is a three year deal, and let's start building that relationship right now, and email can certainly be a great way, when done right, to develop that relationship. What do you think is the future? We'll just wrap up with your vision for what you think is the future of email communication, especially with so much video that's out there now. What do you think is the future?

MIKE: Email is actually making a huge resurgence. If you think about all the proponents that have said email is dead, like Facebook, Slack, WhatsApp, etc. The one thing I always point to is, how do you log into those systems? You use an email address. Your email address is really likened to your Social Security card for the internet. It's not going anywhere. And there are, to the nth degree, studies on millennials, and the number one way that millennials want to interact with brands is through email.

Now, where do I think the future of email is going? Video is absolutely a critical part of a communication strategy. But where I think email is going to go is, marketing automation systems are going to get smarter about each individual's habits. But if you're not starting to generate that type of data today, then if you're going to wait two years or three years, then what you're doing is you're missing out on all of the data generated. The CEO of HubSpot recently said, and I loved the comment, "data is the new oil." If you don't have data, you're going to be left behind. Yes, you can generate data today, and a lot of it, you can't do anything with it. But if you think three or five years out, what we're going to be able to do with that data that we generated today, it's going to be amazing things.

My point of view is that you should get started today, don't boil the ocean, and then in the next few years, we're going to see some very interesting technologies where you'll be able to look at, I don't need to ask Scott what type of content he wants, I'm going to know, because the system's going to tell me. The system is going to learn and adapt to what Scott's interested in. Not only that, but how often does Scott want to be communicated with? Hey, if I send Scott an email more than once a month, he's going to start getting fatigued of my content, he's going to start tuning my brand out. Whereas, Pool Sally, I can send her an email every other day, and she interacts with all of them. The systems are going to start recognizing those patterns and automate and facilitate that outreach.

Essential Digital Marketing Guide for Private Clubs