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How to Make Your Emails Go Viral

When most marketers think of virality, their minds immediately go to social. However, Chad White, research director for Litmus, argues that email can generate mass shares too—through forwards.

There are some key differences between social and email virality, White notes. Social sharing is public and, therefore, relatively easy to measure; email forwarding, however, is private and as such is difficult to track. Viral audiences for each channel are also extremely different. When people share content on social, for instance, it generally reaches their entire network, White says. But, he says, when someone forwards an email, it’s directed toward a specific individual who, ostensibly, will find the content relevant. 

“It’s the scattered shot of social versus that sniper bullet of the forward—something that’s targeted,” he explains.

Forwarding emails does more than just expand that message’s reach. Research has shown that consumers are more likely to buy from a brand that was recommended by a trusted source.

So, why is social still getting all of the viral glory? Put simply: Generating forwards is hard.

Consider the following: For Litmus’ recently published “Viral Email Report,” White used the company’s email analytics capabilities to evaluate more than 400,000 commercial emails that each had at least 500 opens. He then looked at what percentage of the B2B and B2C emails generated a forward and ranked them.

The results weren’t exactly encouraging. According to the report, emails in the 50th percentile of forward-per-open rates generated one forward for every 370 opens. It wasn’t until the emails fell into the top 1% that they generated a forward for every 21 opens.

“The message there is that most emails don’t rise to that level of being forwarded that much,” White says. “So, to think that you’re going to somehow engineer it so that most of your emails are getting forwarded a lot is probably not a realistic goal.”

Instead, marketers should take an episodic approach to their email marketing: Rather than constantly trying to generate the next big hit, aim to generate consistent engagement with subscribers and then surprise and delight them with special content or offers that exceed their expectations.

“You should be trying to engineer moments when you’re amazingly fantastic, and the rest of the time [you can settle for] fine to good,” White explains. “Try to be engineering intense moments where people are going to want to be engaging with your brand at a higher level [and] want to be sharing the content of that email.”

How can marketers create these exceptional moments for their subscribers? To get a clearer sense of what actually motivates subscribers to forward an email, White analyzed more than 200 emails from the top 1% and compared them to some 200 emails from the 50th percentile. Here are his suggestions based on those findings—advice that could help your email messages go viral.

1. Review your email editorial calendar. The first thing White says marketers should do is look at their content calendars and ask themselves what are they planning on sending that’s special? Not the same “run-of-the-mill” messages that go out every Tuesday and Thursday, he says. One way marketers can determine whether their messages are unique is by asking themselves if they would forward them to their friends: “If it would get you talking about it, [then] that’s a pretty good indication that it would get other people talking about it.”

He also encourages marketers to look at major events going on within their industries, and try to create special messages for those moments—for example, end-of-year giving for nonprofits.

2. Concentrate on subscribers’ hierarchy of needs. There are four things, according to the report, that every subscriber needs: respect, function, value, and remarkable experiences.

White says that each of these experiences builds on the other, and in effect makes it difficult for marketers to meet subscribers’ more advanced needs. That’s because basic needs have to be met first. White warns, however, that meeting the need for remarkable experiences is critical to build brand evangelists.

“You could probably have a decent business just with the first three layers of the pyramid,” White says, “but to be a really successful business you have to have evangelists, subscribers, customers that are doing some of your marketing for you. That’s what the top of the pyramid—that remarkable level of the pyramid—is about. Are you delivering experiences worth talking about?”

3. Know what kind of virality you’re hoping to achieve. According to White, there are two types of email forwards: the social forward and the advice-seeking forward.

The social forward happens when a subscriber wants to share news with friends or family, notify them of a particular promotion, or include them in a planning process. For instance, a subscriber who receives an invitation to a company’s conference may forward that email to his colleagues to see if anyone else is attending, White explains. An advice-seeking forward occurs when the recipient wants his network’s input on whether he should convert. For instance, the report cites an example of how U.K.-based loan provider Glo achieved a high forward rate by providing a checklist of what loan applicants should look for when choosing a guarantor along with a link to send to a potential guarantor.

Bottom line: Keeping these two types of forwards in mind can help marketers determine whether their messages are actually helping them generate the reach, engagement, or conversions that they’re hoping for.

4. Make it clear that you’re doing something special. Sending a coupon for 40% off instead of your usual 10% offer? Hosting a major event? Let your subscribers know that you’re sending them something extraordinary, such as by switching up your design template, White says.

5. Include a call-to-action button. Just as companies may include a like or share button for their social campaigns, marketers should tell their subscribers that this is something that they should pass along with share-with-your-network CTA buttons. According to the report, emails in the top one percentile were 13 times more likely to include them than emails in the 50th percentile.

“Obviously, you can’t dump a ‘share with your network’ call-to-action into any old email and have it make a significant impact,” White says, “but that should be a part of your email design when you’re having those special moments—[like] when you have that great promotion, when you have that special content, [or] that special event.”

6. Narrow down your audience.  Size matters. White says that companies with smaller lists tend to see more engagement. But that doesn’t mean that big brands with millions of subscribers can’t go viral. Segmentation, personalization, and triggered messaging are all effective ways to boost forwards among your subscribers. Consider the following: 13% of the emails in the top 1% were segmented and 16% were triggered, versus 3% and 5.4%, respectively, for the 50th percentile. Nearly 9% of the messages in the top 1% contained personalized content, compared to only 2% for the emails in the 50th percentile.

“The more you can focus on one thing and delivering that one thing to the right person…the more inclined [your subscribers feel] to forward that one thing onto somebody they know who is interested in that one thing.”

7. Keep your content simple. Not only do marketers want their audiences to be focused, but they should want their content to be focused, too. So, instead of sending subscribers several announcements or pieces of content, marketers should focus on one specific topic or one specific call-to-action, White says. This will prevent the forwarder from having to explain what exactly he wants the recipient to see.

8. Know what types of email are most virality-prone. Everyone likes to get discounts. But sending customers generous coupons doesn’t guarantee that your emails will go viral. In fact, just 18% of the top 1% of emails contained promotions, deals, or discounts—versus 56% for the 50th percentile. Events requiring an RSVP were the most common topic in top 1% emails (being featured in 31% of them), followed by news/helpful content (21%) and transactional/account-change/action-required information (18%).

The key, according to White, is focusing on the topics that go above the expected baseline and excite people enough to share.

 “You’re sending stuff all of the time about news and promotions,” he says. “These are just absolutely core to email marketing. These are staples…. [It’s] not that people don’t like promotions, [and it’s] not that people don’t like news and content. But for them to share it, it has to be truly special and amazing.”

Updated July 23 at 10:11 am EST: The correct name of the report is “The Viral Email Report” not the “Email Virality Report” as previously listed.

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