Mother Nature's Master List

(Reading time: 3 minutes, 43 seconds)

I was so happy to step out of the office yesterday morning to find that spring seems to have finally arrived.

Springtime backyard

Standing on the balcony, I could catch glimpses of a bazillion specks of — What is that? Pollen? Spore thingies? — floating in the air. I wondered about the conversion rate on all those little emissions floating by and imagined a certain subset of plants that might be furiously working on calculating the return on investment for all the systems that support that outreach …

But nature doesn’t work that way.

It’s all automated.

That led me back to today’s topic: Leveraging content systems to learn from an audience.

“No one’s going to read it anyway.”

This is the first objection I imagined some might have at the idea of putting any effort into a welcome email to new subscribers. And, I agree, plenty of people will never open a welcome/confirmation email after they sign up for a newsletter.

The mistake is to send a (conventional) welcome/confirmation email in the first place.

Because what is a welcome email?Why do people not open or act on them?

The subject line is a big contributor. You’ll see something like this:

"Master List: Subscription confirmed.”

You’re right. Who’s going to open and read that email?

I mean, who is “Master List”, and why am I receiving emails intended for him about new subscribers?

“Look, Master List, another new subscriber!”


Seriously — Why would anyone want to open another email that says, “Subscription confirmed” or “Welcome”? We all know what’s in that email, and there's nothing of value in it.

Let’s go back to the example from last week.

I asked you to imagine that someone invited you to their house for a dinner party.

When you arrive, they normally would greet you and ask a question of some sort because, as my wife explained to me on our first date, asking questions is a way for humans to relate to one another and initiate further interaction. (Thanks, Christie!)

So, why isn’t your autoresponder doing that?

What if your subject line asked a question?

What if your approach was disarmingly human and the subject line of the first email your new subscriber receives from you were a question?

“What would we even ask?”

What would you like to learn from your subscribers?

How they heard about you?

Maybe. If you’re tracking signups as a goal in Google Analytics, you can find out where people who sign up for your newsletter are coming from in a few clicks, but that won’t fully answer the question.

Or you could ask what one thing made them to decide to subscribe.

Now you’re starting to get at people’s motivations, which analytics isn't great at showing you.

Or you could ask them what they value most when considering your organization. This is a more of a Top Tasks approach.

All these questions can be valuable and yield actionable information.

“We don't have the capacity to encourage email conversations. The last thing we need is more people replying to emails.”

Ghosts of clients past are now marching through my brain with objections like this one.

First of all, I’m not recommending organizations encourage open-ended replies to whatever question they ask. A survey is probably better here, but I still find the objection very odd, so let’s think about it for a second.

Yes, if you asked a question in your initial email to subscribers, some may reply and some of those replies may warrant a response, even if it’s a simple “Thank you!”. So, it would help to have a human being on the receiving end of their reply.

And this a problem — why?

Organizations more or less accept that Twitter and Facebook allow people to publicly reply or comment or ask questions, but they dread the idea of inviting a private response to a question in a welcome email, which would open the gates of hell and they’d be swamped with feedback.

And that feedback would be — a bad thing?

“But then what?”

Ultimately, just asking a question won’t likely generate many insights and, while you could start to identify patterns from these interactions, it would all be pretty intuitive and/or laborious to measure.

Why not make that welcome email be a super simple survey?

It’s true that the more content you add to the email, the fewer people will respond to the survey. If you make a fancy email describing all your programs and upcoming events with calls to action to become a member, make a donation, and take a survey, you’ll be sending a million little spores into the atmosphere, hoping one will succeed.

But there’s no need to be as random as Mother Nature.

Remember: 93% of (at least Florida) museums aren’t communicating any call to action in their current autoresponders. Introducing a single call to action — “Answer this one (or two) question survey” — isn’t a missed opportunity to try to get people to donate or become a member. That is, for most museums, using this interaction as a way to survey subscribers won’t carry with it any of the political hoop jumping associated with removing existing content from the welcome email.

The goal is to use existing automation to learn a little bit from the audience — to create a little learning machine that (almost) runs itself.

Let’s dig into how this type of survey can work tomorrow.

Thanks for reading,


Kyle Bowen