TBT: Emails that people actually open

Nine years later, it’s still good advice. Originally published Apr 29, 2011

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Mail to trash

It’s not very often that I open an email with a cryptic subject line. My inbox is just too full (as I’m sure most of yours are) to take the time to guess what it’s about, or to open it and read for a couple of minutes to see what’s being pitched. It would probably be safe to guess the same goes for the recipients of your emails, as well.

Sure, we’d all like to think our readers love us so much that they open our email the moment it arrives and gobble up every word. I know that’s what I hope. But a much more likely possibility is simply that the subject line engaged them.

So, while we may live in the hope of others reading our “deathless prose” simply because we write so well, it’s best not to put all our eggs in that basket. To help get your emails opened, I suggest making the subject line as productive as possible. Here are some tips.

1) Relevance – Craft a subject line that’s meaningful to your audience. Your subject line works like the headline in an ad or on an envelope. You have only a few seconds to grab readers’ attention before it goes in the trash or they turn the page.

2) Balance – There’s a fine line between words that motivate and words that scream, “Trash me! I’m spam!” Scroll through your inbox for subject lines that make you think, “Oh, I want to open that.” The same tactics those emails used will likely work for your own email campaigns.

3) Communicate one-to-one – Email has the advantage of being highly personal. Use this advantage in your subject lines. Including the recipient’s name in the subject line has proven to be an excellent way to increase “opens.”

4) Remember the “from” line – Never try to hide your identity in the “from” line. When I get an email with a cryptic subject, I’ll check the “from” line to see who sent it, before I hit “delete.” This is a good indicator of whether the email is worth my time.

5) Test and Analyze – There’s no excuse not to do this. If you have an email marketing program, you should be testing. Test subject lines, salutations, formats, design and copy. You may need some help from the IT department, but don’t let that intimidate you.

Devote the same attention to your email campaigns that you do to your other marketing activities. Find what works best, use it, and keep learning. You’ll soon be a master at keeping your emails out of the trash.

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It might be time to alert clients to a new, old scam

It’s surprisingly easy—and fun—to give up information you might use in a password. Sandwiched among innocent questions are common questions for password retrieval.

It’s surprisingly easy—and fun—to give up information you might use in a password. Sandwiched among the above are common password retrieval questions.

Informing clients helps reduce risk and adds value to the brand.

When it comes to finding ways to fill time, sequester-induced boredom is hands-down the mother of invention. No small number of people turn their newfound spare time to activities like gardening, Netflix binging, exercise, yard work, house cleaning, learning a new skill, games, walks, Candy Crush, or finally getting around to writing—or reading—that epic novel.

And, of course, there are those fun Facebook surveys you once glossed over because at the time you were too busy for them. Suddenly, you have the time. Why not take that quiz and find out what percentage of love your spouse has for you, what city you should live in, or what food matches your personality? Then invite your friends and invite them to find out what food matches their personality.

And now, to answer my own rhetorical question: There are plenty of reasons not to take that quiz. The newest reason arrived only a few days ago, in the form of two Ukrainian hackers. According to CNN, the hackers used …

“… seemingly innocuous online quizzes and surveys, with titles like ‘What does your eye color say about you?,’ to gain access to private Facebook user data and to target users with ‘unauthorized’ advertisements” … 

Working out of Kiev, Ukraine, Andrey Gorbachov and Gleb Sluchevsky allegedly lured Facebook users to connect their accounts to a range of online quiz apps with names like, “Do you have royal blood?, “You are yin. Who is your yang?” and “What kind of dog are you according to your zodiac sign?” 

Once users connected their Facebook and other social media accounts they were asked to install what Facebook described as “malicious browser extensions” that essentially allowed the alleged hackers to pose as the affected users online.

The hacking incident refocused attention on a known, related scam. Way back in 2017, ABC News cautioned:

You’ll want to think twice the next time you’re about to enter your best friend’s first name in one of those Facebook quizzes. Law enforcement officials are warning social media users that those seemingly harmless questionnaires on Facebook and other social media platforms could be furnishing identity thieves with all they need to steal your personal information …

“Please be aware of some of the posts you comment on,” warned the Sutton Police Department in Massachusetts, in a Facebook post. “The posts that ask what was your first grade teacher, who was your childhood best friend, your first car, the place you [were] born, your favorite place, your first pet, where did you go on your first flight, etc. …Those are the same questions asked when setting up accounts as security questions.” You are giving out the answers to your security questions without realizing it.”

Even posting a high school graduation photo is not without risk, warns the Better Business Bureau. With a person’s name, high school, and graduation year—all found in many grad pics—hackers have enough to find more information for fraudulent purposes. The BBB adds:

Other recent viral personal list posts include all the cars you’ve owned (including makes/model years), favorite athletes, and top 10 favorite television shows.

It’s not necessary to click on a survey to hand information to hackers. Simply copying and answering questions posted by a friend—Favorite pie? Pepsi or Coke? How many tattoos?—can inadvertently post the basis of a password. Echoing Sutton’s warning, the BBB says:

What most people forget is that some of these “favorite things” are commonly used passwords or security questions. If your social media privacy settings aren’t high, you could be giving valuable information away for anyone to use.

It’s great that CNN, ABC News, and the Better Business Bureau are doing what they can to spread information on data security—but financial institutions should be leading the charge. Pop-ups and email offer low-cost vehicles. Budget permitting, public service announcements and paid advertising could be part of the mix.

Informed clients are safer clients, a valuable service worth providing for its own sake. And it goes without saying that financial institutions benefit at the same time.

Not to be overlooked is the opportunity to strengthen the brand. All financial institutions care about customers, so that much hardly makes for a unique brand claim. But whereas banners that say “we care” only claim, arming clients with information demonstrates. Hackneyed as “we care” and  “we’re secure” are as brand values, it is still possible to own them—not through word but through deed.

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TBT: True to the brand … or stubborn?


Current events demand we evolve and adapt like never before. Today’s TBT post cautions against letting the brand stand in your way. Originally posted September 27, 2017.

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ANECDOTES ABOUND of companies that prosper by sticking to brand promises.* That’s great when brand promises are relevant. Sticking to promises no one gives a hoot about isn’t so much a show of brand integrity as a show of stubbornness. 

For a look at how clinging to “because that’s our brand” isn’t always a good thing, I invite you to travel back in time to 1983 Milan, Italy, when a fellow by the name of Howard Schultz happened into a coffee house and emerged with a cup of espresso and an epiphany.

Never had Schultz had a coffee experience like that one. The intimate surroundings, the aroma, the barista’s expertise and showmanship, the dark, rich flavor of the espresso—all of these things fueled his imagination. He returned to the U.S. with a new vision for the company he’d recently bought into. No longer would Schultz be content with a company that only roasted and sold coffee beans. He was going to open coffee houses everywhere so his customers could bask in the same experience that overwhelmed him in Milan.

His partners were unmoved, so they parted ways. They would launch and make a success of Peet’s Coffee, with which you’re undoubtedly familiar. Remaining behind, Schultz set about raising capital in order to morph a one-location coffee roasting company, Starbucks, also with which you’re undoubtedly familiar, into a chain of Italian-style coffee houses.

From the get-go, Schultz showed an intrinsic understanding of brand substance. He was passionate about recreating in the U.S. the experience that had captured him in Milan. We do it the way the do it in Italy proved a great guiding principle for delivering a consistent, quality product in a consistent, pleasing setting.

But sometimes the flipside—If they don’t do it in Italy, neither will we—proved something of a millstone.

One instance of the flipside came in the form of refusing to accommodate a growing demand for nonfat lattes. For one thing, Schulz didn’t like how nonfat lattes tasted. For another and more important, no self-respecting Italian barista would serve a nonfat latte, so therefore neither would Starbucks. The issue mushroomed into one of the company’s most heated internal debates. What eventually brought Schultz to his senses was seeing, first-hand, a customer abandon Starbucks for a competitor rather than drink what Schultz thought she should drink. Americans, it seems, don’t always care how it’s done in Italy. And they for sure don’t care whether Schultz agrees with their taste.

Another instance of brand-as-millstone came courtesy of Schultz’s nose. Besides lattes, there was growing demand for sandwiches in coffee houses. Schultz would have none of it. When nostrils walked into Starbucks, he wanted them filled with the rich aroma of fresh-roasted coffee, not cold cuts. Besides—you guessed it—you wouldn’t smell cold cuts in an Italian coffee house, so therefore you won’t smell them at Starbucks, either. Once again, consumers followed their tastes instead of Schultz’s. Perhaps you’ve noticed: Now you can order sandwiches at Starbucks.

There’s a lesson in both anecdotes. Before rejecting a new idea or clinging to an old one, it’s wise to find out what the market cares about. “Because it’s our brand” makes for good guiding principles but lousy ironclad rules.

Sticking to brand values because they’re brand values can be mindlessly circular, tantamount to saying “We do things this way because this is the way we do things.” That’s not brand commitment. It’s stubbornness.

*As I have harped in this blog before, a brand is the experience you deliver. Things like a logo, look, and slogan are not the brand, but brand trappings. Their job is not to be the experience, but to symbolize it.


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Demand and decline in the payments industry

ChartIt’s difficult to find—much less write—a news item that doesn’t open with or relate to the coronavirus pandemic. And for good reason. It has pretty well invaded every aspect of our lives.

About a month ago, I wrote about predicted effects of the pandemic on digital payments. Though this is by no means the way any moral person would want to grow the category, the fact remains that, where possible, what follows from self-sequestering is moving needful purchases from physical to virtual retail locations, and paying by digital means. 

Those who can telecommute are fortunate and in the minority. Self-sequestering has put a good many people out of work, which means they aren’t receiving pay. That can be devastating news for many, and especially for those living paycheck-to-paycheck. According to MarketWatch

Depending on the survey, that figure runs from half of workers making under $50,000 (according to Nielsen data) to 74% of all employees (per recent reports from both the American Payroll Association and the National Endowment for Financial Education.) And almost three in 10 adults have no emergency savings at all, according to Bankrate’s latest Financial Security Index … The Nielsen study found that one in four families making $150,000 a year or more are living paycheck-to-paycheck, while one in three earning between $50,000 and $100,000 also depend on their next check to keep their heads above water.

If those numbers are to be believed, the $1200 from Uncle Sam that should start showing up about now will hardly make a dent for the majority of Americans. So while reliance on digital payments may increase, spending will decrease, and use of digital payments will decrease with it.

No less than McKinsey predicts “a dramatic decline in payments revenue as the Coronavirus crisis hits economic activity across the globe.” That’s according to a recent Finextra article, which goes on to say:

Instead of growing by six percent, as projected by the consultancy’s 2019 global payments report, activity could drop by as much as eight to 10% of total revenues, or a reduction of $165 billion to $210 billion—comparable to the 10 to 11% revenue reduction in the wake of the global financial crisis in 2008-09.

The decline in payments is the result of across-the-board declines in other lines of business, and not just retail. USA Today lists a number of hardest-hit industries: gambling establishments (notwithstanding Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodwin’s protests over shutting down casinos due to, as she attempted to trivialize it, a case of the “flu”), airlines, hotels, theaters, live sports, cruises, shipping, film production, automakers, oil and gas, retail, technology, conventions, food service, theme parks, gymnasiums, construction, and transportation. 

Yet this is nonetheless a time when the payments industry must rise to what demand there is, and to meet the challenges that come with it. Privacy and security concerns haven’t gone away and may well be on the rise.

Open banking provides one example. Next month marks the two-year anniversary of mandated open banking in the UK and, as I wrote at the time of its one-year anniversary, it opened to something of a fizzle. But consumer demand for the ability to survey accounts across multiple institutions from a solitary app has been heating up of late. And though open banking is regulated in the UK, it has more or less blundered forth on its own in the United States, with individual apps and institutions improvising rules on the fly. This has more than a few people concerned, as PYMNTS.com reports:

Merchants may have lingering questions over the shifting regulations in the U.S., but rising data breaches and online hacks are evidence of the necessity of the rule. Fraudsters are finding new ways onto online platforms using data filched from numerous large-scale breaches in the past two years, leading multiple states in the U.S. to create online privacy and sharing rules to block their entry. Merchants must still provide the personalized support that consumers are used to, however, even as multiple states in the country seek to shore up their online transaction rules in order to keep out these bad actors.

Steve Cocheo, The Financial Brand’s executive editor, confirmed as much in his excellent piece, “Fight Over Consumer Data Ownership Pits Banks Against Fintechs”:

In the absence of anything like the ‘open banking’ regimes put in place in Europe, the U.K., Australia, and elsewhere, in the U.S. these connections have pretty much evolved ad hoc as competitive innovations. 

Cocheo suggests that the situation “may soon change,” listing as factors “Increased regulatory attention,” “Growing concerns over privacy and fraud protection,” “Increasing competitive pressure, “Frustrations over current technological approaches,” and “Increasing desire among consumers for a complete picture of their finances.”

(There is simply too much of worth in Cocheo’s article to excerpt here. I prefer linking you to it and urging you to read the whole thing.)

Another concern on the rise is domain spoofing. Domain spoofing isn’t new, but the pandemic combined with human altruism provide it unusually fertile ground. Vox reported that nogoodniks sent out fundraising emails from who.int, the World Health Organization’s address. At the time the article was written, WHO had neglected to set up email authentication protocols such as dmarc to prevent misuse of its email address. (So had the White House. For that matter, over 85 percent of organizations registered with dmarc still haven’t set their policy to reject or send to spam spoof emails.) 

Domain spoofing makes victims even of consumers who know to check email addresses. Now might be a good time for financial institutions to double-check to ensure that their own email authentication protocols are in place.

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TBT: 3 tips for sorting real from fake

Originally published Dec 19, 2013. Now more than ever, knowing what is and isn’t reliable information in the media matters. These tips are still relevant.

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fake-news-3843976_1280I love digital media. As one who makes a living helping financial institutions marshal their marketing power, I’d be a fool not to.

Even so, digital media they can be a mixed blessing. They put mass audiences, once the exclusive province of the moneyed, within the reach of all. But like any pipeline, they care nothing about what flows through them. They deliver trash as readily as treasure.

This places the responsibility for sorting through the morass on the shoulders of individuals at the receiving end. Sadly, it is a responsibility that many neglect. Which is how bogus tales catch fire and spread.

Recent examples of fakes include a story about sending rude messages on napkins to a whiner on an airplane, one about an insulting message left on a check for a server, and tales of insensitive quotes from the celebrity or politician of your choice.

Some fast-spreading fakes may be harmless, but not all. As I write, digital media are spreading nonsensical anti-vaccination hysteria that kills children. Get-rich-quick schemes are depleting people’s life savings. False accusations are costing innocent people their jobs, marriages, and community standing. Bogus medical treatments are keeping seriously ill people from seeking appropriate care. Once limited to small, word-of-mouth circles, these and other instances of harmful misinformation now spread virally and cause real harm.

Who knows? The next bogus story to go viral might just be about your financial institution.

When trusted friends or generally reliable news sources post a story, how do we know what to pass along and what not to? Here are three tips: 

1. Focus on the journalist, not the journal. With shrinking budgets, even many respected journals can no longer afford the kind of fact-checking that was once de rigeur. But over time you may identify individual writers who are more conscientious than others about checking their facts.

2. Use fact-checking resources. With a quick visit to sites like Snopes.com or FactCheck.org, you can confirm or debunk much of what you encounter in digital media. Both sites do a good job of sticking to facts and avoiding ideological biases.

3. Learn to spot logical fallacies. We are all prey to logical fallacies, that is, reasoning that appears to make sense but under scrutiny does not. A working knowledge of them can provide a shortcut to not being taken in. Purdue University’s Online Writing Lab offers a great introduction to logical fallacies.

Please share these tips liberally. Together, we might just reduce the amount of nonsense in circulation. And maybe even prevent a bit of harm.

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