A Trip Down Memory Lane — Cha-ching!

I’m sure you’ve heard of Classmates.com. They wanted to be Facebook and LinkedIn before either of those sites existed.

Although I joined Classmates early on, I never paid for the service and always had a really sour opinion of them because of their business model.

Classmates has the proverbial plate glass window. You can join for free and see all those people from your misspent youth that you could connect with… if only you’ll pony up a few bucks for their premium service.

Unless you pay for a premium membership, there is essentially nothing useful you can do on Classmates. Not only has this always hampered their growth and success but it crippled them when Facebook and LinkedIn came along. Both those sites let you connect with the very same people from your misspent youth for free. (Both sites are also quite profitable, I might add.)

But this article isn’t a slam on Classmates.com. Quite the opposite. I’m writing to applaud a brilliant move they made recently.

I received an email from them. No big deal, I’ve always gotten lots of emails from them. I think the only saving grace of the whole site is that they’re such savvy marketers.

The email I got the other day was different though. It included a graphic of a two-page spread from my yearbook. Not just a yearbook, but from my yearbook.

Classmates apparently has been going around and collecting up yearbooks from all the graduating classes and all the high schools all over the country. (I have no idea how complete their collection is.) They’ve digitized the ones they’ve got and now you can flip through the online pages of the yearbook for your own graduating class.

Not just that, but you can tag photos, identifying the people in them and linking to their Classmates profiles.

In a rare turn, all of this seems to be free.

So how do they hope to capitalize on and monetize this?

The most obvious thing I’ve seen so far are offers to sell you reprints of your yearbook in case you lost yours. Or just want another copy, I guess.

Now, I’m not one of those people whose glory days were when I was roaming the halls on my way to gym class. Those never were my best years even when I was in them. I remember all the people I knew back then and I’m sure that most of them are terrific people. I might even be friends with many of them if we met up somewhere.

The thing is, I now live something like 2,000 miles away from where I went to school. I haven’t been in touch with any of those people in more than 25 years. There’s only one person from high school I am still in touch with and we’ve been friends since before high school.

Still, for many people, the past was where all their best memories were made. And high school was the best of the best. So for Classmates to offer such a personalized trip down memory lane is simply brilliant.

Do you engage in “coopetition”? You should!

The way that many companies keep their customer lists, they have the names and assorted contact information for everyone who’s ever bought from them and gave them such information. That’s about it.

And this is those companies that even bother to keep customer lists at all.

Of course the really good companies keep much more. Why do you suppose large retailers and service companies have loyalty programs? Frequent flyer programs, frequent buyer programs, grocery store discount cards… you name it.

Those programs serve two very important purposes:

  1. By making customers fill out an “application” to sign up for their program, they are getting those customers to give them a great deal of information: full name, address, email, phone number and sometimes more.
  2. Every time a customer uses his card or account number, the company logs what was purchased. (Yes, even your two foot long grocery store receipt with 133 items on it.) In that way, they can build up a very detailed history of exactly what any given customer likes, as opposed the customer seated across the aisle or the guy in the room down the hall.

Savvy companies milk this information for all it’s worth and extend custom-tailored offers to each customer. Naturally, by offering what you’ve already demonstrated you like and will purchase frequently, it greatly increases the odds of making another sale.

Or perhaps they make a special offer on somethingyou don’t normally buy. Most likely something complementary to what you usually buy. Only stay in the hotel on weekdays but never on weekends? By offering to extend your stay for a reduced price, perhaps they can induce you into longer stays that include weekends. Always buy the name brand cookies but the store brand of lots of other items? If they can convince you to give their store-brand cookies a try, they stand to make more profit. (Even though the price is lower, the margins are typically higher.)

But that’s about as far as it goes.

So what’s missing?

A lot, as it turns out.

How many companies distinguish between current and former customers? When customers stop buying from you, there will rarely be an announcement. There’s just a change in buying behavior and you may never know why.

Perhaps that salesman who flew three out of every four weeks is now an executive who hardly travels. Or the family of five who bought groceries every week was lured away by a new store. Or moved to another state.

How do you even define a former customer? How long do they have to go without making a purchase before they make it into that category? Is there hope of rescuing the business relationship before it comes to that?

And what of prospects who gave you their information but then never actually became customers at all? Do you save that information? What do you do with it?

Most companies will try for some time to lure those prospects into becoming customers. (Some keep trying indefinitely.) They may change the offers around a little, dangle a different carrot, so to speak, but that’s really about the extent of it.

Here’s a radically different idea: what about giving those prospects and stale former customers to one of your direct competitors?

Of course I’m not talking about some kind of twisted professionally self-destructive altruism. Instead I’m talking about a trade. You give one of your competitors “x” number of prospects who never converted plus former customers who obviously aren’t coming back and, in return, they give you the same number of their unconverted prospects and former customers.


If these prospects gave you their information, it was most likely because they needed or wanted what you have to offer. They were interested in becoming customers but then something happened. It could be that they changed their mind, or that your price was too high, or they heard or read something about you that they didn’t like, or they had a negative interaction with someone at your company, or decided to buy from a competitor instead.

The reason doesn’t really matter all that much.

What matters is that, unless this was a one-time only need that’s already been satisfied, these prospects have selected themselves as potentially good customers for someone in your industry. Just not for you. (If that were the case, you would already have converted them into customers.)

The same is true of your competitor’s unconverted prospect list; those are potentially great customers for someone but not for them.

So you’re both sitting on lists that have tremendous potential value to some company in your industry. It only makes sense then to exchange lists. They stand to wring some value from yours while you stand to wring some value from theirs.

This combination of cooperation and competition is called “coopetition”.

This is not collusion. You’re still competitors, you’re just engaging in a more enlightened form of cooperative competition.

Of course there is the possibility that many of the prospects you get from your competitor may already be your customers. They run the same risk with your list. That’s just part of the cost of this kind of transaction.

Another major consideration is concern over privacy. One of the things you can most easily do is to not actually exchange lists but each merely send out a solicitation on behalf of the other. If trust is a concern, you could mutually agree on a third party mailer who will process both lists. That way, the information never actually changes hands.

The only way you get your competitor’s prospect information (and vice versa) is if one of those prospects responds to the mailing and you collect it from him directly.


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Does the format of your emails make a difference?

In my opinion, yes it does. Though not always in the same way that you might expect. Also, the “best” format may be different in various different contexts.

I use several different email systems, each for a different purpose. Yes it’s cumbersome but I’ve found that it’s important to maximizing results. The five main email systems I use are:

  1. Autoresponder – for acknowledging mailing list enrollments and sending out scheduled items such as newsletters
  2. “Pretty” system – for sending nicely formatted outbound messages, both group and individual
  3. Email reader – mostly for reading incoming emails, though I may occasionally send unformatted outbound emails from here as well
  4. Personal email – my business email systems forward copies of all incoming messages to my personal email system, which is where I often first see them
  5. Domain-hosted email – I almost never use this system but it’s part of my website’s hosting account and can’t be deleted. There have been times when I had to resort to this system for various reasons.


An email autoresponder is highly specialized. Regular email accounts and systems simply can’t do the same thing. Few businesses can get away without having an autoresponder account. Yes, they’re that important.

All of the autoresponder services I recommend (AweberConstant Contact, and Mail Chimp) allow you to format your emails to be nice looking. They also offer plain text options. In fact, assuming you format your email messages both ways, your subscribers can choose which format they prefer. The system will take care of sending them the correct version.

Formatted vs Unformatted Outgoing Mail

pretty email formatted graphicsWhen sending one-off messages (and even for your autoresponder messages for that matter), there are two schools of thought. One is that you should format them in plain text because the content is key and you don’t want bad formatting or missing graphics to get in the way of the message you are conveying. In fact, if you are going to send a plain text email you should manually insert line breaks at around 60 characters. Do not rely on automatic text wrapping. It will break the lines in a different place for everyone and may make your messages awkward to read. Better that you control it.

The other school of thought is that sending an attractively formatted email will make a better impression on readers. I subscribe to several newsletters whose authors prefer unformatted content and I do see a certain value in the minimalist style but I use formatted emails myself and can say from experience that it gets results. Provided your recipients actually see the formatting and graphics. Some email systems block graphics by default and only allow them if you are in the recipient’s contact list or if they specifically set their email to allow it. In that case, your carefully formatted email may come out looking rather ugly.

Of course when the graphics and formatting are not blocked or tampered with by your recipients’ email systems (something over which you have no control, by the way), a really well formatted email can be gorgeous. I get lots of comments on mine and they do seem to generate better results for me than typical plain emails.

The example at right is one of my emails. Format stays generally the same though the large photo at the top can be changed from one message to the next. I can also insert an additional small photo of my choosing in the body of the message just above the text.

Tips to avoid getting spam filtered

If your recipients have white-listed you or added you to their contact list, you will almost certainly not be relegated to the dreaded spam folder. All the more reason to ask them to do so.

Even without that, there are some things you can do to reduce your chances of having your emails marked as spam. One is to not set a different return address. It’s possible to send email from one address but designate that replies be automatically redirected to a different address. This carries a high probability of getting your messages flagged.

Another big thing has to do with recipients. Avoid sending out email to lists of recipients. The rule should generally be “one person, one message”. That is, each person gets their own personal message and is not part of a larger group. Even if they really are part of a larger group and even if they know it, more sophisticated email systems have ways of personalizing the messages so you are not throwing it in their face with each email you send. Doing this also makes it so that you are not sharing everyone’s email address with everyone else. (A key point for privacy and spam compliance.)

Finally is the subject line. Subject lines are a huge topic about which entire books have been written. In general, spam emails are often identified (either systemically or manually by recipients) by a few tell-tale signs:

  • the word “free” anywhere in the subject line
  • a completely empty subject line
  • use of non-standard characters (anything not found on the keyboard)
  • anything that looks canned or impersonal
  • use of words like “sale”, “special”, “offer”, “expire”, “last chance”, “today only”, etc.

The bottom line

It’s crazy for one business to use so many different email systems just to communicate with clients and prospects. However I have yet to find a single system that does it all. (When and if I do, I will certainly give it a try.) Ultimately, if it means getting better results, I will live with the discomfort of paying for and juggling several different systems.

Entirely Self-Serving

There is a very nice ethnic restaurant near me. I’ve eaten there several times. I know a couple of the waitresses by name. They recognize me when I come in. The food is terrific, the menu inventive, the ambiance warm and genuine. In short, it’s a terrific place.

Except for one thing…

They do almost everything right but their email marketing sucks!

Actually, let me clarify.


The emails they send out are gorgeous. I have been tempted to print and frame some of them and put them up on my wall. The one above isn’t even one of their better ones.

The problem lies with the message. I have been getting emails from them for almost three years now. I get perhaps 8-10 a year. The irregular frequency isn’t such a big concern (though they would benefit from making the schedule more regular.)

Fundamentally, the problem is that I have never even once received an email from them that wasn’t completely self-serving. The only emails they send me are ones asking me to make a reservation or to buy something.

Let’s use an analogy to put this into perspective. Let’s say that you have a friend who comes to visit your home every month or so but every single time — without exception — the sole purpose of his visit is to borrow something or to ask a favor.  He doesn’t sit down for coffee or stay to chit-chat. He doesn’t care how green your lawn looks or that your daughter brought home straight As last week. He only wants that favor from you and then he’ll be gone. Until the next time he needs a favor.

Chances are, you’d start avoiding him. Or even end the friendship.

I understand that this restaurant is a business. I understand that they need to make sales and turn a profit. But email marketing is essentially free. (Actually they probably pay someone to take their beautiful photos and write their beautiful emails but not everything they send has to be so elaborately done. It’s possible to inexpensively send beautiful emails.)

It’s not inexpensive to eat there and yet I’m a repeat customer. I’m exactly the kind of person they should be going out of their way to make feel welcome.

And yet all I feel is used.

(Note that I am deliberately not revealing the name of this restaurant. The name isn’t important. Many other businesses do the very same thing with their marketing programs.)


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