Meaningful marketing: A human touch increases email engagement

by Brendan Regan

Editor’s note: Here at Smartsheet, our customers inspire us daily. We’re their biggest cheerleaders; their partners in achievement. In this article, head of digital sales Brendan Regan shares how our customers don’t just drive us to achieve more on their behalf — they also help us fuel the success of other customers.

When I joined Smartsheet in the summer of 2017, a main attraction for me was the scale of the customer base: lots of people trying the platform out, tens of thousands of paying customer companies, and an inspiring number of users worldwide.

The challenge of marketing at that scale is that most customer communications are by necessity one-to-many. In that ratio, we run the risk of losing that “human touch” in our campaigns. When we try to speak to everyone, in reality our messages may resonate with no one.

One way to add humanity and authenticity to our communications is to really listen to our customers, and then let them speak to other customers (or potential customers) on a one-to-many scale. Hearing that others have experienced the same struggles, the same anxieties, but managed to find a better path forward can be like hearing a voice in the wilderness, or seeing a friendly face when you’re lost in a parking garage. And just that connection is often enough to stay motivated, work through the obstacles, and transform how your organization tackles and achieves ambitious goals.

Passionate love letters

My first year at Smartsheet, I was fortunate to attend our inaugural customer conference, Smartsheet ENGAGE. I volunteered to assist our user experience research team at the conference and help facilitate various research activities with our customers. I was blown away by the energy at that event — and I’m still in disbelief that Smartsheet customers could be so fired up about business software! 

Love letters written at ENGAGE conference

One of the research activities I helped facilitate was a really fun look at how we respond emotionally to business tools. Customers were asked to write a “breakup letter” to business software they were not fond of, or a “love letter” to software that invoked their affection. While the breakup letters were quite humorous to me (I love sarcasm), the love letters made an even stronger impression. 

I was surprised how many customers wrote love letters to Smartsheet even though we didn’t prompt them to. This exercise brought home for me the idea that people are passionate about software, because it either makes their work lives better, or it makes their lives worse! I left our first ENGAGE conference energized and wanting to share our customers’ passionate voices in my day-to-day marketing work. 

Love letter to from customer to Smartsheet

When my team was tasked with redesigning an email series for potential customers who’ve signed up for our 30-day free trial, we took a risk and included anonymized “love letters” from ENGAGE in one of the emails. We kept the authentic voices, the messy handwriting, and the less-than-perfect grammar to stay true to our customers. Now thousands of potential customers read those love letters every month and are inspired and reassured that Smartsheet will be a good partner to them. And we’re seeing increased engagement with these emails: the new series boasts a lower unsubscribe rate and a 9% higher click through rate — indicating that this new content is more interesting to our potential customers. (We also got shout outs on social media from customers who loved the love letters email.) I call that a win. 

Loving the light bulb moments

Heading into our second-annual ENGAGE, my team was gearing up to redesign another email series for new paying subscribers. This time, my team designed our own customer research activities at ENGAGE with the support of our amazing user experience research team. Our primary research activity asked customers, “What was your light bulb moment?” We wanted to know what it was about the Smartsheet platform that made them feel that they never wanted to go back to the “old way” of doing work. 

Idea lab at Smartsheet ENGAGE

We learned a ton from this exercise, and used our improved understanding of these “light bulb moments” to craft a new email series to help new customers achieve more, more quickly, with Smartsheet. Now a few hundred customers’ insights are amplified and shared with tens of thousands of customers every month. The result? We’ve seen a 10% increase in a key product engagement metric for our new licensed users.  

Lightbulb moments at ENGAGE

My Smartsheet promise

Fast-forward to our third year of the ENGAGE customer conference, and we were still hungry for our customers’ authentic thoughts and feelings about work, achievement, and more. We ran another research exercise called “My Smartsheet Promise” where customers — some of whom were very new to the Smartsheet platform and some who’d been with us over 10 years — were asked to write a promise to themselves about what they were going to achieve with Smartsheet in the coming year. 

We loved that our customers were brave enough to write down their commitments and make them public for others to see. And we loved the variety of promises, ranging from the relatively mundane (“I need to get caught up on all the new features”) to the truly ambitious (“Get my company to use half as much paper as they do now...with Smartsheet”).

Smartsheet customers promises to themselves

We couldn’t pass up the chance to share customer promises to a broader audience, and so once again we incorporated into an email nurture. Now, thousands of customers open their inbox every month to find an invitation to “Crush your goals with Smartsheet” and read about how other customers are setting and achieving goals using the platform.

As our team grows and redesigns or creates more marketing communications, we strive to include the authentic voices of our passionate customers as a way to let other customers know what they can achieve with Smartsheet. We’re always looking for unique ways to share the voices of customers with other can-doers.

I want our one-to-many emails to feel as human as possible. By gathering a few aspects of our customers’ experiences and sharing them with millions who are searching for the same thing, I hope we’ll help inspire as many customers as possible to trust their intuition that there is a better way to work. I hope that my legacy at Smartsheet is to make these email touch points with customers — whom I’ll never have the pleasure of meeting in person — meaningful connections that move them to achieve more.