The Curation Advantage: Improving Engagement and Conversion at the Same Time.

Watch the sunset on Australia’s East coast and you’re likely to see them: first as silhouettes against the twilight, they can be difficult to make out. It's common to mistake them as large birds, with broad wingbeats laboring heavily towards their shared destination. 

But up close, it’s easier to tell. These “flying foxes”, as they’re commonly known, aren’t birds (or foxes) at all — but giant bats. While they do kind of resemble their namesake with a vaguely canine face, the giveaway is the wingspan, which can stretch up to a meter across. 

Each evening, these huge bats gather in the thousands into densely packed “camps”, punctuated along the length of Australia’s Eastern coastal hinterland, a distance of some fifteen thousand kilometers. 

In a major study in 2000 conducted over six years, scientists tracked the movements of the flying foxes across this area. The object of the study was one Northern species in particular. These bats were regularly depleting all their Northern resources, and were being forced to move Southwards in search of food. 

Yet despite continual movement into the South, the Northern bats were never successful in securing a more permanent foothold in these resource-rich southern areas. Rather than being able to set up a camp of their own in the South, they constantly had to continue making the journey with each new generation. There was something about the South that just wasn’t amenable to the Northern species. 

In ecology terms, the Northern population of bats were moving from a source, into a sink:

  • The source of the Northern species had all the requirements to support ongoing births of that population. There were camps for them in their home region. 
  • But their newly chosen homes – the sinks were not truly viable on their own. They were never able to truly set up a permanent residence there.  Rather than becoming a new source, these sink populations would always rely on a continual stream of new bats from the original source

Source-Sink dynamics.

These source-sink dynamics are a well observed phenomenon in the world of Ecology. Just as I found certain terms from ecology perfectly described processes in email and automation, source-sink dynamics have a clear implication outside of the movement of flying foxes. They also apply to how we build our own ecosystem, our own “Walled Garden”. 

Dispersal

​​The underlying movement between these sources and sinks is known as Dispersal. Put simply, dispersal describes the process of organisms seeking out new places to live. If the new environment isn’t a great place to live (a sink), that generation never gains a foothold there. If the new environment is suitable (and becomes a source), the new generation will set up shop and send their succeeding generation into further virgin territory again. 

Its nature’s way of pushing the limits of spatial boundaries, without individual organisms having to move that far within their single lifespans. For example, when rabbits were introduced to the Australian mainland in 1859, it only took fifty years for them to spread across the full extent of the 7.7 million square kilometer continent. This was despite large areas being desert, as well as all considerable human efforts taken to mitigate the spread. This included the release of rabbit-specific viruses and building continent-spanning “rabbit-proof fences” — both tactics proving to be ultimately unsuccessful. 

So, Dispersal can be quite powerful. And it also applies to our email list. Unlike rabbits, the reason the Northern bats are “Northern” is because there is something about the South that stops them from spreading there permanently.

In an email list, the reason people optin but then leave a few months later works on the same premise. There’s something that makes it not a great place to be long term. 

On the other hand, a healthy email list is one where someone becomes a subscriber and sticks around for a long time.

So we must make sure we’re building a source rather than a sink. But how exactly will we do this?

The Curation Advantage

We previously covered how the strategy of the Walled Garden is to control the distribution of information to a market over which they have privileged access. This distribution is only attained by first amassing an audience of users, which they attract by offering the best possible user experience. It’s precisely this best possible user experience offered by these companies that give them their edge. I call it the Curation Advantage, and it's something that's also available to the small online business owner when they use email marketing.

For most of human history, an individual did not encounter that much new information over their lifetime. The arrival of the internet has fundamentally changed this. The average person has gone from having access to only the information inside the books within their house or local library, to nearly all human knowledge. As author Taylor Pearson described it in his book The End of Jobs, “Everyone now has access to the sum total of human knowledge and resources at their fingertips, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year”.

As we have gradually transformed into, via author James Gleick, “creatures of information”, it’s ironic this reality is most easily described to us, again, in terms of data:  A 2014 International Data Corporation (IDC) study predicted that “By 2020, about 1.7 megabytes of new information will be created every second for every human being on the planet and the accumulated digital universe of data will grow from 4.4 zettabytes today to around 44 zettabytes or 44 trillion gigabytes”.

That prediction has turned out to be correct, with a follow up 2017 paper Data Age 2025 again predicting that “the Global Datasphere will grow from 33 zettabytes in 2018 to 175 zettabytes by 2025”. The paper attempts to describe the magnitude of this much data: “If you were to store 175 zettabytes on DVDs, your stack of DVDs would be long enough to circle Earth 222 times”. 

It was fitting then when information theorist Peter Lyman concluded somewhat defeatedly in a 2003 report: “It is clear that we are all drowning in a sea of information”.But what has caused such a massive deluge of information over the last two decades? The answer is digitization. Everything that was previously analog is now being scanned, copied, uploaded and transformed into bits. Books, documents, records, artworks. Almost nothing has been left untouched. In our mission to digitize everything around us, we’ve unlocked vast amounts of information that was previously inaccessible. The Walled Gardens are perfect examples of this.

When we looked at the examples of Uber and Airbnb, we saw that they commoditized the supply side of their respective markets, taxis and hotels. The way they did this was by focusing on previously hidden assets - underused cars and spare rooms, respectively.  

But the more accurate description of the service these companies provide is in how they provide access to this abundance of newly digitized information. It’s the sheer volume which calls for, again via Gleick, the increasingly essential service of “filtering and searching”. Helping users search through the glut of information has proved to be extremely valuable, as the now two trillion dollar valued Google might attest. This is what forms the essence of the Curation Advantage

So Uber filtered and curated the new digital over-abundance of underused privately owned vehicles, and Airbnb did the same for a new digital over-abundance of empty rooms and unused apartments. The way they both captured user attention was by then acting as the middle-men, brokering between this newly curated information and the audience who could benefit from it.

Facebook, in a way, also filtered and curated newly digitized information that was previously embedded in our individual social lives. The platform then provided a curatory experience of these events within our individual “social networks”.

When this information became digitized, it became overabundant. The supply side of the market became commoditized. Filtering and curating this information then becomes one of the basic and most valuable services one can offer: creating order from chaos. With this in mind, we too must focus on providing a great customer experience above all else — from the very first impression to the hundredth purchase. 

When we share timely and relevant information, we are leveraging the same Curation Advantage that has helped to build the multi-billion dollar companies of the past decade. All we need to do is guide our subscribers through the surfeit of information that pollutes their lives. 

This is key to building a healthy, profitable email list. It's all about setting strong foundations for your ecosystem, your own Walled Garden, so that you can compete effectively.

In another post we encouraged our site visitors to subscribe by improving TSC. By collecting email addresses, we’ve opened the gate to allow Dispersal. But we need to make sure those subscribers stick around, that we create a source. The way we do that is by optimizing for Engagement.

The Engagement-Retention Feedback Loop 

Don’t you hate it when you sign up for a new app or newsletter and get bombarded with emails you aren't interested in? At least for me, getting spammed with dozens of promotions straight off the bat is a great way to get me to hit the unsubscribe button.

Helping countless businesses design and build email automation strategies over the years, I've found there’s a common thread behind those who struggle to see ROI from email: many are guilty of asking too much and giving too little. Too many offers, too many promotions, too many asks; and in every case, simply not enough value for their subscribers. 

With the way many businesses send emails, combined with the sheer volume with which they’re sent, it becomes easy to see why many non-marketers harbor something of a quiet disdain for marketing emails.

The way I sometimes describe communicating with an email is this: If you have an email list of 50,000 subscribers, that’s the equivalent of a small stadium of people. What do you think will happen if you stand up in front of this crowd and ask them to buy your product with no introduction, no attempt to build any rapport? What if you do this every time? I reckon they’ll hate you. 

Don’t do this. When someone who has trusted us to provide value to them quits the relationship by unsubscribing, it can only be interpreted as a failure to meet expectations. They thought they were going to receive one form of value from you; instead, they received emails that weren’t relevant, or even worse, simply annoying.

Consider the perspective of a new subscriber. Having just signed up to your email list (perhaps in exchange for an incentive such as a discount code or free download), they’re now ready to be introduced to your brand and, ideally, the problems you can help them solve. Instead, what often occurs is they’re immediately hit with a “buy now” email for a product they’re not convinced they want or even need. 

The result of sending irrelevant or unhelpful information at this critical early stage is invariably the same: poor engagement. This is the reason brands often start out with decent engagement metrics with 25% or higher open rates, but over time see them gradually diminish. After not too long, they find themselves struggling to maintain a 10% open rate, making it extremely difficult to get as much value from your list.

By sending emails that fail to provide value, you increase the likelihood of your subscribers hitting the unsubscribe button at the bottom of your message. If this happens in great enough numbers over time, departures soon begin to outpace replacements – “mortalities” become greater than “births”. 

If you can’t increase the amount of new subscribers being added to your database to keep up with the corresponding increase in unsubscribes, your list begins to shrink. Rather than going from rocks to grass to shrubs, as the stages of succession instruct, your email list sinks backward into the more basic state of rock and lichen. 

Just like a natural ecosystem, your email list begins to collapse “top-down”, in a chain of events. It's email list catastrophe number one (of two) — the top-down cascade. Specifically, this is caused by a feedback loop that occurs between engagement and retention that determines the overall health of your email marketing ecosystem. 

And that feedback loop begins with poor engagement:

  • Low engagement: When we send emails that aren’t relevant, we create low engagement. This means less people opening or interacting with each email we send. 
  • Poor retention: But engagement indicates whether what we’re sending is valuable to our subscribers. So with low engagement, high unsubscribes inevitably follow. With increased unsubscribes, we soon require even more new subscribers to replace them. 

But by simply ensuring you keep your engagement high and focus on always delivering value, you’ll keep unsubscribes on the low side and avoid the ecosystem death spiral. It soon becomes obvious why the industry-wide email open rate average is a paltry 14%.

But by compounding beneficial outcomes, we can build a system with better overall “health”. This is why it’s so important to begin your email marketing automation strategy with the Dispersal stage. But how exactly do we make sure we’re setting our subscribers up for strong engagement?

Engagement: Solving the Top-Down Cascade 

Luckily, the remedy to poor engagement and the ecosystem death spiral that comes with it is relatively straightforward. Think: do you consistently see open rates below 20%? If yes, then from this point on you need to make a few simple changes:

  • No more company updates or "what I've been up to" emails.
  • No more offers, discounts, deals, promotions (for now).

The key to the mindset shift is this: Nobody cares! Your audience doesn't care about your business, or what you’ve "been up to". subscribers don't care about “company updates” that do nothing to enhance their lives. They definitely don’t care about your product that, at this point, doesn’t represent anything of value to them. 

It's nothing personal - people are just busy. They aren’t just individually time-starved, but there’s also more competition than ever for your subscriber's attention, a recent study finding “the average office worker receives 121 emails per day." If you want to stand out, you must actually have something valuable to draw your subscribers. You must always be creating value in every email you send, and only then will you stand a chance of standing out in the Inbox and gaining the attention, or engagement, of your subscribers. 

I’ve found the best way to build engagement is by focusing on one of these three things: educate, inspire, entertain. By doing at least one of these three things every time you send an email, you focus on creating value for the subscriber. 

  • Educate by providing valuable information not found anywhere else.
    For example:
    A retail hedge fund sends a weekly email. Inside, they feature conversations with top managers from other funds as a weekly podcast, and break down where they are in the market cycle. Along with this information, they include their fund performance with a CTA to join. 
  • Inspire with solutions to problems subscribers are struggling with.
    For example: An author writes books helping tech professionals overcome procrastination and distraction. After subscribing via a quiz on his site, the subscriber receives emails that address their specific weaknesses revealed by the quiz over a four-week period.
  • Entertain and make your emails something to look forward to.
    For example: A residential real estate agent spends several hours once a fortnight writing a light-hearted, humorous email commenting on the state of the market. Subscribers look forward to them as they are sent only occasionally and are written in an informal, personal way. The agency's latest listings are included at the bottom of each email. 

Try something like this next time you send an email to your audience. Before sending, ask yourself, "Does this email educate, inspire or entertain my subscribers?". If the answer is no, or you have to think about it for too long, then put it away and send something that does. I guarantee you'll soon be seeing open rates you probably didn't think were possible. 

While the industry-standard benchmarks claim an average open rate of 14%, I would be concerned if a client of mine was regularly getting such numbers. Sometimes it’s worth ignoring averages, because in this case a 14% open rate sets the bar too low. By focusing on value for new subscribers above all else, you can easily double that average figure, at minimum. Sounds ridiculous? Look at these screenshots to see what focusing on value above all else (with some smart segmentation) can do for your open rates:

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Highly Engaged Open Rates. 

For reasons I'll address, open rates aren't actually the most reliable (or important) engagement metric to focus on. But as a general rule, I personally consider a healthy and engaged audience to have anything above a 30% average open rate. If you stop reading now and implement this one piece of advice, it alone should do a lot to transform how much value your subscribers get from your emails.

Timing is Everything: How Engagement Leads to Conversion

So the first part of improving engagement is a mindset shift: always provide value with every email you send. But while it's nice to provide value to people, there’s one common objection to this: at what point will subscribers actually buy? After all, you’re not in the business of educating, inspiring or entertaining an email database. You want to sell products to people who want to buy them. 

The objection is valid: there needs to be a point where conversion happens and subscribers buy your products. Focusing on value for new subscribers ensures your subscribers will stay engaged and interested in what you send. But after achieving that engagement, there eventually comes a point where we actually need to start sending offers to turn those subscribers into buyers. 

This doesn’t change the fact that, from the subscriber’s perspective, they should only ever receive emails that appear to them as valuable and helpful. We want to make sure they will be interested in what it is you’re selling, and never perceive your pitch as annoying. 

There’s nothing wrong with sending an offer or promotion email. But the timing in which it is sent can absolutely transform its meaning. When an offer or promotion is seen as annoying, it's only because your subscriber wasn't ready to receive it in the first place. On the other hand, sending an offer with correct timing, for a product that solves a burning problem, will always be viewed as valuable:

  • An email’s relevance is the difference between spam and value.
    A fifteen percent discount on an irrelevant product is spam. A well-designed solution to a problem your subscriber doesn't know exists has zero value.

  • In contrast, a discount on a product that solves a burning problem will drive immediate action. A solution provided to a problem a subscriber is struggling with can be life-changing.

Remember this. The timing with which we send offers is very important. You can send a fantastic offer to the right prospect at the wrong time, and you won’t make the sale. On the other hand, you can send a mediocre offer to a mediocre prospect with perfect timing and be much more likely to generate a sale. In general, poor timing is the best way to guarantee poor sales.

This is why focusing on providing value, especially for new subscribers, can be so powerful. This is the Curation Advantage that uniquely allow small business owners to leverage email in a way that plays the same game as larger online competitors. It's time to implement the Five Awareness States.

This is an excerpt from my upcoming book Natural Orders: Email Marketing Automation for eCommerce & Small Online Business. Go here to learn more and receive early release updates.

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