The Tragic Backstory
As marketers, our jobs are basically an endless search to answer the question: “How do we effectively market to people?” We fill this search with turning knobs on our AdWords optimizations, scribbling together new and interesting campaigns, cobbling together new sentences with old ideas and unending, infinite, furious testing. Plus, marketers understand that when times are tough at the company, we're seen as an expense and ultimately the first on the chopping block. This is why we measure absolutely everything we do and test to get a leg up whenever possible.You know how the saying goes, Marketers will test until the cows come home, and then argue whether it was organic or paid search that brought them there. tweet
If you aren’t constantly reevaluating your methods and tweaking your variables and running A and B against each other, you’re not going to get anywhere. But sometimes testing can be scary. Am I going too far? Where can I safely test new tactics without ruining my brand, or getting on a “worst of” listicle, or simply burning all of my prospects? That’s why the Vendasta team invented and implemented “dogfishing.”
Dogfishing™ (Not actually ™, please don’t come after me for this) is a term I’ve coined to describe the act of dogfooding (to use a product or service developed by that company so as to test it before it is made available to customers) by catfishing (to lure someone into a relationship by means of a fictional online persona) your own internal team. People will only give you genuine results if they don’t know they’re being tested in the first place.
The other benefit to Dogfishing is the fact that you know your internal team. You know what problems your company is facing. We know what struggles Vendasta faces as a B2B business, which makes our own leadership team the perfect audience to test out our campaigns on. So a group of us on the Vendasta Marketing team (Adam, Taylor, Akshay, Manveer and myself) got together in holy testimony (it’s different) to test what makes our leadership team, the exact personas we’re trying to reach with our B2B email marketing campaigns, engage with our emails. So we chose an issue that haunts our executives and affects SaaS companies worldwide: churn. It would be our guiding principle problem for our subject lines and content offers.
Setting up your Dogfishing campaign starts by setting up your fake online company. Here’s what you’ll need.
Our first email hit the heart of our chosen topic from the get-go and even directed it straight to Vendasta (which could pass as a simple personalization field). We wanted to get the audience intrigued by peppering in some (fake) statistics that provided insight on a relevant issue within the company. We also set up a bit of a mystery by alluding to the fact that price wasn’t a major factor in churn, in hopes of boosting interest and engagement.
|52% Opens||0% Clicks|
What, how could churn be a revenue opportunity for SaaS companies? That’s just what we wanted our executives to think with our second email in the campaign. If there was an opportunity to turn your biggest pain point into a new revenue stream, wouldn’t you be interested too? Plus, no executive wants to miss out on new revenue opportunities.
In the body of the email, we also used real internal Vendasta churn data to see if we could spook any executive into clicking through. We enticed them with our “expert” calculations, and hoped it would be enough to get them wanting the rest of our mysterious “industry analysis” report (hint: it didn’t really exist).
|58.3% Opens||4.2% Clicks|
The third email in our campaign was a big risk. I mean, calling out an executive publicly, and blaming them as the source of the company’s churn problem? Yeah, not a great move if you’re worried about job security. But we wanted to test what would happen if we applied a little controversy into our email campaign, to see if a little shock-value did anything for our engagements. Shots fired at the sales department, with a few stats to back it up, and our third email was really (dog)fishing for engagements.
|83.3% Opens||12.5% Clicks||25% Unsubscribe Rate|
By the time email three rolled out and we were seeing our data results, we started to reconsider our fourth and final email. As we planned to present our findings to the company during our All-Hands weekly company meeting, we wanted some big results and lessons to bring to the table along with our big reveal. With three emails done and measly click-to-open numbers, we scrapped our original copy, and made one final “white flag” email to cap off our project.
We took our initial problem and slammed them with Vendasta’s internal data, acknowledged a specific Vendasta offering (the Marketplace), promised to resolve the churn problem and even offered them candy just for clicking on the CTA button. One last “hoorah!” for our dogfishing campaign.
|55.6% Opens||0.0% Clicks|
What We Learned
After our dogfishing campaign came to an end, we "revealed" our big secret at our weekly Friday All-Hands meeting. With the cat out of the bag, we later interviewed various members of our leadership team to get their thoughts on the project. This feedback, combined with the data and results we saw from the campaign, were the real value of our entire project.
1. Big risk can lead to big reward
The major takeaway from our third email in the campaign was that big risk can lead to big reward.
The aggressive subject line made our open rate soar, and the unsubscribe rate hit 25%. While not necessarily a good thing, it did indicate that it made our audience pay attention. It had enough of an impact that it urged passive readers and non-readers alike to take action and unsubscribe from the campaign.
Oh, “Your VP of Sales is Screwing You” would definitely stand out. I think that sometimes controversial subject lines get them opened. You guys are definitely on to something. I think the risk is worth the reward. tweet
—George Leith, VP of Sales
The headline got my attention. I starred it to come back and read it.”
—Jeff Tomlin, Chief Marketing Officer
However, like I said, big risk can lead to big reward, but only if you work for it. While a risky subject line can get readers engaged, the body and CTA of the email has to deliver as well. It’s not enough to get their attention, you have to prove why you deserve to keep it.
I didn't like it. Well, I thought it was funny, I mean, I did send it to George and ask him why he was doing that! Really, the only thing I liked was the subject, because it actually got me to click to open it. I didn't feel there was enough in it for me to be interested enough to click the CTA on the email though. I read it again, and didn't even see the Vendasta part in that email.
—Sean Schroeder, Director of Digital Agency
2. Personalization and relevancy works
Using basic personalization elements, like auto-filled first name and company, did grab some of our audience’s attention. However, what achieved an even stronger reaction was the inclusion of personal data. While having access to internal numbers is not the norm for most email marketing campaigns, it does hint that the more relevant the email, the more engagement you’ll get. The more you focus on the reader and audience’s issues, the more likely they are to engage in a conversation with you—or at least be interested in what you have to say.
In the same vein, role-specific phrasing in your campaigns is important, as your CFO’s top priority might be different from your CEO’s. One interesting result of our fourth email was that the mention of Vendasta’s financials caught our CFO’s attention, and the data showed he opened the email four times.
I was trying to figure out if it was canned or not canned. You’re looking at it, it had Vendasta, it had “Mike” [first name parameter] and it just seemed a little like...that’s why I sent it on. That’s what happened with the click-throughs with me, I forwarded it onto Jackie [VP of Growth]. It was different enough to make me go ‘hmm.’ The net dollar churn is what intrigued me in the first part, and the fact that it was saying ‘is [REDACTED]’. Is that not good enough, or? That part did work.
—Mike Brennan, Vendasta’s Chief Financial Officer
I thought: ‘Shit, we did a study on churn, yeah I want to do more studies on churn!’
—Jeff Tomlin, CMO
At the same time, relevant content to some may not be relevant to others. The more specific you get to one demographic or role, the less relevant the emails will be for the people outside of that set. Therefore, the more you can segment your list and tweak your campaigns based on your audience, the more success you’ll likely have in your email engagements.
Personally, I’m not too concerned about churn (even though I probably should be), so I’m not surprised I didn’t engage. But if it would’ve been something about lead gen hacks or sales alignment, I would’ve been way more interested. tweet
—Devon Hennig, Director of Demand Generation
3. You need to provide actual value
We’re not going to lie—our Dogfishing campaign was not a total success. However, that can largely be attributed to the fact that we had no real value to offer to the readers, only catchy subject lines and mildly-enticing copy and statistics. Trust me, it’s hard to write a campaign that’s all smoke and mirrors. There’s only so much you can say without saying anything at all. This did not go unnoticed.
Additionally, the genericness of our campaign topic, with no real laser-focused value offer, did sometimes get lost in the inbox.
You need a credible website with good content behind any campaign to get taken seriously.tweet
—Brendan King, CEO
I unsubscribed. I would really love to understand if there were any key learnings from it. My take on it was that it was too contrived to learn anything except that everyone disliked it and unsubscribed at a really high rate. The content was all about stopping churn (which happens to be a topic of great interest to me), but it was immediately clear that Cody McSalesperson didn’t have any real insight to offer me on the topic. Hence why I felt the experiment was contrived.
—Nathan Poellet, VP of Product
Best takeaway for the team is how incredibly hard it is to get people to engage with content. The fact you had zero conversions* just proves that even though the problem was spot on, the solution was lacking. The content I engage with most has to do with tactic-based “hacks”. I really like practical, step-by-step instructions that’ll help me accomplish my goals and make me look smart. If someone can cut through the clutter with an email or Facebook post or whatever about how they got amazing results AND they tell me the secret about how they did it, they’ve got my attention.tweet
—Devon Hennig, Director of Demand Generation
*We did have one conversion from our landing page. Shoutout to Director of Content, Nykea, for being Stop-Churn’s biggest fan.
I get these all the time so I deleted it until a colleague [Mike] forwarded it to me—then it became a warm lead. However I did a background check on the company to see if it would be worth my time to explore further.
—Jacqueline Cook, VP of Growth
Bonus: Email marketing is hard, no matter the subject line or value offer
One final key takeaway is just the emphasis on how hard email marketing is, especially when your target audience is executives and high-level business-people.
My daily routine is to just get to work in the morning, select everything that isn’t relevant to my day, and archive it. I just don’t have time. I honestly don’t read a lot of subject lines all the way through, I just know that it’s not relevant to what I do, and off it goes.
—Bryan Larson, VP of Product Design
Email marketing is tough. You’ve got to really nail the message because everyone’s inundated.
—Jeff Tomlin, Chief Marketing Officer
The amount of sales-type email that I’m getting of people trying to sell me leads, or people trying to sell me a better way to close leads, or...so the ‘churn’ thing was like ‘awh fuck, this is another one of those kinds of things.’ Because I get all sorts of stuff like that.
—George Leith, VP of Sales
We’ll chalk up this initial Dogfishing campaign to exactly what it was, and nothing more—a learning experience. However, a couple notes of feedback did hint at what might get the executives, and otherwise hyper-busy target audience to hear what you have to say.
1. Make it from someone they know
I don’t exactly mean you should pretend to be someone you’re not, but have you tried reaching out to inner networking circles, friends of friends, and so on with your campaigns? Some of our feedback indicated that the only way to reach the leadership team is if it’s communication from someone they know.
I don’t respond to emails that I didn’t really ask for, and if I don’t know the person,...I don’t know who this stop-churn.org is, I don’t know somebody that sent it to me, I’m not reading it. Like, ever. tweet
If it’s actually important, they probably know someone who knows me, and they’ll say “Hey, Sal from Google gave me your contact,” and then I’ll read it, but if you don’t know somebody that I know, it’s probably...that’s just the truth of life.
When the BDC [sent an email about] ‘Oh, we have this CTO group we’d love for you to be a part of,’ and Mike forwarded it to me, and otherwise I would’ve thrown that email out but I’m like ‘well, Mike sent it, so I probably have to figure out what this is.’ I’ll look through it, and I’ll talk to Mike and figure it out.
—Dale Hopkins, Chief Technology Officer
2. Try channels less-traveled
Every senior figure at a company or corporation is flooded with emails every minute. So, maybe it’s time to test out the waters on other channels like a personal note on LinkedIn or Facebook messenger.
I think that things that I do respond to would be like direct social. I get spam on that, and I still find myself opening it and having a read. I actually find that just finding the person that you want to talk to and saying ‘hey I’m from so-and-so, are you interested?,’ and [using] a channel that you’re not used to. To me, that is something that I’m not used to, going into my LinkedIn and marking it all as spam. I get maybe a notification or two per week that’s that, and it’s like ‘ah, okay, there’s a thing.’ Even if I don’t respond, I will read it.
—Bryan Larson, VP of Product Design
Well, that’s all folks. The final note from our secret Dogfishing marketing squad is: don’t be afraid to experiment. Don’t let your marketing get too routine and mundane, and take on a lil’ Dogfishing now and again to test out new ideas. Who knows, maybe you’ll catch a Prized Poodle?