Yogi Berra once said, “If people don’t want to come to the ballpark, how are you gonna stop them?”

I love that quote, and I think about it often as I work with clients on their marketing campaigns. In his charming, convoluted way, Yogi presented a very basic but essential marketing principle: It’s far easier to tap someone’s desire than to create desire in someone who doesn’t have it. If you want to fill the ballpark, identify and market to the baseball fans rather than trying to “stop” nonfans from choosing another option.

Email marketers often forget this principle. Email is inexpensive, easy to create and quick to deliver. That’s the problem. Because email is so easy, e-marketers often send everything to everybody. In other words, they send baseball promotions to people who don’t want to come to the ballpark.

The following case study – also from the sports world – demonstrates the point.

A small, Midwestern university wanted to promote its women’s basketball program. The women had a breakthrough season the year before, winning the conference championship, but the arena was nearly empty on most nights.

The athletic department had a list of 8,000 people, collected from booster club rosters, ticket order forms, website registrations, alumni lists and other sources. These people had opted in to receive information from the university, but the athletic department had no idea who they were.

The university sent several emails to the list, all covering multiple topics. Each email included sales promotions for women’s basketball. The emails weren’t working. In fact, they backfired. With each subsequent email, the open rate dropped and the opt-out rate grew.

The athletic department’s marketing director asked me to help. “How can I use this list to promote women’s hoops?” he asked.

Yogi’s quote echoed in my head.

“You have 8,000 people on that list, and I bet more than 7,000 have no interest in women’s hoops,” I said. “You can send them 100 emails, and it won’t help. If people don’t want to watch women’s basketball, you can’t force them.”

Worse still, if you continue to send mailing after mailing to people who don’t care about women’s basketball, those people will stop opening your emails and opt out from your list. Then you’ve lost the chance to promote other sports to them.

At first the marketing director heard only one thing: More than 7,000 people on your list won’t respond to your offer.

“I guess we shouldn’t use email then,” he said.

He was missing the point. He was like a gold rush pioneer looking at a river full of gold and thinking, “More than 90% of that riverbed is just worthless pebbles.”

But about 10% of that riverbed held gold. He just needed to find it.

“We need to find the people in your email list who like women’s basketball,” I said. “Then we can market aggressively to them without wasting time and effort selling to the others.”

We devised a plan. The university would send emails twice monthly to the entire list. Those emails would include short summaries about multiple sports: men’s basketball, women’s basketball, wrestling and others.

Each summary would not be a direct sales pitch, but each would include a link allowing the recipient to read more. For example, the women’s basketball summary might be a brief summary of upcoming games (or a recap of past games) with a link to the rest of the schedule (or to more news).

“But why don’t we just promote ticket sales directly in this email?” he asked.
“Because the goal of this email is not to sell tickets. The goal of this email is to find the prospects we’ll target,” I said.

If you ask people to “buy now” or “click to purchase,” they need to be in buying mode to act. You’re not offering them anything other than the transaction. If they’re not ready to buy, they won’t click. That’s fine if you’ve already identified your targets and plan to send promotions to them regularly.

But at this point you simply want people to raise their hands, to show you they’re interested in women’s basketball. You’re separating prospects from suspects. The sales will follow.

If you ask them to “read more” or “learn more,” you’re offering them something that has immediate value and involves little risk. Far more people will click these links than the “buy now” link.

We also planned to include a brief survey with the email. Among other questions, the survey asked which sports the readers followed. The list of checkboxes included, of course, women’s basketball.

The university began to send the general interest newsletter (with a survey included) to the list. Using the email software’s tools that automatically track who clicks which links and who checks which survey boxes, the marketing director identified roughly 900 people who were interested in women’s basketball. Those people either clicked the women’s basketball link in one of the emails or checked the box in the survey.

Over the next four months, the university sent weekly emails to the 900 people on the women’s basketball list. The emails included detailed game summaries (the local newspaper didn’t even include box scores for the games), player profiles and prominent ticket offers.

The results were great. On average, more than 60% of recipients opened each email (a great open rate for a weekly email). Over the four months of the campaign, only one person opted out of the list. (Meanwhile, the thousands who showed no interest in women’s hoops were not bombarded with weekly emails and consequently remained on the master list.)

Most important, ticket sales spiked. The university didn’t fill the arena, but attendance increased noticeably. Because it identified the 900 people out of 8,000 to target, the university was also able to create a print promotion. It would have been too expensive and inefficient to send that mailing to 8,000 people. But because it used email – and a low-risk call to action – to identify prospects, the university had a great list to help it focus the postal mail program.

So, in the end, the university heeded Yogi’s advice. Rather than “stopping” nonfans from ignoring women’s basketball, it found the real fans and marketed aggressively to them.

You can apply this lesson to any business, any industry. The music store that wants to clear its classical inventory can identify those who like classical music before selling to them. The nonprofit that wants to promote a planned giving program can find the people interested in planned giving before sending them more detailed information on this delicate topic. The pet store can separate dog lovers from cat lovers. And so forth.

To do this well, you must remember that each email serves a different purpose. Some emails are designed only to identify prospects. Others are designed to sell.

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