Sunday, December 25, 2011

Digital Drama Queen Part II

The boys of Uncalled For

Digital Drama Queen (Part II): 
How Uncalled For Hijacked My Inbox
by Liesl Barrell
(A version of this article was previously published at The Charlebois Post - Montreal)

In this instalment we’ll be looking at email marketing strategies, with a few insights to get you thinking outside the junk mail box. 

I’ll tell you a little secret: I hate emails.  I’ll tell you a little secret: As a marketer, I love emails. As a user, I hate them. 

Marketer love:
Email is still one of the most cost-effective methods to spread the word, despite social media titans proclaiming its death or the blogosphere constantly feeling for its pulse. When effectively deployed and paired with good, timely, useful content it can be an amazing tool to build awareness and keep people in the loop.

User hate:
I feel the same way you probably feel about bulk emails: I’m bombarded with constant, bite-sized information, and here come these cumbersome, awkward chunks of dull, stock-photo-ridden meh-inducing content. Often pointlessly seasonal (It’s Valentine’s Day so buy socks!) and needlessly long-winded, I confess to having no fewer than 12,353 unread emails in my primary account inbox. That’s a whole heckuva lot of ignored emails!

When I thought about writing a piece with email marketing advice for theatre artists, I decided to do a little inbox survey. I’m subscribed to a ton of theatre and tech mailing lists (those 12,353 emails have to come from somewhere), so which artsy sender stole my heart and earned my own personal best open rate? 

Uncalled For
Well, by the post’s title it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that through my little sondage, I discovered that Montreal improv darlings Uncalled For easily take the all-your-birthdays cake. Of the 200+ emails I’ve received from them since 2004, I’ve opened every single one. I may not have read every single one, but no Uncalled For mailings are flagged as unread. 
The Uncalled For logo

Clearly the troupe-wide ban on phones* (as expressed through their logo) must have led to an early, enthusiastic and experienced use of other communication channels.

In rereading a handful of their messages it’s clear why I’m not surprised: they still make me laugh out loud, even years after the shows they promote have come and gone. And they’ve never sent images or templated newsletters: we’re talking hardcore plain text humour that flies in the face of whiz-bang, in-your-face promotion.

So to find out just how they conjure up so much email mojo, I touched base with Anders Yates, because I figure the tallest member of any group must also be their spokesperson. That, and word on the street is he and Dan Jeannotte compose the bulk of their email content. 

“We realized early on,” says Anders, “that we had to assume nobody would read them. Most people don’t read email, and who can blame them? I don’t. So the most important thing is to be concise. We write a short funny paragraph, then follow it with the bullet point summary of salient points.” 

This utility-first approach is extremely important, it keeps the focus on the readers’ need to quickly scan and grab key information. “Cool, there’s an Uncalled For show...” 
  • When? 
  • Where? 
  • How much? 
But it’s the quality of the content that makes people start reading them. “They have to be funny. We always want to make sure those that take the time to actually read them feel it was actually worth it,” he adds.  

By the sounds of their process, part of that balance is achieved because of their different strengths. A typical mailing is first written by either Dan or Anders (and occasionally other members of the group), then sent to the other for revision and final dissemination. “I’ll often send one of mine off to Dan saying, ‘this is a few jokes short of being funny: make it funny,’” Anders notes. 

“And when Dan writes the first draft,” he adds, “he’ll compose this brilliantly funny message, that’s way too long. So I’ll edit it down a bit before sending it out.” 

This strategy pays off for both Uncalled For and their audience because they get:
  • Clear, concise at-a-glance information for scanners
  • Well-edited, expertly-crafted humour for readers
Eventually adventurous scanners may catch enough jokes to convert into readers, and, like me, they may never look back.

With all the unopened offers, plugs, promos and random automated notifications, is it any wonder that I never think twice about clicking on subject lines like: 
  • Uncalled For makes an honest woman out of improv (Body text pledges Uncalled For’s hand in marriage to music, all for a Valentine’s show) 
  • For everything super yes time, Uncalled For! (Body text written in Queen’s Engrish)
  • 10 Days, 6 Shows, 1 Evil Purpose (Sign-off includes promise of “handy virgin-sacrificing techniques”)
No wonder I’ve been to so many of their shows!

Uncalled For in Hypnogogic Logic
So does the group have any statistics about how effective their campaigns are, and have been over the years? “It’s all really low tech,” admits Anders. “We get the updated list from our website and just send them out.”

They have a list of ~500 subscribers, and anecdotally they get a lot of positive feedback and have a relatively low unsubscribe rate.

Currently they don’t use any email marketing service, so they don’t gather any data. All their successful techniques come from years of trial and error, a natural knack for shameless self-promotion and mad comedy skillz. 

I won’t cover the widely-written about basic tips for composing effective email copy, you can visit the Googles for that and they’ll tell you why you should: 
  • Write compelling subject lines no longer than 50 characters
  • Use images, visual elements and white space to break text up 
  • Embed trackable links to see what your readers click on
  • Keep content easily scannable with bullet points, lists, headings, subheadings and separators
  • Use a P.S. line: it catches the eye, and it’s oldschool charming
  • ...and more!
But I will leave you with a few tips I think are key for artists promoting themselves by email:

1. Experiment to find what works for you
Uncalled For have been at it for years, they’ve nailed what works for them. In time  your emails should develop a consistent voice, that matches your personal or theatre company brand. Find a formula that you enjoy, works well and yields results and keep playing with it, pushing its boundaries. Subtle changes (e.g. link placement) can have a big impact on clickthrough rates.

2. Use an email marketing service.
There are many out there, but my current favourite is MailChimp. They’ve recently expanded their free plan to up to 2,000 subscribers and 12,000 emails a month (don’t send them all to me please, I already have that many to read!) which is perfect for the average artist. Using this kind of service makes it easy to:
  • Build a subscriber list with customizable forms that can be added as pages or widgets on your website. 
  • Segment your user list by allowing them to specify preferences (e.g. location, genre, specific artist, etc.) and target them for specific updates (“Come see us in Toronto, Torontonians!”).
  • Create reusable branded templates for quick and professional email formatting.
  • Track open rates (how many people open the email), clickthrough rates (how many people click on each link in the email) and more. In time this data will help you assess the effectiveness of your strategy, and combined with experimentation (like A/B Testing) can lead to incremental increases in clickthroughs to your site, Facebook page or event listing.  
3. It’s not only about the numbers
I’m sure many are wondering how to calculate the transactional value of emails: how many actual bums in seats did this mailing get me? While it’s true that online marketing metrics can often only take you so far as what the audience does online, and unless you have an online ticketing service with access to Google Analytics or a comparable tool, it can be hard to translate that activity into dollars. Nonetheless, remember that keeping yourself, your show or your company top-of-mind is important, and that building audience awareness and your reputation should be an integral part of your marketing goals.
 4. Don’t use email marketing if it isn’t you.
If you prefer using social media, blogging, or shouting on street corners, and it’s working for you: don’t start perfunctory email campaigns. The biggest takeaway from Uncalled For is that the fun they have writing and collaborating on an email translates into a fun read. And that can’t be forced. Try it, give it a few goes, but if it’s an insurmountable chore it may be best to focus on channels you enjoy.  

Liesl is an account supervisor at Twist Imagea leading digital marketing agency ranked among the top 10 in Canada for the second year running by Marketing Magazine, and an organizer of Montreal Girl Geeks, a community run for and by women in tech centred around monthly talks. You can read more about her and the things she cares about on her blog at or follow her on Twitter. 

Uncalled For is your new favourite comedy troupe. Unless they’re not new to you, in which case they’re just your favourite comedy troupe.  Subscribe to their mailing list or join their Facebook group to hear more from them. You won’t be disappointed. 

*Editor’s note: Uncalled For have neither officially confirmed nor denied their position on phones at the time of this posting.

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