Don't Have a Cow! Ben & Jerry's Keeps E-mail in Communications Mix

Ann All
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During my tenure covering the financial technology sector for another publication, most banks made huge investments in self-service channels, first ATMs and then online banking. Many of them figured they'd enjoy big savings by cutting staff and closing branches. The savings largely weren't as great as they'd hoped, however, because their assumption that huge numbers of people would abandon branches for self-service channels didn't really pan out.


Self-service did grow by leaps and bounds -- and still is for that matter, with a recent TowerGroup report showing online banking growing by 27 percent annually. But while banks stopped building as many new branches, they kept many of the existing ones because some people preferred to visit branches for most of their transactions and even more wanted to use the branch for certain transactions such as loans.


(I remember my astonishment at a trade show when a vendor demonstrated a loan application transaction on an ATM. The staffers in the booth really had no answer when I asked if they thought folks would want to apply for a loan at an ATM. And they were considerably less enthusiastic as they finished the demo.)


That's why I was surprised to hear Ben & Jerry's was discontinuing e-mail to its customers in favor of social media. As banks discovered, trying to substitute one channel for another can be tricky, if not downright impossible.


As Charles Nicholls, founder and chief strategy officer of See Why and author of "Lessons Learned from the Top Ten Converting Websites," writes in a column published on our site, Ben & Jerry's risks offending folks who elected to receive its e-mail communications. E-mail is also part of a holistic marketing mix, one that can be more personal and directly relevant to subscribers than a visit to a Faceook page, adds Nicholls.


Nicholls speculates that Ben & Jerry's may see less value in e-mail than some other businesses since it doesn't sell its products online. Because of this, it's tough for the company to determine e-mail's impact on sales. While conceding that's a challenge, Nicholls suggests the company should focus on making its e-mail newsletters "altogether more relevant and tightly integrated with the social media programs" rather than eliminating them.


While I agree with Nicholls, there's a little more to the story. The eMail Guide.com reproduces the original e-mail from Ben & Jerry's UK that led to a blog post on HubSpot and an ensuing flow of commentary, including Nicholls' piece. It's a great illustration in how news published online can spread like wildfire, at least until a fact check slows it down.


The e-mail directs subscribers to the company's Facebook page, where it says news is published in a more timely manner (an advantage social media has over e-mail). It also says customers have expressed a preference for getting company news on Facebook and mentions subscribers will still get occasional e-mails. As a note from Ben & Jerry's PR Director Sean Greenwood makes clear, the message was received only by e-mail subscribers in the UK, and the company isn't giving up other communications channels:

... I believe the rest of the Ben & Jerry's folks around the globe (including us here at the HQ in Vermont who support the U.S. and the globe) are planning to continue to use: email, social media, text messaging, augmented reality, snail mail, vanilla guerrilla marketing, grassroots Social Mission endeavors, sky writers, deep-sea divers and of course scoop trucks on the road.

If anything, Greenwood's mention of guerrilla marketing, deep sea divers and augmented reality (via an iPhone app that lets customers view 3D graphics on ice cream lids) seems to describe a company that likes to experiment. And experimenting with e-mail frequency, as it seems the UK team may be doing, seems like a reasonable thing to do.

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