As a visitor experience advisor, I’m a fairly big fan of using email to build relationships with your members and prospective visitors. And I’m not alone; generally, direct email is known to bring a higher return on investment than social media, and we manage to spend hours and hours every week trying to come up with zippy, original things to post on the socials.
Email works. Think about it: if someone has taken a moment to sign up for your e-newsletter, they’re already investing in you. They’ve already “converted”, as we say in marketing. Once they’re on your subscription list, you’ve got a direct, regular channel of communication with them—one that you can use to encourage visitation, build advocacy, foster learning and understanding of your site’s story, encourage merchandise sales, and more.
So why are we doing such a bad job of it in the culture and nature heritage sectors? Seriously, our sector is years behind on this, and it’s time to turn things around.
You do have an email distribution list, don’t you?
I’m still amazed at how many of my clients aren’t asking their visitors for their email address. It’s just so easy. (And yes, it’s legal, and yes it’s ethical, and no it’s not unsavoury. Use a good email provider, make sure you conform to laws and best practices, and you’re good to go.)
Other clients of mine are using email in theory, but not well. They ask if you want to sign up—and you never hear from them again. Or you get an email every few months nagging you to buy something or attend something, without a single interesting thing to read in the email. Or you get a litany of coming events without a personal word of hello from the Executive Director or anybody else. Yawn. Delete.
Email plus Content Marketing = Fruitful Relationships
So what does a good e-newsletter look like? It’s personalized, for starters. It opens with “Hello, Jane/Bob/Whatever.” It has a welcome message from somebody they have met in real life: your programs manager, your executive director, your VP—a real person with a real photo who can write in a warm, authentic voice.
Next, it has content—interesting content that is not transactional in nature. It has meaningful text and images written by people who have passion, talent, and expertise in your site’s subject matter.
This is called content marketing.
Content marketing is not new—it actually goes back over a hundred years. But it has taken the marketing world by storm in the last two decades and we in the parks/zoos/heritage sector are so far behind in adopting it it’s disgraceful—especially since we, of all people, are masters of content.
Let’s define our terms here. First, ‘marketing’ is the process of stimulating demand for what you offer or sell. It seems funny to have to define marketing when it’s a word we hear every day, but a lot of people use it to mean promotions or merchandising. It’s much bigger than that. Just remember the words “stimulating demand” and you’ll remember what marketing is: all the different things we do to stimulate demand.
“Content” is another really broad term, and as a professional content person I can’t say I love the word. But it’s here to stay and it simply refers to your subject matter. If you’re an aquarium, your content is stories and images and videos about the aquatic world. If you’re a historic home, your content is the history of your site and its people. Content = subject matter.
So content marketing is using your knowledge, passion, and talent to communicate your subject matter to your audiences, in order to stimulate demand for what you offer.
What does it look like?
Well, in the case of direct email communications, content marketing is the feature article about your subject matter without the nagging sales pitch. Just the content, all by itself—stories and images offered purely to gratify the reader.
It’s the email link to the cool video all about nudibranchs that your summer staff just made—without anybody harping about buying a ticket to the next nudibranch program.
It’s your biologist taking people on a virtual walk in the woods (through words, images, or video) to share what they love and what they know.
Yes, further down in the e-newsletter you will list your events and merchandise and whatever else you are selling. But face it: nobody is clicking on your email to read those things. They’re clicking on it to get an interesting, entertaining glimpse into your subject matter. They’re clicking on your email because for that one moment of their work day, when they’re trapped in their cubicle downtown, you’re offering them a well-written, well-illustrated glimpse into your park, your shoreline, your historic home.
Content marketing is non-transactional
Though it has the ultimate goal of stimulating demand for your site and your mission, content marketing is storytelling for its own sake. Its goal is to build awareness, affinity, good will, and trust in your organization. It’s a way of saying to your audiences, “Hey remember us? We really love this stuff. We know this stuff. We live this stuff. And we’re sharing it with you because we think you’re going to love it too.”
But isn’t that giving our content away for free?
Yes, absolutely. Content marketing is a kind of product sampling. It’s a way of saying, “Here, take a sip of this free can of history or nature. We made it ourselves. Mmm, isn’t that delicious? Hey, you know where you can get more of that, right?”
The hardest part of content marketing
You need to dedicate resources to content marketing. Somebody has to write the articles, source the images, film the videos. And in the culture and nature heritage sectors, the people who have the content in their heads and hearts (historians, biologists, interpreters) don’t talk to the people who have the marketing budgets. It’s a chronic problem in our sector. So somebody has to bridge those two solitudes and free up the resources to pay the historian or the interpreter to write the articles, and pay the marketing person to put it all together in an email.
Interpreters are the ideal people for content writing. We love research and we are constantly developing programs or exhibits. Many of us are still in the trap of developing content for a one-off hike or evening program, and then throwing it all on the shelf after it’s done. What if, as a spinoff of every new program you develop, you write a piece (or make a video) for your website blog and your e-newsletter?
Content writing is also an excellent volunteer position, believe it or not. Find a handful of volunteer content writers and you’ll have new articles every month for years to come (just make sure they have access to experts who can support them and vet their material.)
You’ll need writing guidelines
If your organization doesn’t have a style guide and writing standards, you’ll need to get started on that too. What is your organizational tone or brand voice? What level of writing complexity is right for you and your readers?
And you’ll need opinions. Seriously.
Honestly, the thing that is toughest about content marketing is the same thing that is hard about writing interpretive themes: you need a point of view, an angle, an opinion on your subject matter that sets you apart from what everybody else is saying.
Provoke. Reveal. Inspire. Have a point of view. Don’t be afraid to ruffle a few feathers—as long as it’s in keeping with who you are as a site or an organization. Lacklustre content marketing looks a lot like lacklustre interpretation: frothy, breathless prose that is trying to get readers worked up about things that everybody already knows and agrees with. Avoid that, ok?
We in the nature and cultural tourism sectors have what it takes to write the world’s best newsletters and blogs. So what’s standing in our way?