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Will dropping email cause customer meltdown for Ben & Jerry's?

22nd Jul 2010
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Charles Nicholls discusses three reasons why Ben & Jerry's decision to stop sending email to their customers in favour of using social media could be disastrous.

The news that Ben & Jerry’s ice cream will stop sending email to their 1.3m customers is, frankly, remarkable.
What were they thinking? Are they nuts?
Their plan, announced in an email to their subscribers last week, said that they will be discontinuing email - in favour of social media. While there has been some idle speculation about whether social media will replace email, this is frankly nonsense. They are complementary channels, and understanding how to use the two together in a mutually supportive way is the key.
There are three fundamental problems with Ben and Jerry’s decision:
1. Customers choose the channels, not brands
Ben and Jerry’s subscribers opted in to their email program. They chose email as their preferred method of communication to receive news and promotions about the brand. We know from multiple studies that the number one reason for ‘friending a brand’ is to receive special deals and promotions. The same holds true for email.
ExactTarget recently published some interesting new research titled Subscribers, Fans and Followers on how consumers choose to interact with brands. When looking for promotions:
“76% of consumers will initially seek deals and promotions on a brand’s website, and from there, 62% will sign up to receive email, while 54% will use a search engine. 17% of consumers will also include Facebook as part of their quest for ongoing deals, and 3% will search for deals on Twitter.”
Cutting off their fans from their chosen communication channel is only part of the story: customers expect to be able to subscribe to email communications.
2. Social media isn’t a replacement for email
Ben and Jerry’s may have more than 1.3m Facebook fans, but it doesn’t mean that there’s no role for email in their marketing mix.
Email is direct and proactive, and when used well, can be personal and directly relevant. The way many brands use social media is as an impersonal broadcast that relies on fans visiting their Facebook pages. Email reaches out and can reactivate fans’ interest in a brand in a way that a social network can’t. Of course, social networks also engage fans in a way that email can’t. The two are highly complementary, and neither is a replacement for the other.
3. Just because it’s hard to measure doesn’t mean it doesn’t work
Unlike ecommerce sites, where email is the number one tool of choice for driving high quality traffic to an ecommerce website, Ben and Jerry’s don’t sell on line - the ice cream would melt. So while the quality of traffic you drive to your website may be directly correlated to your conversion rate on an ecommerce website, a conversion for Ben and Jerry’s is an in-store purchase. While you can certainly measure the use of promotion codes and vouchers in-store, it’s hard to gauge the footfall impact from an email campaign.
While Ben and Jerry’s may have financial motivation for dropping their email newsletter, perhaps they should have been focusing on how to make their newsletter altogether more relevant and tightly integrated with the social media programs, rather than killing it altogether. In time, it is likely that this decision will be reversed—email is too important a channel to ignore.
Charles Nicholls is founder and chief strategy officer at SeeWhy.

Replies (3)

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By gregbrown
22nd Jul 2010 16:11

Its interesting that Ben and Jerry have gone totally social.  Its so cool, so 2010, so Ashton Kutcher...  The question is do their customers want this.  Many people still like email.  The recently passed Spam legislation allows everyone to opt in or out.   If B&J had 1.3m email subscribers i would guess the majority opted in.  They may have been interested in the flavor of the month or the buy one get one free coupons, but either way I suppose they wanted to stay on the list.

Now, these 1.3m customers must create a social network presence.  I realize there are 500m Facebook users but not everyone uses Facebook.  It takes years to build an affinity with your customer and they just totally disconnected themselves from some percentage of them.  Do marketing people get paid to make these decisions???

My bet is that they will diminish some of their client engagement.  Yes email is a 3 decade old technology.  But snail mail  has been around a lot longer.  We still use what works for the right situation.


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By Neil Davey
26th Jul 2010 10:10

You make an excellent point, Greg.

In the recent Online Customer Engagement Survey by cScape, respondents suggested that email newsletters were overwhelmingly the most successful activity for resulting in a tangible improvement in online customer engagement, with 67% of organisations reporting an improvement compared to 44% that used social networks.

It's a bold move by B&J's - but to deprive customers of having the choice of communications via EITHER email OR social platforms, rather than forcing this upon them, is crazy.

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By Felix Velarde
26th Jul 2010 14:12

You might want to read this post about Ben & Jerry's strategy here...

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