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Common mistakes when marketing to niche audiences online

With email marketing, seemingly insignificant tweaks to the copy or structure of your email can produce dramatic uplifts in open and response rates. Sara Baugh reveals what she has learnt from her experiences marketing to one particularly demanding audience ... teachers.

By Sara Baugh

With a background in writing copy for a vast consumer audience, marketing online to the education sector has thrown up some really interesting challenges for me.

Marketing to an audience who are most responsive, still, to fax campaigns. Fax! To an audience who, should a grammatical error sometimes slip its way in to an eight page email campaign, would print your copy out, mark it in red pen, and then post it back to you via Royal Mail.

Trust me, it happens!

Marketing to teachers means being intimately familiar with an industry that’s always changing. Therefore, migrating our marketing efforts online seemed to make perfect sense. Low cost, far reach, fast.

But what was the correct recipe for blending our long established and successful offline techniques for marketing in to schools with the online consumer model that has proved so successful for other parts of our business?

Well we’ve found it. It’s taken some time, some testing and some fairly embarrassing mistakes. But mistakes are for celebrating, and so the few I share below will shape our success going forward.

Optimus Professional Publishing, part of Electric Word plc, publishes books, newsletters and events for middle and senior management teams in UK schools with a focus on special educational needs, thinking skills, enrichment, leadership, and professional development.

It’s a limited audience.

And forgetting that is the first mistake I made.

Common Mistake 1. Size matters.

Much of our lead generating activity is carried out via Google Adwords. It’s a model that has worked across all sectors at Electric Word. We use short landing pages to ask users to sign-up to a free weekly email newsletter in their area of interest.

To achieve this, keyword research is critical. What is easy to ignore, though, is that it’s not about whacking all the high volume search phrases you find straight in to your campaign. It’s about seeking out those niche search terms that have reasonable volumes, little competition, but most of all, the phrases that are going to be searched for by the right people.

So, what do teachers search for online? In their droves?

The answer, for obvious reasons, is this little gem of a keyphrase: ‘Lesson Plans’. Millions of searches a year. Brilliant!

So, into our campaigns they went: ‘geography lesson plans’, ‘PE lesson plans’, ‘year 8 lesson plans’. The problem? We don’t provide lesson plans. And most of our products are of little interest to the ‘quick fix’ classroom teacher.

This sort of search volume fixation could cost you dearly. Especially if you use dynamic keywords to make your ad reflect the search.

Know your niche. For strong ROIs, you want to pay for the six CPD Coordinators a day who Google ‘Secondary CPD provision’ not the sixteen thousand teacher trainee students panicking before their first day on a placement.

Now, you have your list. And maybe it’s not as big as you’d expected. So what next?

As I said, we provide a free weekly e-bulletin as an incentive for capturing a lead’s information. Currently, we have ten bulletins for Optimus, each of which has its own lead collection campaigns, brand identity, and an editor who is a specialist in the field. And so, each week our lists get some really valuable information. For free.

In return, we are able to market to them, both in the e-bulletins themselves and in separate solus emails that we send once a week.

And this is where it gets really tricky. Especially if, like me, you are a sucker for a quirky new approach or conversational piece of copy.

Common Mistake 2. From-lines: They’re all about identity, and who wants a multiple personality disorder?

Often, an enthusiastic new marketing executive will ask if they can test a new from-line for an e-marketing campaign.

So, whilst everything we do is about testing (testing and then testing some more), what I always say is, "Why? Why do you think we should test something new?"

Our e-bulletins are built around brand identity. We want that e-bulletin to be the source for free information in that very niche, very focused, area. As a result, it’s obvious that the from-line should be the name of the e-bulletin. Right?

Your motivation for testing a new from-line is the determining factor in whether you should test it or not. If your list are deleting your emails as soon as they see your company name appear in their inbox, you have a much bigger problem than a need for an exciting new from-line.

But don’t forget them.

Remember that recipients use from-lines to determine whether to delete an email. Our highly stranded and targeted lists mean that we are able to sustain high opening rates.

If you do have a new launch, a hot new product, or an amazing new piece of copy that you so want even more leads to open, the occasional fresh from-line can be just the ticket.

What we have found works well is to use a brand-related personality. A name. A name that your list recognises, and likes.


Sport Business Group, another division of Electric Word, has an email newsletter, ‘newslines’, which has an average opening rate of 14%.

The first change ever made to this was to send an email from the editor of Sport Business magazine, Kevin Roberts. The opening rate for this email was 42%.

It worked. It worked because the list know him, the list like him, and because we had never done it before. We even received replies to the campaign asking about his family and his social diary and trying to arrange a drink.

What wouldn’t work? Doing it again. At least too soon afterwards. Trust me, we tried! Oops.

Common Mistake 3. Subject Lines: say what you see?

Never forget, subject lines are what motivate people to actually open an email.

I did forget.

With my mind shifting from that of a consumer copywriter to that of a ‘serious’ marketer, a marketer with the red-pen-wielding headteacher in mind, I started writing subject lines that said what they did on the tin. And they were boring.

And then we started testing.


Split run test on offer for a product named Secondary Assembly File:

Subject Line A, written by the marketing team: Jim Carrey and Personal Development?

Subject Line B, written by editorial: Help Colleagues to Share the Responsibility of Assemblies

A was opened by 28% of our list. B was opened by just 16%.

The rather tenuous link in A to Jim Carrey was the fact that one of the assembly templates on offer was based on his films. But it was intriguing. And the larger opening rate led to a relative increase in sales.

The lesson? We now test subject lines every day. Every day and for every campaign we send out. Fifty-fifty splits. And there is always something new to learn. More often than not it’s the, shall we say, more imaginative attempts that win.

So, always think of subject lines as a key marketing tool (whatever your editorial teams may say). They don’t have to reflect the (whole) content of the email. Have some fun.

Common Mistake 4. Headlines: what is really on offer?

In my experience, if you have a strong offer you tell people about it. At the start. In big font. Red probably. And I’d use the word ‘discount’ and ‘sale’ and an ultra-specific saving percentage. Well, it always worked well for me in the past. Unsurprisingly, not now. Teachers are sceptical of offers. They want facts.

So, how do you work that in to a really killer headline for your email?

This is what’s worked for us:

* Testimonials:

"This is all SO helpful. I learnt so much - inspirational!" - I. Forbes, SENCO, Pershore High School

Click here to book your place on this year’s SENCO Update conference

Click through rate: 28% on a list average of 16%.

* Statistics:

"72% agree that all SENCOs should have QTS"

Click through rate: 22% on a list average of 16%.

And what hasn’t:

* Offer led headlines:

"Sign up for Into Teaching now and receive a FREE bonus issue and 15% reduction – for a limited period only."

Click through rate: 8% against an average of 13% for list.

* Invitations:

"Join me for 21 days and I’ll show you how to make it through the next year in one piece."

Click through rate: 7% against an average of 13%.

The lesson here, again, is to test. Know your niche. What do they want to know? Tell them. At the start.

Common mistake 5: I can’t hear you.

Testimonials. They are the life-blood of the successful marketer. But all too often they get demoted to the bottom of a campaign, not highlighted, or worse, left out completely.

We had them in their hundreds. We had them and we used them but we didn’t really monitor their effect. Where they should sit, how they best work.

Now, through regular testing, we have found that, on average, using testimonials effectively boosts the response to a campaign from our lists by 18%.

Collect testimonials regularly. We use Survey Monkey to set up a quick questionnaire. ‘How would you describe x to a friend or colleague?’ is a question that works well. Explain why you want them and offer an incentive. Most people enjoy being quoted.

How testimonials are used best is different for every list. Test long lists of positive feedback against testimonials dotted throughout the copy. Both have worked for us.

But never, ever, underestimate their effect.

Marketing to large consumer audiences and smaller niche audiences is different… but also the same. Even an audience that still think that faxes are on the leading edge can be marketed to successfully online if you are prepared to learn what makes them tick.

The most important thing for any marketer selling to niche audiences - indeed any audience – is not to assume that you know them, or that they will be the same as other audiences you have sold to. Although people respond to messages and behave in similar ways whatever job they do, whether they’re spending their own money or someone else’s, if you really want to get to know exactly what buttons to push, you need to keep testing. Then test again.