What E-Mail Marketers Can Learn from the NHL

What do the National Hockey League (NHL) and email have in common? Both feature content that must both engage people to meet business goals. This is what I was thinking as I listened to Gary Bettman, NHL commissioner, speak at the National Press Club last month.

What can email marketers learn from the NHL? Plenty. Here are a few takeaways for hockey fans and non-fans alike.

If It’s Broken, Take the Time to Fix It

Hockey fans all know this, but in case you aren’t one: the NHL canceled last season. It didn’t play a single game.

As a fan, I was very disappointed. As a businessperson, I applaud the NHL’s courage. It’s easy to get hung up on deadlines and schedules. It’s much harder to step back, admit something’s not working, and suspend delivery until you the problem’s fixed.

It’s not about sending an email each month or every week. It’s about engaging readers and meeting goals, be they lead generation, direct sales, retention, or something else. If your email efforts don’t meet their goals, if opens, clicks, and conversions are poor, it’s time to stop just pushing content out and revisit your content strategy.

Give the Audience More of What They Want

What’s most engaging to the audience you’re trying to reach? What could you offer to engage a larger percentage of them?

The NHL believes its answer lies in scoring, and it changed some rules to encourage more of it. By decreasing the size of the goalie’s pads, along with other measures, this seems to have succeeded. In his speech, Bettman stated goal scoring was up 23.5 percent since hockey’s return.

The key here wasn’t to make current fans happier. It was to engage new fans, people who don’t like to watch long periods of play with no goals, while not alienating current fans.

You can do the same with your email. What do current readers click on? What might you do to keep their interest while broadening the appeal to others?

Provide Less of What They Don’t Want

Having gone to Philadelphia Flyers games as a kid, I never thought much about hockey fights. They were just part of the game. That changed when I started taking my godson to Washington Capitals games. His mother, concerned about the violence, asked me to distract him when there were fights on the ice. I’m sure other people with children feel the same.

The NHL listened. Fights are down 42 percent from previous seasons, according to Bettman, thanks in part to stricter enforcement of interference and related penalties. Though I can’t say they ever bothered me, I also can’t say I miss the fights. Mission accomplished. Hopefully, people will be more comfortable watching games with their children.

What do people dislike or not care about in your email? Why are these things in there? Can you decrease instances of them or get rid of them entirely?

Don’t Expect Universal Agreement

You can’t please all the people all the time. You may even find dissent within your own ranks. When asked about the NHL’s changes, Steve Yzerman, captain of the Detroit Red Wings, said, “It’s not great. It’s not hockey.” Many goalies, who are being scored on like never before, are also less than thrilled.

As a season ticket holder, I was skeptical of the changes, too. Would these new rules, geared toward drawing new fans, make the game less enjoyable for me? I gave them a chance. I have to say it’s really not as different as I’d feared. And I even find shootouts, much more prevalent now that they’re used as tie-breakers, kind of fun.

Change is difficult to take, particularly when it affects how you do your job. People who put together your email, write the copy, or are asked to redesign the format may not be on the same page. That’s life. If the old way’s not working, don’t let fear of change stop you from trying something new.

Take Time to Build a Vision

At the lunch, Bettman said, “You must begin with a vision. Everything else will fall in place from that conviction.” So true. Visions aren’t easy to summon. You must clearly define goals, immerse yourself in the needs of your target audience, and figure out the best way to turn all this into email content. It takes research and time to percolate what you’ve learned. Sometimes, you must try out a few visions in your mind, figuring out how you’ll implement them, before you find one that’s feasible.

That’s what a year off gave the NHL: time to work with the players’ association and the owners to get on the same page and come to a clear vision of the future. If you’re faced with a poorly performing email program, take a page from the NHL’s book. Stop sending for a month or two. Use the time to reevaluate every aspect of your email strategy, then come back strong.

Many predicted a cancelled NHL season would damage the sport; they said fans wouldn’t come back and the business of hockey would suffer. The jury’s still out, but Bettman reported 21 of 30 NHL teams actually showed increased attendance over previous seasons; three other teams continued sellout traditions, so their attendance is flat. Overall, attendance is up 4 percent across the league, a sign the year off may actually turn out to be a good thing for hockey.

The business of hockey, like the business of email, is all about providing great content that engages people while allowing you to meet your goals.

Want more email marketing information? ClickZ E-Mail Reference is an archive of all our email columns, organized by topic.

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