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A marketing lesson from the greatest email ever

What can a single marketing email teach you about better marketing? A lot, actually.

Not too long ago, the greatest email ever written popped into my inbox from BarkBox, a New York based startup that sells dog toys and treats.

The subject line read, “Chew your vitamins, pup.” And the copy read, in part, “We all have needs. That’s why we have just the right supplement treats.”

Below that were five “profiles” of various dogs, each with a few biographical lines that ascribed human qualities to each dog. Then BarkBox matched a supplement to each profile.

There’s neurotic Maris, who might benefit from treats that contain 9mg of Colostrum Calming Complex, a natural calming supplement.

And there’s Paula, who is clearly always prepared for the inevitable emergency. She might pack a travel first aid kit specially assembled for canines.

And then there’s Carl, the grandpa of the group. He might benefit from supplements to aid his creaky hips and joints, BarkShop suggests.

Ah, Carl. All of the characters are charming in their own way. But Carl spoke to me—maybe it’s because I also have a senior dog. (She’s 13 and her name is Abby, by the way.)

The characterization of this pudgy little pug as an older gentleman is, of course, hilarious—you might picture him wearing a cardigan as he sips that lentil soup on the hottest day in July. But the characterization also resonates because it’s real—we all can picture an older guy who might behave exactly like Carl.

So why am I trumpeting this email? Why do I call it the greatest email ever written? Because those of us who use email to communicate with our customers and prospects can steal some important lessons from it, even if we don’t sell pet products to pet owners.

Here are three possible lessons for you to take away.

Focus

BarkShop sells to dog people. Not cat people. Not horse people. And not bird people or llama owners or people who own potbellied pigs. Just dog people.

In this particular email, they further focus by sharing just a few of their products in a single product category of dog supplements. And they do it in an engaging way. (More on that in a minute.)

Idea you can steal:

Hone your message. Don’t try to be all things to all people in all your marketing campaigns.

Even if you sell various products to various kinds of people, you are still talking to one person at any given time. That’s especially true in email, because an inbox is an inherently personal place.

So while your campaign might deploy to hundreds or thousands or tens of thousands, remember you are speaking directly to that one person on your list who just opened your email.

Develop customer empathy

BarkShop knows that its customers consider their dogs to be their kids. They are true members of the family, with real personalities. The dogs are pampered, spoiled, and coddled. Their humans are willing to do what it takes to give their dogs happier and longer lives.

“We want to understand dogs and people better than anyone else,” Pat Shores, who heads up marketing at BarkShop (and its parent company BarkBox), told me. And so Shores and her team never stop actively honing their skills in gaining customer insights. They learn from conversations on social media, from conversations with actual customers, and from their own customer service feedback.

Idea you can steal:

Put yourself in your customer’s shoes—heck, put yourself in your customer’s skin. Continuously, actively, solicit feedback from customers not just about your own products and services but also to get a feel for their general mindset.

Get to know them. And don’t assume they are exactly like you, even if you otherwise align yourself with your audience.

Think of your marketing and messaging from a customer-centric point of view, not your own: Do you truly understand the customer point of view? Do you have real empathy for the way they view the world? Do you know what challenges they face in your business category? Do the messages your company sends reflect the customer’s mindset?

Use humor to signal belonging

You might be thinking: “But I’m not a comedian.” The humor in this email isn’t LOL funny. In truth, it may not be funny to non-dog people at all. But dog people—the kind of people BarkShop wants to attract—find it hilarious, because the copy makes them recognize the loveable weirdos that are their own pets.

Humor is truth, exaggerated to an absurd degree. BarkShop imagined dogs as people— with human ailments—and then brought that idea to its (il)logical conclusion.

In a broader sense, BarkShop is telling its customers it understands just how funny and odd their little creatures truly are. BarkShop is also signaling something deeper: We understand pets. And we get you too.

Idea you can use:

Think about your customers. Then ask yourself: What are the problems your products address? How do your products or services help people? Can you carry that to a creative conclusion like BarkShop did?

* * *

So, did the greatest email ever written ultimately inspire more than just admiration from me for its great marketing acumen? Did the pudgy pug Carl actually trigger a sale—at least for my own 13-year-old Abby?

Yes. It did.

I bought the hip and joint supplement for Abby. She still takes it today. I just asked her if it’s made a difference, and she looked up from her bowl of lentil soup and told me she’s never felt more spry!