Yet Scotts Miracle-Gro Company (www.scotts.com), like many consumer packaged goods companies, has no direct online sales channel—and it finds that email-newsletter subscriptions boost purchases on average 1.5 times annually.
Perhaps the reason the Scotts Lawn Care Update email newsletter is so successful is its commitment to the roots of the program—customer service.
"The idea was to be helpful to customers, take out the guesswork in product selection, and let them know what products to apply to their particular lawn type in each season," says Kip Edwardson, senior manager of Interactive Marketing at Scotts.
"We've learned that knowledge equals revenue," he says. "We are guiding them through the lawn-care lifecycle, and that education encourages them to not only buy more product but to feel confident and gratified by their purchase. We take very seriously that customers gave us a permission grant, and we want to provide something of value."
Scotts uses a combination of data to make the newsletter personal and relevant to each subscriber. The newsletter is customized to the season, grass type (input at registration), and ZIP code.
Dripping information out via email newsletters speaks to a central business driver: A beautiful lawn depends on repeated product applications. Each email speaks to the value of the multistep process—and the glory of success.
For lawn owners on the go, an application is available (iTunes link) for the iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad.
"We have great products—100% food, no filler, and proprietary formulas," Edwardson says. "People talk with pride about their Scotts lawn. People peek around the corner and see who has the best lawn on the block. How do they get there? They get their questions and concerns answered by someone knowledgeable—be it a fellow customer or Scotts employee."
Frequency has been a challenge. There is a temptation to send the newsletter more frequently during the key growing months, especially in the North, where the season is short.
After some testing, Edwardson says, the team settled on a monthly newsletter for all subscribers, regardless of the season or application schedule.
All programs stop during the off-season, which can be six months long in some regions. "We tell subscribers that we are signing off and will see them next spring, and we know that is a risk to our list hygiene," Edwardson says. The team does see some churn when regions are activated again.
There is also a danger in a job too well done. Scotts has found that the newsletter file is not growing: Although there are many new subscribers, older subscribers are falling off the other end. They either unsubscribe after a few seasons or stop responding and get suppressed by the list-hygiene rules established to keep the file clean and ensure a high sender reputation.
"In some cases, we've elevated a customer's level of knowledge so high that the newsletter is no longer a helpful service," Edwardson explains. Some of these customers are captured via a loyalty program with its own Scotts Insider (www.scottsinsider.com) newsletter that offers advanced tips for "grass gurus."
Taking service to the next level, the team has implemented an insider's alert program called CIA (Consumer Information Alert), which connects customers to the Scotts scientists.
"We cull through our call center, retail feedback, and website for spikes in activity, say a freeze in Florida or heavy moss in the Midwest. We then proactively alert subscribers and the retail-store managers in those regions with tips on how to address the issue."
Joel Book, director of market education at Exact Target, the email delivery and marketing partner of Scotts, is impressed.
"With service as a strategy for selling, Scotts does this as well as anyone in the category," he says. "I never feel that they are selling me. They use info and education to guide buying decisions. The call center and website lets them monitor key issues, and they use the database to alert just folks in that region.
"It's discreet but powerful," Book says.
Technically, the program takes advantage of the Content Syndication suite of content-management and list-management tools from Exact Target. Once a grass type is assigned (either by ZIP code or self-reported data), each subscriber receives one of 355 versions of that month's newsletter.
"We joke and call this The Matrix," Edwardson says. There is one template, populated by hundreds of rules for each segment, and all content and data is housed at Exact Target. If there is no product suggestion for that region and grass-type combination, the system defaults to a tip.
Lawn care is fundamentally social—it's very visible and a topic of great conversation (public and otherwise). Yet Scotts is invisible in the results unless the owner talks about the regimen.
To that end, social marketing is interesting to Edwardson; but outside the website forum, social networks are still a secondary channel for the company.
"While we link to all the various social sites, I don't want to just get a 'me too' on Facebook," Edwardson says. "I don't want you to follow us on Twitter for the sake of numbers, but if you like that forum you can find us there."
In the end, Scotts is using email in the same way it helps us create great lawns—by repeated application of information.
"People won't read a book, but they will review an email or get a text alert to remind them to feed their lawn the right product, safely and within label restrictions. Technology benefits us greatly," Edwardson says.