2 Wins and a Fail: Real Email Marketing Experiences and Lessons from Herschend Family Entertainment

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There’s a lot to be learned from the past and the experience of others—building off their successes and learning from their mistakes. In this 2 Wins and a Fail blog series, we’re inviting clients, partners, friends and thought leaders to share their email marketing stories; both good and bad.


This week we had the pleasure to speak with Matt Berry, Digital Marketing Manager for Herschend Family Entertainment.

Herschend is the largest family-owned themed attractions corporation in the US, managing 23 entertainment, tourism and hospitality properties and theme parks including Silver Dollar City Attractions and Dollywood Parks & Resorts. Matt has worked with Herschend brands for 4 years and oversees email campaigns for many of the organization’s properties and attractions. His experiences hold valuable advice for any email marketer; especially those working in the entertainment, travel, and hospitality industries.

Success Story #1: Getting Subscribers Ready To Explore A New Land

Drumming up excitement for upcoming locations and attractions is an ongoing challenge for destination brands like Herschend’s.

When Dollywood started promoting its latest theme park expansion, Wildwood Grove, it took a strategic, measured approach.

Wildwood Grove will be the newest—and largest—addition to the world-famous Dollywood theme park. “Because of how significant the new area is, we really went big and are still going big with this announcement across all channels,” Berry said.

Dollywood wanted to create excitement and awareness about the new attraction and use that buzz as momentum to fuel related campaigns and sales opportunities. Though the big expansion wouldn’t open for several months, the brand started promoting it as early as last fall; right when it was going on sale with its season passes for the upcoming year.

dynamic email design example

Click here to see the complete interactive email!

The Dollywood team also tried something new with this announcement; a pre-sale campaign.

“When we announced, we gave guests the opportunity to ‘raise their hand’ to learn more about Wildwood Grove early,” Berry explained. “We also offered guests to sign up to be part of our limited time pre-sale, which would give them special pricing opportunities in addition to access to Wildwood Grove before anyone else. So we were using the announcement to sell season passes as well as offering special access to early adopters.”

A series of announcement emails directed interested subscribers to a specialized landing page where they could opt in to receive additional news and special offers related to Wildwood Grove. The email team segmented this list and sent it an extremely successful pre-sale campaign, taking advantage of Liveclicker features like fully-embedded video and slideshows in-email to build excitement and anticipation.

As icing on the cake, Dollywood made clever use of advanced tracking technology to monitor individuals who:

  1. Signed up for the special Season Pass Pre-Sale
  2. Went to the Dollywood site store where season passes were sold
  3. Did not make a purchase

The company remarketed this audience segment with highly-focused and effective ‘abandoned cart’ style emails.

The Wildwood Grove announcement and the campaigns launched alongside it have proven extremely potent for Dollywood, and Herschend is now adapting these tactics to its other brands to multiply its success.

Key takeaways:

  • • If you have big news about an upcoming product launch, event, or update, you can use it as a generator of excitement and conversions in your emails even if that experience or product isn’t yet available.
  • • Don’t stop at the first newsletter sign up or mailing list opt-in; give subscribers the opportunity to ‘raise hands’ and volunteer to receive additional content that’s aligned to their interests.
  • • Track openers’ activity carefully, especially when they click through to your site. This can lead to great remarketing and conversion opportunities with ‘abandoned cart’ style emails, even for prospects that didn’t actually create an account or put a product in a digital cart.

P.S. Wildwood Grove is scheduled to open soon (May 11)…and it looks AWESOME! Check out this teaser featuring an introduction from Dolly Parton:

Success Story 2: A Concert Promotion Email Encore

The second big win Matt shared was an initiative to create interest and sell more tickets to concerts at another one of Herschend’s theme parks: Wild Adventures.

The park hosts a series of A-list bands, artists, performers and comedians with every new season. This year Wild Adventures adopted a new strategy that boosted both season pass and reserved concert seat sales.

Instead of announcing the complete concert lineup all at once, the team decided to ‘tease’ subscribers by just featuring a couple of the events on the schedule at the beginning of the campaign in the fall. These limited announcements were used as value-adds to drive early season pass purchases.

As the new season approached, Wild Adventures used the final main concert announcement as a miniature event in and of itself, using in-email countdown timers to build and maintain excitement leading up to the release date.

The email featuring main concert announcement was heavily personalized. ”We have rock artists, we have Christian artists, country, and so on,” Berry said. “If we saw that a user had attended a certain kind of event in the past, we made sure to showcase similar artists and performers and bring them to the top because that’s what they’re likely to be most interested in.”

But this year the company was careful not just to show a limited selection of events. They wanted to highlight the sheer breadth and variety of high-quality concerts and performances available. After all; people can have diverse tastes and interests in more than just one or two entertainment categories.

To showcase the broad suite of concert selections in the limited real estate of an email, Wild Adventures made great use of Liveclicker’s LiveSlides functionality. The interactive element could effortlessly showcase multiple artists in a particular genre, which was dynamic based on that subscribers preferences, while maintaining a sleek, user-friendly email design.

As an extra value-add, they explained that season passholders received exclusive first access to reserved concert seats a week before they went on sale to the general public.

entertainment brand email example

Click here to see the complete interactive email!

This multi-pronged approach has been hugely successful. Though only a few concerts have occurred so far this season, Wild Adventures is already up YoY on the limited reserved concert seats and has seen substantial growth in season pass sales since the main concert announcement.

Key Takeaways:

  • • Be proactive with audience segmentation and have content automatically adjust accordingly to personalize experiences. Engage with subscribers on their level and their terms and show them what they want to see.
  • • Think outside the template box. We email marketers like our boxes when it comes to email design, and understandably so. But sometimes you need to spice it up. Not every single email has to be a custom design, but use a template that’s flexible and has multiple functionalities to keep things fresh for subscribers.
  • • Getting creative with how you display content in email means you can be more efficient and compact with the information and art on display. Leverage in-email slideshows, animated graphics, video, and hover-over features to show more content with less space.
The Fail: “Oops.”

Herschend has seen a lot of email success across its properties. But even very well managed marketing programs aren’t always executed perfectly.

Matt was given an especially stark reminder of this after a Herschend property sent out a mass email with a crucial oversight.

This property is well known and respected for its fun, quirky email campaigns. So when it sent out an email announcing a pending price increase in membership costs, it got a lot of opens for a flash sale for memberships at the current lower price.

Unfortunately there was a critical mistake in the email. The link to the landing page where subscribers could buy at the discounted price was wrong. It went to an unrelated web page, and any openers clicking through expecting a good deal were immediately disappointed, confused, and frustrated.

This is a nightmare scenario for email marketers. Countless hours of creativity, strategy, and analytics—not to mention months or years of careful relationship nurturing and goodwill building—can all be sabotaged by a single mistake like this.

The property’s email team reacted in textbook fashion once it realized the error. They followed up with an apologetic, funny, and self-deprecating “oops” email. The email didn’t try to ignore the mistake; it owned up to the error and provided subscribers a comically large selection of correct links that would take openers where needed to go for the flash sale.

oops email example

“We have learned over the years that ‘oops’ emails actually perform pretty well..people like to watch you mess up and are more prone to open,” Berry said. “I loved the way this was written as it was calling attention to ourselves for making a mistake and putting less focus on the promotion itself. The message barely mentioned the sale, yet drove engagement and resulted in sales – possibly higher than the original email may have achieved on its own.”

This follow-up strategy proved to be extremely effective and earned exceptional open and engagement rates.

Key Takeaways:

  • • As Matt says about emails: “Test, test, and test again.” No matter how many emails your team sends, you can still make mistakes. Don’t get complacent and assume you can do no wrong. It happens to everyone!
  • • When you make a mistake, own it and act fast to fix it. Don’t be afraid to apologize; just make sure to do so in a timely fashion and with humility.  
  • • Don’t overuse the “oops” strategy, or it will backfire. If you’re regularly sending out valuable and engaging emails, your subscribers will have some amount of forgiveness for errors. But that tolerance will run dry quickly if you try to exploit it or make too many mistakes.

Enormous thanks to Matt Berry and Herschend Family Entertainment Brands for these stories for us to share and learn from!

Matt recently shared even more of his experiences, expertise and advice at our Future of Email Atlanta event! If you’re interested in hearing more stories from email pros, register now to join the conversation at a session near you—it’s completely free for email marketers!

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Mark is Email Experience Analyst for Liveclicker. He writes for and about brands developing real, meaningful relationships with customers through email, content, digital media and more. His love for marketing lies at the place where creative and analytics intersect, and he makes a mean vegetarian chili.

Mark Miller
Author

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