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5 lessons you can learn from Zynga’s email marketing

Early Zynga Growth You’re not reading that graph wrong: on day 9 after launch, Treasure Isle had nearly 4,500,000 players.

Zynga and a handful of other social gaming companies have experienced unparalleled growth powered by their addictive games on the Facebook and (predominantly iOS) platforms.

Here are a few facts you probably don’t know about Zynga:

  • They have over 260 million monthly active users (MAUs) as of early 2013.
  • Their 2011 revenue was $1.4 billion dollars, just four years after they were founded, in 2007.
  • Players of Zynga games send over 1 billion gifts, in-game help and other messages per day.
  • Zynga was the name of CEO and Founder Mark Pincus’ dog. The dog is also the company mascot.

…and that’s just Zynga. Over 81 million people play some form of online social game every single day.

That’s a lot of people doing a lot of gaming.

One of the core metrics for an online social game is monthly active users or MAUs. Keeping your MAUs high means focusing heavily on engagement.

Email is an important part of the activation, retention and marketing strategies for online social gaming companies like Zynga.

Here are four things we can learn from Zynga: a social gaming company operating at massive scale!

1. Creativity is contagious: pass it on

Social gaming as a business leaves a lot of room for creativity but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t all strive to be more creative in our email marketing.

Zynga send some cracking campaigns.

Take this ‘Wheel of Fuel’ email sent out regularly to Farmville players a few years ago (Wheel of Fortune, get it? Get it?).

Although this email was not animated (sometimes that’s more effective) the wheel engaged players in a mini-game where they could win more ‘fuel’ (this helps you get ahead in FarmVille). The fuel was, of course, randomly awarded.

Zynga Email Marketing Wheel of Fuel

This email is really effective for two main reasons:

  1. It’s a game but has real benefits. It’s light-hearted and fun but this email held real value for players. People are so keen for fuel that certain sites blog whenever new emails like this appear.
  2. Psychology. By introducing the ‘unknown’ factor customers were actively looking out for this email campaign. It also meant the player could engage with the same campaign over and over without getting ‘tired’: there was always a chance of winning big.

The response was so positive to these and other ‘daily fuel’ emails that Zynga made them a permanent part of their email marketing strategy:

Zynga Email Marketing Psychology

When was the last time your customers asked you to keep an email going? By combining real benefits with a playful format Zynga nailed this campaign.

2. Use customer actions as email triggers

Using your customers’ in-app actions to drive email is powerful stuff.

Zynga knows this and puts the fact to good use.

Some examples of campaigns they send include:

  1. If a player hasn’t logged in for a while, or has changed usage patterns, they might send them a reward similar to these campaigns

10 Rewards Points

The whole point is to bring the user back with a little sweetener. Again, due to the digital nature of Zynga’s platform giving away digital goods is a great, and presumably extremely low cost, way of enticing customers to take action.

Claim Free Cash Zynga

  1. When an in-game action takes place or ‘completes’, they email players to ensure they re-engage quickly. This is a no brainer. The customer triggered an action, the game took time to complete the action and the customer gets a reminder to come back. #winning.

Your Crops Are Fully Grown Zynga Email

Of course, this tactic opens you up to all sorts of behavioral concepts: how often should you send these emails? What ‘triggers’ can you come up with inside the ‘black box’ of the game? Should you only email people who haven’t opened an email recently? And so on. So many powerful aspects can be considered when refining your email marketing strategy.

  1. Using player-to-player actions to drive email marketing. If your friend sends you a gift or invites you to a Zynga game you get an email update. These sorts of campaigns are user-initiated and are likely to convert well as they are generally driven by and delivered on behalf of a friend the player already knows.

Email Reciprocation Friend Gift

Sending behavioral emails like these is a great way to lift open and click-through rates. This blog post talks a little about the average open and click rates on transactional emails vs. traditional newsletters: the numbers suggest they’re almost twice as effective.

Behavioral emails capitalize on this concept nicely.

Think about where you can send behavioral emails in your application!

3. Newsletters are important too!

As we’ve seen above, a lot of Zynga’s emails are triggered in response to a particular user action (or lack thereof) or sent regularly (the weekly fuel emails up top).

These emails generally perform excellently but it’s important not to forget the power of your newsletters to keep users up to date and to build your brand.

You need to spend time optimizing your one-off campaigns too!

Here are a few examples from Zynga.

Take the following campaign, sent to a select group of Farmville players with the launch of the “English Countryside” extension (back in 2011):

Zynga English Countryside

This newsletter does a few things well:

  1. It has a clear call to action and numerous clickable regions in the top half of the email.
  2. They re-iterate the CTA and use different copy to push the same goal by mentioning a bonus free cash offer for signing up.
  3. It’s a simple, direct email. Despite being image-heavy, it is not long or over-bearing. It conveys one thing and one thing only.

Another great example was this newsletter, sent with the launch of Cruise Ships (a feature that brings extra business to players’ CityVille cities).

Zynga Cruise Ships

The newsletter uses a similar format to the English Countryside mentioned above and works well for the same reasons. A few other things that this campaign also does well include:

  1. Building anticipation for future email announcements by mentioning that ‘Warehouses are Coming Soon’. I think this practice of preparing users for future emails and updates is often overlooked. It’s extremely effective in series of emails, especially when delivering helpful information to your customers. This article on building trust via email gets into a lot more detail.
  2. Cross-selling other games. In this campaign it’s pretty minimal but it’s interesting to see the reference to the ‘English Countryside’ release in FarmVille down the bottom. What can you cross-sell in your business?

4. Grow your list aggressively

A few years ago Facebook took away much of Zynga’s ability to message via the Facebook platform. Whatever your stance on Zynga’s early marketing tactics (they were pretty aggressive) you’d be hard-pressed to suggest they were anything other than extremely effective (these early strategies are a big part of how Zynga got so big, so fast).

When Facebook’s policies changed Zynga realised they had to work on alternate forms of viral marketing.

Email became a much bigger part of the Zynga marketing strategies. To maximize they’re reach they’ve naturally become very adept at getting customers to sign up to their email marketing list over the last few years.

Here are some clever approaches.

Give something of value to your customers

Zynga have mastered this.

For example, when the Facebook policy changes first came into effect Zynga enticed FishVille players to subscribe to their email marketing program by creating and offering a free new fish, the Dwarf Angel Fish:

Bonus AngelFish

This is a really interesting tactic and makes a lot of sense: the marginal loss of introducing a new digital product/item has got to be pretty low for Zynga and a very cheap way of enticing more users to subscribe to the email list. Email marketing has an excellent ROI to begin with so this strategy was probably very lucrative indeed.

Offering customers something of real value is a well known approach to gathering email addresses and it works really well!

What can you offer your customers that is cost effective for your business and a big win for them? Great examples from around the web are as simple as Unbounce’s landing pages featuring free eBooks or more advanced products such as Hubspot’s website marketing grader.

Zynga have used this tactic regularly. Here’s another example of a little prompt to encourage users to enter their email: this time asking them to ‘confirm their account’ (great copy) in exchange for a special offer:

Zynga Confirm Your Account

Another simple and effective example of value combined with super direct copy.

Here’s a few more examples to show how prolific this strategy is for Zynga:

Zynga Get a Free Jacket Email

Daily Fuel Email

Use the force: psychology at play

Another tactic comes from Mafia Wars, where Zynga would randomly display this locked vault promotion that customers must subscribe to in order to unlock.

Psychology can always be used to enhance an offer or drive an action. In this case the power of the unknown, combined with an incentive, is used to drive customers to provide their email.

Locked Vault Promotion from Zynga

I also imagine Zynga were very savvy about who saw this promotion. Were they targeting users for whom they did NOT have an email (obviously) but were regular, active users? How often were they targeting, etc.?

Combined with the intrusive nature of the popup, the allure of mystery and the offer of real value (the loot you could score) I’m sure Zynga did well with this promotion.

Flat out asking

Have you ever asked your customers to share your email subscription?

Me neither! But apparently, it can work.

Assuming you send emails that are valuable referrals will help grow your list naturally over time.

Imagine for a second that you asked your customers to help you spread the word. Sound scary?

This popup is an example of the sort Zynga actively displayed to users who had just subscribed to their email marketing whilst playing online.

Zynga Share With Your Friends

This example is pretty straight-forward: invite your friends to join our list. It’s something I haven’t seen much before and is an interesting idea to test.

For Zynga, this makes sense as it is inline with their viral tactics to consistently encourage their users to share Zynga games with their friends.

I recently read that Zynga used their massive email marketing list to give players the ability to invite more than the daily limit of Facebook friends (Facebook limits the number of invites inside Facebook itself).

If a customer invited more than the blocked amount the first series of invites would go out via Facebook and the rest would be sent by Zynga via email on behalf of the player. This is pretty sneaky (so not necessarily recommended) but it’s a very interesting tactic if it’s true.

…perhaps this is proof?

Email Marketing Invite your Friends

An example of actively encouraging referrals that I’ve seen outside of social gaming is from Sacha Grief who used a referral program to increase subscriptions to his very useful ‘Sidebar’ mailing list.

It worked out pretty well for Sacha so what can you do to encourage your subscribers to share your email marketing updates with their friends?

5. Get STRAIGHT to the point

In nearly all of the emails we’ve reviewed here, Zynga has done pretty well at the top five things you should check-off when writing a marketing email:

  1. Do you have a direct call to action? Be loud and clear. Nearly all of the emails mentioned here have a single call to action and use a nice clear, contrasting button to deliver it. They often repeat the CTA as well. Nailed it.

Email Marketing Direct Call To Action

Email Marketing Single Call To Action

  1. Don’t go image-crazy: Images are good but make sure some of your email is readable and, ideally, your CTA clickable, without images being required. Use ALT tags whenever you DO include images to help guide users who don’t turn images on.
  2. Highlight the benefit. Why am I going to convert from your email? What’s in it for me? Make this obvious. This post from last week has lot of examples, both good and bad, of highlighting the benefit of interacting with a campaign.

Email Marketing What is the benefit?

  1. WHY am I getting this email? Heavily related to point three, it’s ideal if your customer has a frame of reference for the emails they receive. There is nothing less effective than an email your customer doesn’t want, expect or understand. You’d be surprised how often this happens.
  2. Consistent tone: Once you find your voice, stick with it! Zynga’s emails are all fun: they are consistent with their imagery, copy and the images all seem to come from one source.

So, where to begin?

Zynga has huge scale and lots of room to test their email marketing ideas.

What can you learn from the five points above?

Start by thinking about some creative campaigns you can send your customers based on their interactions with your website.

Secondly, how can you make your email marketing value proposition super clear? Zynga made the value of their emails clear enough that people that people blogged about these campaigns and, most importantly, clicked through and engaged.

A few tools I’d recommend considering for creating emails like this:

  1. For testing fancy emails with images: Litmus.
  2. Improving readability of emails with images: Mozify.
  3. Setting up and tracking emails like those you see here: Vero.
  4. Tracking referrals and powering rewards: Curebit (eCommerce) and Ambassador (SaaS).

As ever, feel free to get in touch with me directly if you’d like me to review your campaigns and suggest some ideas like those I mention above. Just email me directly.

What do you like (or dislike) about these Zynga campaigns? What other social gaming companies have you seen do email marketing well?

PS – thank you to FarmvilleFreak for some of these images. You can find them here (I told you that some Zynga players were dedicated to these sorts of emails!)

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