Have you heard about MailChimp?
There are many success stories of online businesses that were built from scratch and grew out to be leaders in their industries.
Who is MailChimp and how did it all start?
“I’ve been responding to questions about email’s imminent death for 16 years. The truth is, it’s great for e-commerce. If you spend a dollar on email, you get back $43 in extra sales.” (Ben Chestnut, MailChimp’s co-founder and chief executive)
We know that MailChimp is all about email marketing and that their services are in many ways, the best in the industry.
Let’s stop for a second, and ask ourselves: “What do we really know about the company?”; “What made them what they are today and how did they grow to be on top?”
The story of a side project based on a failed project’s code
Well, it wasn’t as simple as it might seem and it wasn’t a short road. In fact, the business founded by Ben Chestnut and Dan Kurzius was not even focused on email marketing in the beginning.
They did not aim to build a marketing colossus with millions of customers but instead, to try and help their existing customers with a better way to send their emails.
At the beginning of this century, the two founders were working together as web designers. When customers started asking them about how to send emails, the two dug up some old piece of code that was already written for a failed project and laid out the basis of what we know today as MailChimp.
For a few years, however, the new business remained a side project.
It was only in 2007 when the founders realized that web design is not what they were longing for and as a consequence, they decided to go all-in on MailChimp.
Email marketing was a risky business back then when over 70% of the total emails received by Internet users were accounted as spam.
The stats did not discourage Ben Chestnut, who saw an opportunity for a growing business here.
He knew that email marketing was effective then and expected the trend to be popular in the future as well. He was able to comprehend how important this delivery channel may become over the next few years.
He was right.
Today, the total spam emails that reach the users are at an average of 50-60 percent and the numbers are expected to drop even more. Moreover, email marketing has been proven to be one of the most effective marketing strategies and now, it is more popular than ever.
A quick view on spam stats in 2007
A quick view on spam stats in 2017
How MailChimp developed as a reliable service
Right from the beginning, MailChimp focused on the small business marketing environment. Their strategy was great because small businesses represent a huge part of the total American market.
This niche helped MailChimp grow into the email marketing giant we know and use today.
“Every time we sat down with potential investors, they never seemed to understand small business. Everybody we talked to said, ‘You’re sitting on a gold mine, and if you pivot to the enterprise, you could be huge,’ but something in our gut always said that didn’t feel right,” Mr. Chestnut said in an interview for the New York Times.
It wasn’t only the community, however, who was responsible for MailChimp’s success.
Over the years, the founders took some great marketing decisions and set up a few marketing campaigns that allowed their service to become number one in the industry.
From a paid to a freemium service; the first great marketing decision
As opposed to other successful Silicon Valley startups, MailChimp did not start as a free, not even as a freemium service. In fact, for nearly eight years, they use tocharge their clients for the services provided.
Things changed however in the last quarter of 2009 when MailChimp introduced a freemium option for their services. In just one year, the number of customers grew five times, from 85,000 users to 450,000 users, as Ben Chestnut wrote on the official blog.
This was the first great marketing decision the founder made.
Here you can find the MailChimp pricing page.
Now, MailChimp has over 12 million users and they deliver 1 billion emails each day. And some professionals calls MailChimp the best email marketing service.
Their plans include a free subscription for small companies with up to 2000 email subscribers, a “growing business” plan at $10 per month and a “pro marketer” plan at $199 per month.
You see, therefore, how a small change can trigger a significant shift in a company and make it grow overnight from “just another startup” to a market leader. While it may not seem as such at a first look, this was a marketing strategy and not a technical decision.
It was the point that made Chestnut realize the company can grow even more and therefore, that a new vision in marketing is required in order to get there.
Proximity to the customers
When Ben Chestnut decided to abandon the web design business and go all in with MailChimp, the market was already flooded with competitors. And I am not talking about mere startups with a dozen of employees or less but companies with big budgets, better-capitalized rivals.
According to Chestnut himself, as reported by the New York Times, all these competitors lack in something MailChimp had right from the start: a proximity to its customers.
What does proximity to customers mean and why is it a great marketing strategy?
„Because MailChimp was itself a small business, it understood what those businesses wanted out of their marketing tools. Its offerings were cheaper, it added features more quickly, and it allowed greater customizations to fit customers’ needs”, concluded the aforementioned NYT article.
When it comes to brand development and product marketing, content is the most valuable and cheap way to grow awareness and at the same time, to keep your customers engaged and interested. I am talking about valuable content that is shared by the company through a blog, website or video channel.
MailChimp is no stranger to this strategy.
Their blog is constantly updated and filled with tips, tutorials, news about the company and the industry and various other pieces of information that are valuable to the small business marketer.
Apart from the blog, there is another important section available on their website.
This section that also features valuable content for their clients and occasional readers focuses mainly on tutorials and other types of learning resources that may help them better understand the email marketing as a whole and the MailChimp features and services in particular.
Ingenious marketing campaigns
Apart from the blog, the great services and the close relationship with their customers, MailChimp has been proven over the years as a great marketer. The company knows how to advertise their brand and services and they always manage to do it better than their competition.
Starting with their logo, their entire marketing, and advertising strategy focuses on the customer, on making the brand a loveable one and of course, on doing everything as it should be done in order to achieve maximum results.
Let’s take a quick look at MC’s strategies over the years and learn as much as we can from this great brand.
1. Great logo design
Frederick von Chimpenheimer is the name of MailChimp’s logo and mascot.
A friendly face that although evolved through the years, it manages to be an honest representation of the MailChimp brand. It is funny, creative and easy to remember.
While a great mascot or brand logo cannot substitute a marketing strategy, it may help build the basis of such as strategy. How? Well, every marketer knows how important is the brand and how important is how clients relate to it. What do they see when they are looking at the logo? What do they feel? Are they able to recognize the brand immediately?
In MailChimp’s case, all these questions can be answered immediately. At the same time, the answers are exactly what a successful marketer would expect from a successful campaign. Frederick is easily recognizable and it manages to transmit a positive attitude to the audience.
Moreover, the mascot’s evolution throughout the company’s history was also in line with MailChimp’s vision and values, as you can see from the following image that depicts Freddie back in 2001 and up to 2015:
And lately they done a new rebranding.
2. Out of the box marketing merch: the MailChimp swag
Long before MailChimp was born, Ben Chestnut was already an accomplished designer. As I have already reported earlier, he disliked that job and chose to dedicate himself entirely to developing MailChimp as an email marketing automation tool.
However, the MailChimp swag campaigns are once again a proof that his designer vision was already ahead of its times.
The swag collection market the MailChimp brand through a series of giveaways.
While the products that are shipped for free to the company’s clients are diverse, they all have the same purpose: to make the people happy.
“There’s no way to directly measure the impact of giving away shirts and hats, and that’s OK with us. Thinking about them as gifts, changes our perspective, too. If we considered them primarily marketing expenses, we’d want to figure out how to minimize cost and maximize the brand effect—essentially, we’d be thinking about ourselves. As gifts, we think first about the recipients and about how they’ll feel when they receive the gifts. So we go over the top to make people feel special.” (Mark DiCristina, MailChimp Marketing Director, as reported for Wired.com)
An interesting campaign of these sorts announced a giveaway campaign that featured a series of monkey-themed knit caps for cats. Yes, you’ve read it correctly.
MailChimp’s marketing campaigns are not only funny but also ingenious and out of the box. There was a Vimeo video spot for the campaign and also a Facebook announcement. The campaign took place in 2012 and a cat hat was delivered to every new user that signed up for their services at that time.
As reported in MailChimp’s annual stats, 13,440 cat hats were delivered to new customers which means the campaign was a total success.
Apart from the enthusiasm that giveaway freebies generate among customers, there’s another important piece of information that needs to be cleared here. All MailChimp’s gifts are tested for quality.
They are not pieces of junk that the company throws away at its customers just for the sake of brand awareness. The same Wired.com source cited above clarifies this fact:
“The quality of our merch is a direct reflection on MailChimp and the people who worked together to create it. We’ve got to keep the bar high for ourselves, so we take the quality of our merch really seriously. [For example], as much as we love our shirts, we recently started wondering if we could make them better. Instead of starting with blank shirts, what if we source the fabric and cut them the way we like, too?” DiCristina concluded.
3. The mispronunciation campaign
Another great example of MailChimp’s creativity in marketing and branding comes from a campaign that started in 2017 with audio ads placed inside the popular podcast Serial, a true crime story told by the same people that produced This American Life.
MailChimp is the sole sponsor of the podcast and their 20 seconds ads managed to quickly captivate the audience.
In fact, this is a recent example of how marketing can be conducted by avoiding conventional strategies.
This is an example of how to use your creativity, and come up with something unique and ingenious at the same time.
What’s the campaign about?
The ads are part of a campaign that produces audio and video ads that play off the company’s name without referring to the brand itself in any significant or commercial way.
Initially, there was only one use of the product’s misspelled name as Mail Kimp.
Later, the idea developed into a full marketing campaign that featured video ads as well such as the recently released films called “JailBlimp”, “KaleLimp” and “MailShrimp”.
These videos were screened in select theatres from Atlanta, Chicago, Los Angeles and New York.
“We used mispronunciation as a creative device to inspire all kinds of different executions, knowing that people would be curious about what they were seeing and search for more information. Anyone who searches for MailShrimp or MaleCrimp is asked, ‘Did you mean MailChimp?’” said Mark DiCristina, Senior Director of Brand Marketing, MailChimp. “We have a history of not taking ourselves too seriously and having fun with our name, and this felt like a perfect way to introduce ourselves to potential new customers in a big and creative way.”
4. MailChimp versus the Black Hole
The latest marketing campaign launched by MailChimp features a series of ads (mostly video ads) that depicts some specific benefits of using their services, such as the possibility to use your customer list in order to pinpoint new prospects on Instagram.
The campaign is called “MailChimp vs. the Black Hole”.
As of January 2018, the video series comprises of 7 video ads that are available here. In a funny way, as we are already accustomed with MailChimp, the ads explain to their customers how to use several features of the service, what MailChimp is and how it can help them develop their small business’ marketing strategy.
MailChimp and their creative initiative
We’ve seen so far that MailChimp values creativity and base their marketing strategies on creative campaigns.
Here’s yet another important fact related to this strategic development in marketing:
MailChimp encourages their employees to be creative and they’ve even set up a website just for them.
I am talking about creative.mailchimp.com where “the talented developers, writers, and engineers” they work with, „pull back the curtain and explain” why they do some of the weirder things they do.
Let’s take a quick look at some of their best creative campaigns that they wrote about on this aforementioned blog:
The Chimpington Post
We are all accustomed to college career fairs. Most of us, however, used to attend these events and then come home empty handed due to the fact that most of the companies do not know how to sell their job opportunities to a young audience.
The creative blog describes how designers managed to create „MailChimp’s own collateral to hand out at career fairs”.
Instead of coming up with a brochure or advertising flyers, creatives at MailChimp decided to design a company newspaper called „The Chimpington Post” in which to describe the daily MailChimp life.
The newspaper that was about to be handed to students, featured creative new stories, articles and other important pieces of information.
What does it take to make a Freddie?
If you get back to the first part of this article, you will remember that at some point, I was talking about how MailChimp use to hand out freebies to their customers.
One of these freebies is Freddie, a vinyl toy representing MailChimp’s mascot.
The creative blog also reports about a new campaign that underwent back in 2015, about the process of making these toys. As we’re already accustomed to this company, the campaign was also based on creativity and fun and not on traditional marketing tools.
Instead of explaining the entire production process, MailChimp’s creative designers came up once again with something that was really out of the box. The idea was to have a new video for each new Freddie, revealed at the beginning of each giveaway.
“We tried to take a wide-eyed, childlike approach while producing something that was modest in scope and budget”, Jason writes. „We storyboarded for a couple days and prepped different versions of Freddie. We casted Jane as the hand model, keeping everything internal. At the end of the day we ended up with a fun interpretation of how a vinyl Freddie is created” he added.
Here’s yet another great example of the creativity behind MailChimp’s marketing team. Back in 2014, the Australian design conference, Analogue/Digital, asked them to create a short video spot to be shown during the event throughout each day.
What could they do on a short time notice and on a small budget? Well, they came up with this creative and unique video:
“As a bonus, a few weeks later, we printed out a still photo for our front desk, and then a couple billboards that are up near the office. The feedback’s been great” Jason wrote.
The previous examples came from MailChimp’s creative team. This time, however, I will show you how an intern’s creative work can also inspire us in ways we couldn’t even imagine.
In a 2013 post on creative blog, Mattiel, an intern at that time, reports how she designed one of the best billboards MailChimp had during the last decade. Knowing the level of creativity inside the company, she knew that she needed to create something truly unique, inspirational and at the same time, in line with MailChimp’s values, in order to do a good job.
She reports that one day, walking to class, he challenged himself to list the first ideas that came into her mind. Out of the blue, he thought about „rice”. Yes, you read it correctly; it’s all about rice, the apparently dull and uninteresting cereal grain.
“I hurried home after class and researched crafts with colored rice. I also discovered the term “Rangoli,” a form of Indian folk-art used during festivals and special occasions. The beautiful patterns, colors, and detail-oriented work used to create these pieces made me wonder if I could actually finish one. With some rubbing alcohol, food coloring, and around 53,000 grains of rice, I got to work” he wrote.
She then selected a pattern of ten colors, died the rice to match different shades she needed and started on painting Freddie, starting with the head. The entire work took six days. The photographer came, shot some photos with Mattiel’s artwork and then the entire team destroyed it.
„From this process of creation, completion, and destruction, I understood the beauty of analog artwork in its temporary state. To some degree, everything expires, and in the form of a million multi-colored particles, my hours of deep concentration were spilled back into the universe” she concluded.
Inspirational designs for the customers
I am going to conclude this article by showing you yet another important side of MailChimp’s marketing strategy. As we have already learned from the previous chapters, we know now that MailChimp is a company that focuses on their customers.
Everything they do, starting with their marketing campaigns and up to the constantly updated services, they are all made for the people.
They know that when customers are happy, everyone is happy.
To this end, apart from the creative blog I have already talked about, MailChimp set up another inspirational blog that is meant to help their customers brainstorm for fresh and out of the box ideas.
The blog is called Inspiration and features some of the best email marketing designs their customers have created with MailChimp.
Here you can find all short of MailChimp templates.
MailChimp was not a big company right from the start.
In fact, they serve a good example of how to tread softly and market a brand step by step the proper way by using creativity and out of the box ideas.
It may be a colossus now when it comes to email marketing, but building a company of this amplitude was not an easy task, neither a quick one.
I hope we can all learn a few things from MailChimp in general and Ben Chestnut in particular and find our own inspiration in creating our own unique marketing campaigns.
What are your thoughts and inputs on this story and how much you think you can learn from MailChimp’s example?