People crave authenticity. Now more than ever.
Because with all the online ‘noise’ we’re hit with every day, folks now instinctively tune out anything they see as insincere, corporate bullshit.
There’s plenty of research to back this up, by the way.
So how have a lot of marketers (especially at larger companies) reacted to this clear desire for ‘authenticity’?
The word ‘authentic’ has been thrown around so often during the past 2-3 years that it’s become just another hollow marketing cliche.
And that’s too bad. Because authentic marketing does matter. And it does work.
But it’s something you can’t do on shallow level. It requires intimacy, honesty and even showing vulnerability.
Rather than lecture, I’d like to show you how effective it can be.
Back when I focused exclusively on travel copywriting, I helped this small travel company bring in an additional 2,718 new inbound inquiries in less than a year (roughly 30-40% of their inbound lead total) with an email autoresponder series based on authentic, value-packed storytelling.
They even hired an extra employee to help them respond to all the new inquiries coming through.
What follows is an in-depth look at how a blend of marketing strategy and authenticity can help brands build a meaningful relationship with their audience.
How I Helped Alaska.org get 2,718 New Inbound Inqueries By Using Genuine, Personal Storytelling
Bob Kaufman loves Alaska.
You can tell just by talking to him. The raw enthusiasm he has for the state shines in his voice through even during mundane business calls.
In fact, Bob’s been obsessed with the place since he first scaled the top of Mount McKinley in 1986.
Today, he lives in Anchorage where he runs Alaska.org — a stunning website filled with pages of detailed content that helps travelers plan a vacation to “America’s Last Frontier.”
For for those who’d prefer not to arrange the trip themselves or are overwhelmed by all of the information out there, Alaska.org offers to put them in touch with the best Alaska-based travel planner to help them plan and book their trip.
Their website gets loads of traffic. And they also have a growing list of subscribers who opt into a newsletter after requesting a free travel planner.
And that’s where Bob needed my help.
He faced an email marketing challenge that loads of entrepreneurs and business owners struggle with…
“How Do I Get The Most Out Of My Email List?”
Bob and his team would send out monthly email blasts talking about the latest offers or Alaska must-sees, but engagement remained low.
And Bob knew they could be doing a better job of connecting with travelers on that list. He wanted more people to reach out.
So I did what we always do at Good Funnel — I followed a process of Research, Strategy and then Copywriting & Content Creation.
Along the way, I ran into a few surprises about Bob’s audience.
Research: The Surprising ‘Disconnect’ We Uncovered
The research phase of the project had three main parts:
- Analysis of personas and other marketing research from Alaska Tourism
- Email surveys to Alaska.org’s existing subscribers
- Qualaroo pop-up surveys on Alaska.org
When I analyzed the results, two clear persona types emerged as the main visitors to the Alaska.org website:
- “Mainstream” travelers who want to see just the highlights
(those who prefer cruises and large group tours)
- “Independent” travelers who want to get off the beaten path
(those who prefer self-drive tours and experiencing “real” Alaska)
The independent traveler persona made up the majority of Alaska.org’s subscriber list.
But here’s where things got interesting.
The data showed that the independent travelers often struggled with certain aspects of planning their trip, especially when it came to figuring out how to get an Alaska experience that wasn’t focused on just “tourist traps.”
A lot of people find that planning an Alaska vacation on their own is tricky because the state is so big.
Here are a few examples of voice of customer data we got back while doing research:
“I usually plan all of our trips myself, but I’m a bit out of my element here since it seems there is so much to see and do.”
“If scheduling a self-tour vacation was easy, we would be coming next year. Right now, not so sure if we have time to make all of the phone calls and arrangements”.
These are the sort of problems that many local Alaska travel planners specialize in solving by creating customized plans. That way, the logistics are all sorted out, but the traveler still has the freedom to get off the beaten path.
But independent travelers didn’t realize there was a solution to their problem.
In fact, the data showed that they associated travel counselors with rigid itineraries. It was something the cruise-ship crowd did — not them. They said stuff like:
“I don’t want to use a travel agent because I’ll be stuck to an itinerary.”
So there was a disconnect there. People’s perceptions about travel planners was a huge barrier to them to reaching out and getting the help they needed.
Regardless of anything else, these independent folks wanted one thing: to experience Alaska like a local. But they didn’t always know how to do it.
So we decided to show them.
Strategy: The ‘Authentic’ Autoresponder Approach
These independent travelers were (rightly) skeptical of all the flashy, big-budget tourism marketing out there.
So we went in the opposite direction. Readers would get insight into what a real Alaska trip was like — even if it didn’t always meet their expectations.
Remember when I mentioned how enthusiastic the client, Bob Kaufman, was about Alaska?
Well, my hypothesis was that by putting Bob’s stories and advice about exploring Alaska front and center in an autoresponder series we could accomplish 3 main goals:
- build a relationship with the reader and prove that Bob is a knowledgeable, trusted expert
- educate the reader as to the true value of using a travel planner and address misconceptions that they are only useful for booking package tours
- tackle readers’ top fears, questions and objections about traveling to Alaska
And that would translate into an increase in both email engagement and requests for help in booking a trip.
But we also had to make it clear: this type of Alaska experience isn’t for everyone. It’s especially not for those looking to hit the all highlights before hopping back on their cruise ship.
That honesty was important.
So working closely with Bob, I created an email autoresponder sequence with the promise of showing the aspiring traveler “How to Get Off The Beaten Path in Alaska.”
This wasn’t just another newsletter. It was a complete, interconnected 17-part story dripped out over 80 days.
The 80-day timeframe loosely coincided with the average booking time for travelers well into the “research stage” of their trip-planning process, which is when they were most likely to opt into the autoresponder series.
Content: The audience told us what to write about
All the qualitative research we did formed the basis of the email strategy.
I sifted through surveys and other voice of customer data, watched for trends and then organized the results into categories based on topics that would help us tell our story and give the audience the information they wanted.
For example, after seeing a trend in survey responses like this from Alaska travelers:
Do not want to get sucked into the totally tourist trap activities.
I want to see what real Alaska life is like, not just tourist attractions.
To experience the Alaska way of life.
I worked with Bob to write an email that detailed his favorite experiences that would give people a taste of real Alaska life.
It went out with the subject line “Most tourists never see this stuff…”
(You can read the email here)
And when I saw that many aspiring Alaska travelers said they were concerned about dealing with cold weather in the summer, we tackled that objection with an email that gave the facts on summer temperatures in Alaska.
It was a very personal message that quashed any weather misconceptions by talking about how Bob’s kids love swimming in a local lake.
Every single e-mail created was in response to:
- a problem the audience wanted to solve
- an experience they wanted to have
- an objection to traveling to Alaska
- a fear or anxiety they expressed
Put another way, these emails helped the reader achieve their ultimate goal of getting the exact Alaska vacation they wanted.
Each topic = 1 part of a relationship-building story
Every email had a specific role to play.
Here’s roughly what it looked like:
High e-mail frequency. Content focused on ‘top-of-funnel’ topics that would interest travelers in the early planning stage of their trip.
- Readers are introduced to Bob and his love of Alaska
- They’re shown that it’s not always easy to get “off the beaten path” in Alaska. But with the right local advice, it can be done.
- They’re given a fast-paced stream of content featuring little-known Alaska attractions and other local advice — all based on personal stories
Climax (ie. the ultimate solution to their problem):
- After earning their trust, Bob shows how locally-based Alaska travel planners are the best source of advice for anyone who wants to “get off the beaten path.”
- Main call to action email: Bob asks those who are ready to book to get in touch.
Lower email frequency. Content focused on more bottom-of-funnel topics that would interest travelers closer to booking or finalizing their trip plans.
- Content is now more focused on answering questions readers are likely to have before finalizing their trip.
- Objections and Alaska “myths” are busted
- More frequent calls to action for the reader to “get in touch” if they would like to chat with a local travel planner.
By the end of this “story,” the main character (the reader) has undergone a change. He or she now has a greater understanding of what it takes to “get off the beaten path” in Alaska.
Plus, the person has a different perception of travel planners: they’re not just for the cruise-ship crowd — speaking to them has value even for those who prefer the roads less traveled.
And throughout the entire story arc, readers got to know Bob a little better.
They learned about how his dream of climbing Mount McKinley almost didn’t happen.
They related to the stories he told.
And most of all, they formed a bond with a guy who honestly wants to help people get the most out of their Alaska vacation.
Although I did write the final drafts of the emails (based on Bob’s notes, draft emails he wrote and interviews with him), it was his stories that really drew people in. Here’s one recent reply from a subscriber:
“Your website has been a HUGE help and I planned the land portion of our trip largely by reading your tips and pointers 🙂 I’ve spent hours going through everything….All the information is accurate and up-to-date. And mostly it seems genuine and from the heart. So two thumbs up.”
4 More Things That Made This Autoresponder Work
1) Empathy to build a deeper connection
Before Bob moved to Alaska, he used to travel there on vacation. And just like the target audience, Bob craved getting off the beaten path and seeing what real Alaska life was like. That made him someone that independent travelers could relate to and see themselves in as they read his emails.
2)Visual language to get them daydreaming
Sure, images are essential. But using sensory-rich language to describe Alaska activates more of the readers’ brain cells by causing them to think more deeply about what they’re reading. And research shows that the more a person thinks about a product, service or experience, the more they will want it.
3) Open loops to keep them reading
This kept the open rates consistently above 40%. Taking a page from master autoresponder copywriter Andre Chaperon, I ended each email with an open loop that built anticipation for the next message. A cliffhanger, basically.Whenever possible, I created the ‘loop’ by raising a problem that the reader could only solve by opening the next email. For example:
4)Micro-conversions to build up to the final ‘ask’
E-mail marketers all have different opinions on how to “sell” in emails. But really, it depends on where the readers are most likely to be in the sales funnel.
In this case, we knew that many people who opted into the autoresponder were likely in the early phase of their Alaska vacation research. Some might be ready to talk to a travel planner at this point, but many weren’t. That changed over time as they became more educated about Alaska.
So as touched on in the storyboard above, I focused on providing “micro-conversions” at the beginning of the sequence to get them into the habit of taking action. As the series went on, the “get in touch” call to action became more obvious.
Creating this autoresponder series required a lot of hard work from everyone. But it paid off…
“I got into this project thinking I was hiring a writer to write some email newsletters. The research Dustin did into who our customers are was probably the biggest breakthrough I’ve had in understanding our customers in ten years. There’s a whole science behind the reader’s psychology that you’d never know about if you don’t do this for a living.”
Bob Kaufman, Alaska.org
Summing it up…
Some people think the idea of “authentic marketing” is an oxymoron. Obviously, I don’t agree.
Effective marketing isn’t about hyping up a brand or making a company look “perfect.” It’s about building relationships and earning trust.
But in order for authentic marketing to pay off, it also needs a research-driven strategy behind it.
You still have to understand who your customers are, the exact problems they struggle with and how to best position your solution. Essentially, you need a plan.
Do it right and your brand will resonate with the exact type of people who’ll be customers for life.
Special thanks to Bob Kaufman and Zen Godfrey at Alaska.org for allowing us to share this story so others can learn from it.