How many of the e-mail newsletters you receive are truly useful? Truly add value? And how many of them place such a high value on your time that they tell you how long it will take to read the article? Don Cooper has such an unusual newsletter that I asked him to tell me about it in an extended interview earlier this year. We talked about a great many things in addition to the newsletter. In the spirit of Don Cooper, this whole article will take you about six minutes to read. Or you can just scan it for the juicy quotes in about 45 seconds.
Don Cooper's roots in sporting goods and ladies apparel
If the name seems familiar to you, there's a good reason. Don started his business career in the family business sweeping floors for five cents a day. As he says, "Long days and low pay, excellent early training for an entrepreneur." The family business was Cooper Sporting Goods, at one time a world leader in hockey equipment, and a Canadian icon with over 3,000 employees.
When manufacturing began to move to China, the family believed the shift in the industry would change the success dynamics. "We had 70% market share without ever paying a professional athlete a nickel because we made better stuff." In the future, however, they believed it would all be "about who could write the biggest cheque to an already overpaid athlete. We chose not to play."
The next business was a small ladies apparel boutique in Markham, a satellite city of Toronto. A few years after opening it was voted Outstanding Innovative Retailer. A succession of awards and honors for this small retailer led to many requests. "The phone started ringing," Don says, with people saying "Can you come and tell us how you did it?"
Don shifted his career again, and is now a speaker, a consultant and a writer, something he's been doing now for two decades, and clearly loving it. And he has a newsletter. An unusual one.
Understanding what life is like for your customers
When Don started issuing e-articles, he made the useful observation that it is hard to tell how long something is going to be, unlike paper, where you can easily tell by the thickness and weight. But you can start to read an e-article based on its catchy title, and "you get to page nine and you ask when are they going to get to the point? And the answer is maybe, never!"
From Don's point of view, no one has the time for the nine-page article anymore. "My commitment to my readers is, if I haven't figured out how to say something on a particular subject or area of marketing or management in 45 to 90 seconds, I haven't thought about it long enough and well enough to take your time with my imperfect thoughts."
So he set a standard that articles would run from 45 to 90 seconds to read, and he would say how long it would take for the average reader to read each article. You see a title and an estimated time to read it.
This to me, was a brilliant insight. It shows tremendous respect for the reader, and instantly communicates a lot about the brand of Don Cooper at the same time.
"To me it's so simple, but it blows people away. It's a matter of sitting down and thinking about what life is really like for our customers and then having the courage and creativity to do what is extraordinary."
Write short and punchy; write like you speak
Don says he trys to apply this respect principle to everything he does in life. Understand the customer, develop some insight into their world, then show some respect for that insight. "I try to apply that to everything I do in life," he says. "So the articles are short and punchy. I write like I speak."
Many of us, he says, "change personality" when we get to the keyboard. "We become much more stiff, much more formal. Nobody actually talks like that."
Having spoken to Don at length, I can attest to his claim that his articles have the same straightforward, straight-talk, no-BS approach that he presents in person. He believes being congruent and consistent in this way is a critical part of branding. "They signed up for your newsletter because they like the way you speak, and if the way you write is nothing like that, you let them down."
You promised them a newsletter, not endless promotions
I have noticed that Don's newsletters are pretty light on the pitch. He agreed, "There's maybe 5% pitch and 95% real value." So many people "call it a newsletter but it isn't. It's a blatant pitch for their stuff."
For Don, this is a question of integrity. But integrity works. "I think the best way to sell your stuff is to send such value and such engaging content in an interesting, thought provoking way that they want more and they ask you how they could do that."
He's speaking my language here. So I ask him what his open rate is, but unfortunately, he does not know, except that it's higher than average.
Is it a lot of work, I ask? Absolutely, he says. But I get the feeling he loves it for it's own sake. He keeps an e-file where he stores ideas, as well as a cardboard file folder for paper notes. "They both get larger every month," he says, adding he never finds a shortage of things to think and write about.
One of the benefits of writing regularly like this, Don says, is that your ability to see things improves. "Your mind turns to thinking about things so you have created a space for wonderful, for ideas, for helpfulness. You've created the possibility and your mind turns to it."
Emotional, functional, and financial value and the magic of connectivity
Don is particularly interested in topics that add emotional value. "There's only three kinds of value in the world, emotional value, functional value, and financial value and they're in that order." Financial value is often placed first, but this is incorrect, according to Don. "Financial value is I paid a good price for all the functional and emotional value I got."
"If we're not adding emotional value to everything we do, to the functional and financial value, then we're missing the magic of connectivity."
It's important to pay attention to sources of value, because every industry is in "a crisis of overcapacity." "The world doesn't need another mediocre anything. Mediocrity is no longer an option."
Don says he is old enough to remember "the days when you could actually make a very good living being medicore in any line of work," but that those days are long gone. Instead, we need to strive to be extraordinary in everything that we do, including "our customer value, our customer experience, our operating efficiency so that we can be well priced and profitable."
And then we need to be sure we tell our story. "There's no point in being the best if you're also the world's best-kept secret."
Be the "caring coach" to your customers
Customers will inevitably leave you, he asserts, because they move, they change, or eventually death takes them. So you constantly have to find new customers, but also nurture relationships with the ones you have.
"We need to build relationships with people who already know us, love us, and trust us and the best way to do that is to create a great database." Any business can do this, Don says. Which all ties back into the newsletter.
People want a "caring coach", someone they trust to help them. "One of the great ways to deliver that help and that value is by creating the database and using it responsibly to delivery news, tips, and updates to our customers."
Thanks, Don, for a fabulous conversation!
Don Cooper was recently interviewed by The Globe and Mail about getting clarity on your corporate goals.
Don Cooper's web site is where you can get his newsletter and other resources.