Email Marketing, a Citi Bike Story

One of the many privileges of working on the HubSpot Academy team is that I get to teach a handful of our inbound marketing training classes. These classes are taught to our customers and administered via GoToTraining. We cover the whyhow and what of HubSpot software. We teach inbound marketing methodology, discuss best practices/tactics and walk through HubSpot software’s various moving parts.

One of my favorite classes to teach is Email.

Email marketing has been on my mind a lot these days. Despite having been cited by marketers as one of the best marketing channels in terms of ROI, many companies continue to fall short in their email marketing efforts.

As an example, I received an email from recently-launched Citi Bike, whom I gave my email address to several months ago via an “I’m interested to hear more information when you launch” landing page.

Let’s walk through the email. I’ll provide honest opinions and suggestions.

This is how the email arrived in my inbox.

There are two things I’m looking for here. Who the email is coming from, and what the subject line is. Citi Bike is relatively clear, but it would be much better if this email was sent from Tom @ Citi Bike or Pamela @ Citi Bike. Research shows that folks are much more inclined to engage with an email that comes from a real person.

I like the subject line, “The Bikes are Coming!” It’s short, clear and compelling. I’m wondering if Citi Bike A/B tested that subject line at all. Granted, open rates aren’t the most reliable metric in the world, but they can still be useful when benchmarking emails sent to similar lists.

Let’s open the email.

Everything you’re seeing in this screenshot is above the fold, meaning this is what I can see on my laptop screen without having to scroll down. As a best practice, email marketers should place their most important content and call-to-action above the fold.

1. Again, I’d rather see a specific person here. Why can’t the email come from or As a communal organization that targets a very specific buyer persona, Citi Bike could get more personalized here. As email marketers, we need to create emotional connections with reader at every opportunity.

2. Nice! Love to see this. Despite email marketers’ best efforts, it is difficult to design emails that render properly on a growing myriad of email-friendly devices. This option is a nice backup for folks who have formatting troubles.

Here’s where I’m starting to ask myself, OK, what’s the goal of this email?

Every email a company sends needs to a) build or nurture a relationship with the reader, b) offer some kind of value to the reader and c) drive one primary form of engagement via a click. As email marketers, we always want to drive our email recipients to take some kind of action, as it allows us to better measure the effectiveness of an email. How will we know where to improve if we don’t track click-through or conversion rates?

With that said:

3. I wouldn’t feature social media buttons in such prime email template real estate. Is connecting via social media the primary purpose of this email? Probably not. What about letting me know when the bikes are coming? I’m expecting to see a date at this point.

Also, I’d nix “Friend Us,” “Tweet Us” and “Forward Us.” Those actions are implied in the icons themselves and not necessary.

4. Nice fluidity between the email subject and this main title, but I’d still like to see more. Again, this is the only thing I can read without having to scroll down. At this point, I should be able to see a specific link to click, and I should understand why and how clicking that link is going to provide value.

1. They’re asking me to become an annual member? As a reminder, at this point all I’ve done is poked around their website for more information several months ago. I’m early in the buying process. I filled out one form with my name and email. That’s like asking a girl to marry you on the first date!

What should Citi Bike put here, then? What about a link to their station map? Or a reminder as to how things work? I need to be wooed and educated here, folks. I haven’t even seen what their bikes look like!

2. Most effective emails are less than 200 words. This paragraph can be tightened up. That, and I’m still not being provided a clear call-to-action yet. What link am I supposed to click? That link should be in the first few sentences, at the very top of the email.

1. There’s the link! Too bad it points directly to their home page. A decent call-to-action, but not nearly as effective as sending me somewhere more specific, like the How It Works page. That’s a more actionable and compelling request.

2. There’s redundancy here between this text and the social media icons above. Not sure this line is necessary.

3. Ooh, I like what I’m seeing here. The ability to update my subscription preferences? Say I’m interested in receiving their monthly newsletter, but not these annual membership email blasts. Usually, a link like this would point to a page where I can select what type of emails I’d like to receive from Citi Bikes, or at least how often I’d like to receive them.

Unfortunately, I’m not being offered much. I like that Citi Bike is using MailChimp to send emails, but because I know how easy it is to manage multiple email lists in MailChimp, I’m disappointed that I’m not being given more opportunities to engage or tweak my relationship on this page.

3 thoughts on “Email Marketing, a Citi Bike Story”

  1. Great post Alan!

    Totally agree that the email takes a big leap of faith and makes a lot of assumptions.

    What are the chances that the majority of those who gave their email address to Citi Bikes months back were just sitting at their computer waiting to get an email to signup for a year membership!

    I don’t blame the marketing fully for this, because I bet if we look at the KPI’s the marketers have a goal of getting X amount of annual subscriptions.

    The logical thing to do is to send an email to those who expressed interest letting them know they can signup for an annual membership for a discount…or is it.

    As you mentioned and I agree with, they are asking you to marry them (become their customer) on the first date. It could be argued that bad news early is good news, but not in this situation.

    Sending 3-5 emails over the next few months focused on building engagement, sharing and excitement would have most certainly generated high click through rates & annual subscriptions.

  2. This is a useful review and I agree with the points you made. I can only wonder why companies of this size wouldn’t hire people that keep track of the issues you are addressing as none of them appear to be difficult to implement.
    One thing though about the “update subscription preferences”:
    In your experience as well as others reading here, do your subscribers really make a lot of use of that functionality? This seems very techie to me. Just saying, the average user will never update their preferences, will they?

    1. Hi Nico,

      Great question. I’ve used this option with a few companies. Off the top of my head, Bonobos, a retailer that gave me the choice of how often to receive their emails. Once a week, once a month or once every couple of months. Thought that was a nice touch and selected once a month. I know that the Harvard Business Review blog does something similar. Another use case – I’ve seen companies create certain email types for customers vs. non-customers too so if, as a customer, you don’t want to subscribe to the newsletter, you can still receive customer-specific emails.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *