How A Small Problem In Mail Merge Leads To A Big Lesson About Content Marketing

For close to two years, we’ve been sending out a periodic e-newsletter to our prospects, customers and business associates. Since it takes a lot of effort, we’re able to do it only once a month. Even at this relatively low frequency, we’ve found it to be very effective for staying in touch with contacts and nurturing leads, among other things. To quote just one example of this newsletter’s value, we¬†recently signed a deal from a prospect who had gone cold for 14 months but got back to us when he had a need only because he was receiving our newsletters regularly in the interim period.

We normally send out this newsletter around the end of each month. Last year, the date coincided with Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights. So we wanted to add a “Happy Diwali!” line in our newsletter but only to those people in our subscription list for whom the festival was relevant.

This included all India-based subscribers. Despite its Hindu origins, Diwali has become pretty much a secular festival in India. By the same logic, when it came to subscribers located outside India, we decided to keep the greeting for all Persons of Indian Origin (PIOs).

We decided to skip the greeting for others.

This necessitated the following two versions of the newsletter:

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Even we thought the blank line in the second version was not nice.

Before telling you how we overcame this problem, here’s the list of steps we followed to generate two versions of the newsletter.

  1. In the Excel-based list of our newsletter subscribers, we added a new column called “DiwaliGreeting”.
  2. Under this column, we entered the following formula: =IF(N12=”India”,1,”?”). This automatically populated a “1” for all contacts based out of India and a “?” for those living outside.
  3. We read the name of the contact and, if the contact was a PIO, overwrote the “?” symbol with a “1” or, otherwise, with a “0”. We couldn’t find any formula that could figure out whether a person was a PIO or not based on their name, so we couldn’t automate this step.
  4. In the Word document, just after the salutation line, we used the If…Then…Else command with¬†the following values:

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That’s it.

While v1 of the email came through fine, there was a blank line in v2, which we wanted to suppress.

After a quick Google Search, we visited half a dozen websites that explained how to suppress such blank lines in Word Mail Merge.

Unfortunately, all solutions used Mail Merge code, which was Greek and Latin to me (Memo to Microsoft: In the early 1990s, I was tired of WordStar and WordPerfect’s cryptic .WP and .WL commands. You launched Word, which replaced these cryptic commands with very user-friendly GUIs. I switched to Word and stayed with it for the next two decades. If you’re now going to start complicating things by putting code inside Word documents, I’m going to start searching for another word processing software).

But, for now, we were stuck with Word, so I got one of my more technically-savvy colleagues to have a go. After tweaking some code here and there, we suddenly found the document wobbling unsteadily. Yes, literally wobbling, like the following screenshot illustrates:

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When Word documents start wobbling

For those of you who’re wondering how a plain vanilla document can develop fits, anything with code inside it is no longer plain vanilla.

Given enough time, I’m sure we could’ve cracked this problem and found a technically elegant solution. However, it wouldn’t have made sense to wait until Christmas to send a Diwali greeting. So, we used a quick-and-dirty workaround that replaced the blank line by “Greetings from GTM360 Marketing Solutions!”

Problem solved!

In this specific issue of the newsletter, this line only appeared in emails where the “Happy Diwali!” line was inappropriate. However, I found that it made the email sound more cordial and decided to standardize it in all editions of the newsletter in future.

While I didn’t solve the basic Mail Merge problem, I was happy find a workaround that made a lot more sense in the larger context of content marketing.

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