Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield opened their now famous ice cream chain with $12,000 and $5 spent on a ten-day correspondence class on “How To Make Ice Cream.”

Today, they own a multimillion-dollar corporation, and their decisions are monitored closely.

When the company’s UK branch decided to take a break from sending its monthly email marketing messages last month, it caused a bit of a storm in the digital marketing world.

But it turns out Ben & Jerry’s isn’t abandoning email. I spoke with Kate O’Brien, Ben & Jerry’s Global Marketing Manager, about what happened, and how Ben & Jerry’s really feels about email and social media marketing.

Can you explain what happened with your email program in the UK?

I’m not really sure what to say about the e-mail program in the UK. I think maybe the messaging was a little bit strong for what really is happening. I don’t think they’re really dropping email. But I would have never guessed that it would be talked about so much in the blogosphere. I was really amazed. I think we were a little bit stunned for a few days, going, “Really?” We thought it would kind of go away, and then we’re like, “Oh, no. We probably should address this.”

When I got the email from the UK, I would have never guessed that it would be so talk-worthy.

Do you think Ben & Jerry’s elsewhere might pull back on email?

I’m the global digital marketing manager. But when it comes to the very local decisions, that’s really up to the brand champion in the country. I manage all the activity for the US. And what I have found is that those things — social, email, web site and advertising — working together is the best mix.

All of them cross-referencing each other has really been a best practice for us.

What are the benefits specifically of email marketing for Ben & Jerry’s?

I guess I feel passionate about email because of the way we grew the
list. I don’t go out and really advertise the list. It turns
out to be a powerful tool because it’s truly handraisers. We don’t have
big offers of, “Sign up for our email and get free ice cream.” It’s people who truly want to hear about our company and what we’re

We get really strong open rates and click-through rates when
we hit our chunk mailers (That’s what we call our email: ChunkMail.) When we
hit our chunk mailers, most of the time that’s what sparks the
conversation on Twitter, even if we haven’t said anything on Twitter

Are there drawbacks to email marketing?

Let’s just talk about new flavors. It’s probably the most relevant thing Ben & Jerry’s can talk about, right? When we have a new flavor message, then it’s on Twitter, it’s on Facebook, it’s on our web site, and it’s always on email. The email does take a little bit more planning. Because the turnaround time is longer. We’re getting a bit spoiled, because we can do a status update to a million people in five minutes on Facebook, but we have to plan maybe a week or two in advance for an email.

I could definitely see how the tendency could be away from email. If you were someone really cramped with time, that that could be an issue. But we really go at it with all of those things. I mean, one time we tried to do a new flavor announcement just on Twitter. And so we told people on Facebook that we were doing it on Twitter, and they got very upset.

The people on Facebook were like, “Why aren’t you telling me here? I’m here. Just tell us.”

We thought we were being clever.

How about tracking customers? Does social make that easier for you?

No, I think it’s a little more difficult to track. Another thing that’s a little more difficult to track with social media is the targeting.

I don’t really love to send people new flavor messages where it’s not relevant to them. And I send messages all the time. But I’m just going focus on new flavor messaging, because it’s just easier to articulate. I can send an update about a new flavor in the United States, but they’re maybe not gonna get that flavor in Canada. And so it’s harder for me. I know Facebook has the targeted status updates, which have been great. But Twitter is a little more difficult. It’s also hard to know who you’re reaching. It doesn’t really tell you the breakdown.

I just recently targeted Boston. I did a Facebook status update. And I didn’t really get the response that I thought I would get. And so I was like, “Who got that?” Nobody could have gotten it, for all I know.

Have you seen any declines in open rates of email effectiveness recently?

We’ve seen slight declines, but nothing that would be alarming for us. We track open rate, click-through rate and deliverability rate. We’ve been able to surpass consumer packaged goods benchmarks for sure. But I think I would expect that from us, since we’re talking about ice cream. And usually really good flavors.

Would you say that marketing ice cream makes your job easier?

I feel lucky that I get to talk about ice cream with people who love ice cream every day. I mean, I’m really glad I’m not at BP right now, and doing the same job. I’m sure that is more challenging. But I don’t want to say that my job’s so easy. I just do feel lucky. But I feel like if you’re in business, there’s a reason you’re in business. You need to figure out what problem you’re solving for people, and that’s how you’ll fit into their social media realm. That’s how you’ll fit into their world.

People have got to be passionate about you. That’s why you’re in business. But I still do feel lucky that I get to talk to people about ice cream.

What have you done lately that has been particularly successful?

One of the things I’m really excited about right now is our iPhone App. We launched it in March. And we really wanted to get it out quickly in time for Free Cone Day, with just the basics. It had a flavor freezer, so you could see all of our flavors, in scoop shops and in pints. And the scoop shop locator. It had a countdown to Free Cone Day.

And then we’ve evolved it since then, to include a Mystic Moo. It’s sort of a fun flavor finder, where you can ask our Gypsy Cow, Mystic Moo, what flavor you’re in the mood for. It’s just a fun novelty piece. But in the most recent launch, about a month ago, we launched with Augmented Reality.

Is that Moo Vision?

Yes, Moo Vision is augmented reality. If you hold your phone over one of the four designated pints of ice cream, then we’ll tell you the story of “It’s what’s inside that counts.” So, if you hold your phone over New York Super Fudge Chunk, we tell you the story of Chunk Generosity, and all of the different Chunks that are in that flavor.

When you hold your phone over the other three stories, we’ll tell you about the cage free chickens that make the eggs that go into our products. We’ll tell you about the family farms that our milk and cream comes from. And then our fair trade cocoa, in the other flavors. It’s just a really good way for us to extend the story, and to tell you it’s what’s inside that counts.

How do you approach the issue of spreading socially aware messaging without turning off customers?

I think that’s something we have a challenge with all the time. I mean, we try and have as much content on our web site as possible. And really just use the packaging, and use any means we can to let people know about these issues. With fair trade, we made an announcement earlier this year that we’re going to be spending a lot of time trying to educate the consumers why fair trade is important, and what it means to them.

That might not be the most fun topic. But it’s really important. So we do a “fair trade means good karma” kind of thing. We’ll be talking about that in all of our social spaces.

What’s next?

We’re really excited about moving to fair trade. That’s big. And then, of course, we do have the Boston Scoop Truck passing out free ice cream in Boston for the next four weeks. It’s the Twitter handle @benjerrystruck. And basically we’re just going where the people tell us to go, and giving away free ice cream. It’s fun.