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How to Get the Best ROI from Your Email

G. Simms Jenkins
How to Get the Best ROI from Your Email G. Simms Jenkins
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Email marketing is booming. A recent DMA study found email delivers the highest return on investment by a landslide-- $57.25 for every dollar spent. Compare that to the ROI of all non-email online marketing, which is $22.52. JupiterResearch predicted email marketing spending will rise to $1.1 billion by 2010. Furthermore, email marketing will account for approximately 71,000 jobs this year in the United States.


This is the perfect opportunity to gain buy-in from your senior management to fully evaluate and improve your email marketing program, but where do you start? Your first step is to focus on a fundamental piece of any email marketing program: the strategy.


Email strategy is often overlooked in the never-ending campaign management cycle. Most daily resources are devoted to the creative, copy and deployment of promotional and newsletter emails. However, like any marketing program, if the goals are not defined and articulated to team members, email campaigns can be adrift at sea, paddling aimlessly with no end in sight.


Proper email strategy often requires a step back from the daily rigors of the email process and a holistic review of the entire email program. While many email managers can barely lift their heads up from their inboxes to see the forest through the trees, an outside email strategy partner is sometimes necessary to bring the programs in line with industry best practices and ensure optimization of internal and external efforts. Besides, who wants to get left in the dust by the competition?


Hiring an email strategy partner can be a complex process in and of itself, so take a look at these tips to help you find and work with the best email strategy partner for you.


Author notes: G. Simms Jenkins is founder and principal of BrightWave Marketing, an Atlanta-based email marketing and customer relationship services firm. Read full bio.

If you want help on your email program, you need to determine what kind of counsel you are seeking and why. A broad audit of your entire email program is very different in scope than seeking outside assistance in analyzing your metrics, improving your response rates or evaluating email templates. With that in mind, be sure to address and define your specific needs internally first.


Dig internally and know what you want
At BrightWave Marketing, we provide all prospective strategy clients with a questionnaire to get the ball rolling on their side. This usually includes asking the client to identify strengths and weaknesses of their program. We also ask the client to define their email goals (not just X open rate but to generate Y in revenue or increase website traffic by Z percent). Some previous engagements have found breakdowns in the clarification of email goals. We have uncovered a few email managers who could not tell us what the end goal was for the email campaigns they managed. If your key day-to-day personnel cannot speak to the big picture goals of your email program, this is a sign that you need help.


The early stages of an email strategy project are probably the most important part of the engagement and will set the tone with the firm you choose. If you don’t know what to ask for, be prepared to be disappointed. The more specific areas you can identify as the ones you want deeply investigated (e.g., your newsletter layout, frequency rules, internal policies and procedures), the more you will receive in return. This will help you develop a request for proposal as well.

Use referrals and reputation to guide you
Like selecting a doctor, lawyer or accountant, referrals by existing clients or peers are important, as is industry reputation. Be sure to contact several client references from the firms you are talking with. Not only do you want to gauge their satisfaction but you also want to try to get some additional insight into other key areas, like how much hand-holding did the firm need and did they immediately disappear after the final deliverables were submitted?


The most relevant question is: did they implement some of the suggestions and were they successful? That can often tell you if yours will be money well spent.


Avoid conflicts of interest
Some other key questions involve asking if the company is aligned with a technology vendor or if it is part of a bigger parent company that has additional service or product offerings. While this isn’t necessarily grounds to eliminate them, you need to be prepared to be upsold, and you should immediately identify any conflicts of interests.


For example, if one of your key areas to focus on in the engagement is growing your email database, a company that has a sister database company may heavily push list rentals or something else that generates incremental revenue for their company. Be sure to verify a company’s independence so they have your best interests at hand and no hidden agendas.


Also, using your own email service provider (ESP) may not be the best idea. For one strategy project we did, we discovered that all replies to the client email campaigns went to the ESP vendor. Unfortunately for the client, they never saw any of these emails. It is unlikely that a vendor would share with you any information that may reflect poorly on them. You should move away from your comfort zone in order to find out how your email program is truly fairing.


For a niche project, use a niche firm
Generally, a company solely focused on email is your best choice. Traditional direct marketing firms may offer some interesting segmenting or customer contact advice but will not be intimately familiar with email deliverability issue or creative best practices. The same goes for broad interactive shops. Most have generalists that assist with email design or campaign management and are limited in deep expertise in the email arena.

Remember you may -- and should -- receive some information that does not paint your email program as high achieving as you had thought. Be prepared to receive some tough love and accept much constructive criticism. If you and your team are not in a position to handle that, your money would be better spent elsewhere.


Know what you are getting/paying for
Both parties should be very clear on what deliverables will be due as well as a timeline for the project. Email strategy projects vary in time, usually based on scope and availability of client resources (for investigative interviews and document coordination).


Email strategy projects generally shouldn’t run more than three months, unless the scope of deliverables and email program components audited are extensive.


Pricing is usually based on an agreed upon hourly rate or a fixed fee based on the projected time and deliverables agreed upon in advance by both parties. 

After your statement of work is signed, your new partner should not disappear only to resurface with a large document months later. Part of the client’s responsibility is providing access to key staff and data that will help shed light on how this email program is performing.


Educate and sell internally
A crucial aspect of an email strategy engagement is properly explaining to all relevant parties what and why this third party will be examining inner email workings. Be sure to tell key stakeholders that this is not a reflection of any disappointment with the team or admittance of failure on anyone’s part, but only a neutral evaluation on ways to improve. You need to get their buy-in or else the findings won’t be embraced or successfully implemented.


Making sense of it all 
After strategy is determined, be sure to have the email strategy vendor come in and present it to all individuals and teams that use email in any capacity. Having at least a few senior management executives at the meeting helps reaffirm your company’s commitment to email marketing. This should not be a one-way presentation. Be sure to come prepared and ask questions on every front.

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