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Why email marketing is like selling Bibles

Why email marketing is like selling Bibles Chris Marriott

Email marketing is a lot like selling Bibles.

I already know what you are thinking: "How is he going to possibly connect those two things?!" Well, first you need a little back story.

I was having drinks recently with my old boss Tim Suther, CMO of Acxiom. (Faithful readers of this column will recognize that name, as I have mentioned and quoted from in the past.) I was making the point that marketers in general pay way too little attention to attribution despite the variety of tools available today to better track a consumer's conversion path. Tim responded that it is "easier to sell Bibles than it is religion." In a minute, I'll get to what he meant by that regarding attribution. In a broader sense, the point he was making is something that every single marketer needs to understand and take to heart, whether they are a simple email marketer or a CMO.

The point Tim was making is that it is easier to convince a religious person to purchase a Bible than it is to convert someone to a particular religion. A religious person will understand that a Bible is a good thing to possess, so your job is simply to convince him or her that your Bible is the right one. On the other hand, selling a non-religious person on religion is another whole level of effort, with a much lower chance of success than selling that Bible to the already converted. (It's interesting to note here that marketers also use the word "conversion" when acquiring a new customer).

Translated into marketing terms: It is easier to sell a product than it is to sell a category. If you have to convince your targets that they need shampoo before you sell them your particular brand of shampoo, then you are likely to spend twice as much time -- and twice as much money -- for each conversion and sale. In many instances, the first company to have created a category -- and spent the time and money selling the value proposition of the category -- wasn't the brand that ultimately dominated the category. Think smartphones and RIM. Think Panasonic and flat-screen TVs. Of course, there are many reasons for this. But one of the primary reasons is that it's a lot easier to sell a differentiated product into an existing category than it is to establish the category in the first place.

Sometimes the reason for failure is that the companies and products establishing the category mistake what it is that they have. With the Walkman, Sony thought it had established the personal cassette player category. Apple saw things differently and correctly identified the category as personal music player. Comfortable with the thought that the category was well established by Sony, it launched the iPod and ended up dominating.

As I often do, I digress. It's time to get back to Tim and attribution. The point that he was making was that marketers haven't really bought into the concept of attribution, so it doesn't matter how many tools are available to give marketers the data they need. And I have to agree with him. Because silos are alive and well in so many marketing organizations, no one wants to give partial credit to another channel for a transaction.

In our own world of email marketing, we all know the drill. We often measure what we can, even when the measurements don't match the objectives (e.g., opens and clicks vs. transactions). Too much time in digital marketing is spent on measuring what I consider to be "Potemkin village" metrics. Mirriam-Webster defines a "Potemkin village" as an impressive fa├žade or show designed to hide an undesirable fact or condition. Into this bucket I would put things like Facebook "likes," re-tweets, and -- for email marketers -- the size of the opt-in email list. They might sound good, but they don't represent real results.

Determining the true value of an email campaign requires that you have some way to credit (attribute) all sales influenced by that email campaign. I strongly believe that even unopened emails drive sales both online and offline. But nobody is giving unopened emails any credit today, so far as I know. But it's easy to do so -- if you want to!

There are emerging solutions that allow you to accurately determine the value of your so-called "inactive list" to your email campaigns. These solutions will be able to match site visits and transactions back to your email list. Check out LiveRamp -- a leader of privacy-safe attribution for email lists -- if you want to see how this works. Why aren't brands embracing solutions like this today? Because it's easier to sell Bibles than it is to sell religion! People haven't given over their souls to attribution yet. That said, to get more of your prospects to convert, you yourself first need to do so.

The strength behind the email marketing channel is that, unlike almost every other channel, you are always selling Bibles as opposed to religion. Everyone on your list has agreed to be mailed to and has indicated a preference for your products. This means that you as a marketer need to ensure that your email communications are all about reminding customers why you are different and better than everyone else in your category. Maybe it's because you have better prices. Maybe it's because you have more selection. Maybe it's because you provide a better customer experience. And maybe it's all of the above. The point is that you never need to sell your customers on your product category. They like taking cruises, they enjoy giving flowers, and they know they want a safer car.

OK, so this month's learning didn't actually come from the Bible. But hopefully you will take three things away from this month's column:

  1. As you review your email communications, you need to focus on why you are better than your competitors.

  2. In any new category of goods or services, it's often better to be a fast-follower than it is to be a pioneer.

  3. It's time you got religion on attribution.

Have a great October! See you next month.

Chris Marriott is a data-driven digital marketing consultant.

On Twitter? Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.

"Business couple holding bible" image via Shutterstock.

Chris is the President and Founder of Marketing Democracy, LLC. Marketing Democracy provides email marketers with a range of consulting services around vendor selection (RFPs), vendor migration, and email marketing optimization.  Clients...

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