The successors of dead email best practices

We all know the old philosophy 101 question: "If a tree falls in a forest, and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?" While many years have passed since that class, I see the same riddle played out daily in interactive direct marketing: If marketers call something a best practice, and no one actually does it, is it really a best practice?

Let us take a look at some commonly prescribed best practices for email and SMS marketing that most marketers fail to put into practice. I believe that we can all become more effective marketers by examining what makes these practices so hard to employ.

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Retain unsubscribes by offering to reduce frequency
No marketer likes to lose subscribers, yet all marketers generally agree that raising frequency of emails or SMS messages will cause unsubscribe and silent unsubscribe (i.e., completely unresponsive) behavior to increase. As a result, we often recommend that marketers offer a reduction option during the unsubscribe process and/or that marketers attempt to reactivate non-responsive subscribers by offering them a reduced frequency option. Yet very few marketers ever seem to avail themselves of this option.

Why marketers avoid this best practice: Reducing message frequency demands more than simply cutting emails or SMS messages in half. Let's take a retailer as an example. Suppose this retailer sent weekly deal emails and allowed subscribers to cut frequency down to every other week. Which deals would those subscribers see? The regular weekly email from that week? All the deals from the past two weeks? A selection of the best deals from the past two weeks? Moreover, many marketers lack the resources to create more than one version of a major communication.

As an alternative, try: Reduce frequency for all of your subscribers and create additional mailing for subscribers who respond to other messages. For instance, to go back to our hypothetical retailer above, that marketer could reduce everyone to a biweekly email and then send an additional email in the off week either to those who opened or clicked on the first email or to a scoring model based on opens and clicks over the past two or three months.

The new best practice: As we've discussed in this space previously, consider doing away with regularly scheduled messages altogether. Instead, after a welcome stream, send messages based on behavior, such as site visits or inactivity.

Make unsubscribing easier
While we're on the topic of unsubscribing, consider the idea of moving the unsubscribe link to the top of the email, perhaps in the header, from its customary perch in the footer. Giving the unsubscribe link more priority, the theory goes, encourages disinterested subscribers to opt-out rather than become a silent unsubscribe or, worse, unsubscribe via a "report spam" link. Take a look at the emails in your inbox right now. How many have an unsubscribe link near the top?

Why marketers avoid this best practice: Fear of encouraging unsubscribe behavior. To most marketers, subscribers represent a precious resource, and with good cause. Subscribers generally have expressed a positive interest in hearing from the brand, so why give them an easy way out?

As an alternative, try: Testing priority placement of the unsubscribe link. As ISPs incorporate more and more advanced inbox filtering tools, such as Gmail's Priority Inbox, those disinterested subscribers become more of a liability and less of an asset. Spam complaints and unresponsive subscribers will push marketers' emails lower and lower down on the priority list. By testing a small segment of the list -- start with 10,000 subscribers -- a marketer can determine for himself or herself whether the placement of the unsubscribe link has a negative impact on unsubscribe behavior.

The new best practice: Aggressive response modeling. As noted above, models can help predict which subscribers will churn. Use these models to drive smart reactivation campaigns or, if all else fails, unsubscribe them before they turn into inbox radioactive waste.

Multichannel campaigns
We all know that contacting customers via multiple channels can increase the value of those customers. It follow then that marketers should coordinate message streams across all one-to-one media, both online (email, SMS, onsite) and offline (direct mail, catalog).

Why marketers avoid this best practice: Among larger marketers, the budgets for each of these channels often sit with a different person, each with his or her own goal. Marketing organizations as a group rarely stress that channels work together, so they rarely do. Moreover, many marketers lack complete information; they might not recognize customers who have both email addresses and postal addresses as the same customers.

As an alternative, try: Coordinating the two most similar streams, email and SMS. Marketers who do not already collect SMS addresses should try to do so via email. Once they acquire SMS addresses, marketers should try limited coordinated campaigns -- email messages with SMS reminders -- and track success.

The new best practice: Long wished-for, the single view of the customer has become a reality. Increasingly sophisticated marketing databases, paired with decreasing prices, have made it easier than ever to develop and execute campaigns centrally. While not nearly as simple as batch-and-blast emailing or SMS messaging, an integrated approach to direct communications can yield tremendous results.

I'm sure I've missed a few unused best practices; kindly suggest some in the comment field below. But I hope I've accomplished relaying the core thought -- that no best practice remains out of reach. With a little willpower and some creative thinking, a marketer can at least test to make sure that best practices work (or do not work) for him or her. And if they do work, they will create a lot of noise, whether you're in a forest or not.

Chris Marriott is vice president and global managing director for Acxiom Digital.

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