The 2 most important words in email marketing

In the world of email marketing, several questions are repeatedly asked by those who strive to improve their email campaigns. Collectively they can be lumped together as pertaining to the elusive pursuit of best practices. And if you are prone to jumping to conclusions, you probably think the two words to which I refer in the title are "best practices," but you'd be wrong. Before I reveal the two most important words in email marketing, let's look at some of the commonly asked questions concerning best practices:

  • What day of the week is the best for launching campaigns?

  • What time of day is best for launching campaigns?

  • What kind of tests should are the most important to conduct?

  • When should a subscriber be labeled "inactive"?

  • Is it ok to continue to mail to inactive subscribers?

  • How should email campaigns be optimized for mobile devices?

  • How important are welcome campaigns?

  • What type of content should be dynamically generated?

True believers in best practices are likely to believe that there is a single, definitive answer to each of the questions posed above, and the many more questions not appearing here. According to BusinessDictionary.com, a best practice is, "A method or technique that has consistently shown results superior to those achieved with other means, and that is used as a benchmark."

However there is a big of problem with this right out of the gate. If there really were definitive answers to every question involving email, and everyone practiced them, then no one would gain strategic advantage over his or her competition. To gain that advantage one would need to develop better than best practices. These, in turn, would become the new best practices. The result? All commercial email would hit consumer's mailboxes on the same day and time. Every marketer would test the same thing at the same time. All subscribers would be labeled inactive at the same point in time. You get the idea.

Does this mean there are no immutable truths about email marketing? Of course not:

  • New subscribers to your email are more likely to be engaged with you than older subscribers (use that to your advantage)

  • Opens and clicks do not represent an accurate measurement of consumer engagement with an email (you've probably heard me say this before)

  • Upselling and cross-selling via transactional emails it a great way to increase your ROI (lucky strike extra, it is also likely to irk your IT team)

I could go on, but that's not the point of this article. So it's time I got to the point. In my opinion, the two most important words in email marketing are "it depends."  It depends?! I know, that's kind of a let down from the buildup to this point. But that doesn't mean they aren't the most important words.

Remember what I said about best practices earlier? If everybody followed best practices, no one would gain a competitive advantage. It all boils down to the fact that there if there is no definitive answer as to which is the best day to launch a campaign, then the best way to start answering that question is to respond "it depends," because -- at that moment -- you are now beginning to solve a particular marketer's unique marketing challenges. For that rather simple sounding question there are many data points to consider:

  • It depends upon your product or service category

  • It depends on what you are offering at that point in time

  • It depends on who you are targeting

  • It depends upon the complexity of the desired transaction

  • It depends upon the duration of the offer

There are other possible "it depends;" this is just a partial list. And while it might seem very attractive to let the people like me who write about this stuff answer the question for you in a column, it will be much better in the long run for you to do the hard work of thinking through the "it depends," and then testing some assumptions.

Let's look at another question, "when should a subscriber be labeled inactive?" There are people like me who would tell you "only if that email address is no longer valid," but we're viewed as representing the extreme. For the rest of you, however, once again there are many data points to consider:

  • It depends how long they've been in the database

  • It depends on your ability to attribute offline activity to email campaigns

  • It depends on the frequency of purchase of your product or service

  • It depends upon your current reputation with the ISPs

I've noted in the past that clients of mine saw revenue around campaigns drop when they excluded those they deemed inactive from a mailing. So you want to do more than just follow best practices when addressing this question -- you want to get it right!

It's important to recognize that answering "it depends" to an important email marketing question is an absolute cop-out if you don't then proceed to determine what the answer does depend upon. It's one thing for a panelist at a conference to respond "it depends" and leave it at that. It's an entirely different story if the strategists on your team or at your marketing partner leave it at that. It's their job to provide you with the guidance and testing plan to arrive at the optimum solution for your particular needs.

The problem has always been that because email marketing is so inexpensive, it is really easy to get away with programs that don't meet their full potential. With CPMs as low as they are, "good" results are seen as "good enough." If CPMs were higher, there'd be greater pressure to maximize results. Of course it takes a lot of hard work to optimize your program across the board -- and then to successfully integrate that program into your social and mobile channels. To paraphrase from something I read years ago, "Email marketing isn't rocket science. It's a lot harder!" But the hard work will always pay you dividends.

Chris Marriot is a data-driven digital marketing consultant.

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"A happy couple" image via Shutterstock.

 

Comments

Nick Stamoulis
Nick Stamoulis August 13, 2012 at 1:22 PM

"It depends" also applies to SEO. Best practices are guidelines, they aren't set in stone. You have to figure out what works best for you and your audience--that's the right answer.