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5 ways to take advantage of the unexpected in email marketing

By Mark Brownlow 21 Aug, 2012

How to cope with unexpected opportunities and problems

I'm part-way through "The Black Swan", where the author explores the "impact of the highly improbable".

There are lots of uplifting messages about our ignorance, wilful self-delusion and inability to make any meaningful predictions about the future.

Anyway, it got me thinking about the related topics of complexity, the unexpected and the unpredictable in email campaigns.

The main problem with dealing with the unexpected (apart from the obvious one*) is the issue of timing. When something goes wrong that needs corrective action, then that action typically needs to be taken fast.

Equally, the quicker you react to an unexpected opportunity, the better you can exploit it.

This need for fast action often conflicts with the reality of campaign planning and execution in email marketing, which can take days, weeks, even months, depending on your organizational setup and the nature of the campaign.

So what can you do? I would welcome your own suggestions, but here are five of mine for starters...

1. Prepare for the Oopsy email

Sometimes an email goes wrong and demands some kind of apology/resend. And like our parents always said, the best apologies are sincere and, importantly, swift.

The speed of delivery of an "Oops, we screwed up" email is helped with an appropriate response system in place, particularly:

  • Post-send monitoring of responses, complaints etc. to catch any problems
  • Guidelines on what kinds of email mistake justify an apology email (e.g. coupons didn't work) and which mistakes don't (e.g. a small typo).
  • Guidelines on appropriate responses, particularly on whether to send a standalone apology email or simply resend the email with an apology or explanation built into the subject line, pre-header and copy.
  • Availability of a pre-approved apology email template.
  • Definition of lines of responsibility (with contact details) for quick creation, review and approval of apology messages.

There are more detailed suggestions in this Silverpop presentation.

2. Prepare for immediate messaging

Imagine something happens independently of your email efforts that requires communication with your customers ASAP. Perhaps a product recall or unfavorable news coverage that demands fast clarification.

It's tough to plan for that specific incident. But you can have an appropriate email template ready for immediate use.

Most existing email templates are built for promotional messaging or multiple content. They are not always suited to simple, non-promotional messages or very short-form information. Perhaps it makes sense to prepare one that...

  • ...carries light branding so it's easily recognized in preview panes and with a quick glance, but doesn't distract from the text of the message.
  • ...is light on any images that would draw attention away from the message.
  • ...contains a single, open template position that you can simply slot the required text into.

3. Prepare for quick-hit or responsive messaging

A related issue is when an event takes place that opens a short window of opportunity for an appropriate email campaign.

Examples might be a major celebrity appearing on TV wearing a certain kind of shoe...or handbag...or headphones...that you also happen to stock. Or unseasonal weather leading to sudden interest in sun block (or umbrellas).

One approach is to have at least one pre-approved basic email template ready that only needs brief copy text, an image and a linked CTA before sending.

Another is to develop alternative emails in advance, when you know a future event only has a limited number of possible outcomes. Then send the right email as soon as that outcome becomes known.

So a film retailer might prepare five emails, each promoting the films of one actor nominated for "Best Actor in a Leading Role" at the Oscars. The moment or morning after the winner is announced, they send the appropriate email.

4. Keep aware of how wider events might impact messaging

A double-edged sword in email marketing is "set and forget". Welcome messages and other trigger emails can be set up and then ignored. Promotional emails can be prepared and scheduled well in advance of the actual send date.

This is generally a "good thing"...provided you also stay aware of how changing circumstances or unfortunate events and coincidences might turn a good idea into a marketing faux pas.

An innocuous lead like "Smith's performance brought the house down" might need a quick rewrite after a major earthquake. A lighthearted, humorous umbrella sale might be a touch insensitive when your audience is (literally) knee-deep in floods.

5. Be aware of all the alternative impact factors

One of the traps in email marketing is assigning unusual success (or failure) to a single, "obvious" cause. Fingers often tend to be pointed at the subject line, for example. Possibly correctly, possibly not.

More likely a range of factors are impacting success or failure.

If you don't account for as many of these potential factors as possible, then you will optimize future campaigns on the wrong basis.

Classical direct marketing reminds us of the role of offer (what is promoted) and list (who it gets sent to).

But there are a host of other, not-always-obvious factors that might influence results. We know that intrinsically when it comes to planning: that's why we send more retail emails in the days leading up to Xmas.

But we don't always recognize this in analysis. Examples of other impact factors that are worth attention:

  • The weather
  • Timing (hour, day, day of month, season, public holidays, vacation periods)
  • Big event on TV, like the Olympics or the World Cup
  • Big news attracting attention, like a major natural disaster
  • Emails sent by the competition (the value of your 20% offer changes if the competition sent out a 10%-off coupon the previous day, or a 30%-off one)
  • Changes at key mail providers, such as the introduction of a preview pane
  • The emails you sent before, which affect perceptions and responses to successive emails
  • The other marketing you do: did the email go out after a major national TV campaign?
  • Changes in the proportion of images used, their type and size
  • Changes in text, line or paragraph length and layout
  • Changes to CTA approach: position, number, wording, styling, color, size, font
  • Issues with link and landing page functionality
  • Changes in list quality: do you have lots of motivated new subscribers after an address acquisition push? Did you just add in a dump of low-quality addresses from a sweepstakes promotion?
  • Delivery issues
  • ...etc.

So, there are five ideas for dealing with complexity and the unexpected. What are yours?

*it's hard to plan for something that you're not expecting, especially when you don't even know what it is you're not expecting.

By Mark Brownlow

Mark Brownlow is a former email copywriter and publisher of the retired Email Marketing Reports site. He now works as a lecturer and writer. Connect with him via Lost Opinions.

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