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Email marketing – debunking the "best practices"

Our interview with Claire Rollinson of AlchemyWorx

I've been in touch with Claire Rollinson for a while swapping ideas on Email marketing via the social networks and through IDM Digital courses. Initially Claire worked out as a marketing comms manager at different charities and more recently as head of campaign management at specialist Email marketing agency Alchemy Worx. This gives her great experience of campaigns across a range of sectors and brands.

As always, in our interview series, I encourage the marketers I interview to share tips which prompt the question "Can we try that? Should we be doing this? Should we use this tool?". I hope you find Claire's recommendations useful. As she suggests, getting email marketing right is important because "every single message you send can have an incremental – and if you do your job properly – positive impact on the recipient".

Email marketing - what are the obvious mistakes to avoid

Q. Email marketing is now an established part of the communications mix. But newcomers enter the scene all the time. What are the most common mistakes made by ‘newbies’, and which opportunities do they tend to miss out on?

Trying too hard not to make any mistakes

When it comes to mistakes, the email industry has managed to position itself as completely unforgiving. Email subscribers are portrayed as being less than a hairsbreadth away from hitting the spam button and boycotting your business forever. ISP’s like Gmail Yahoo etc. are watching your every move and making decisions about whether to deliver your email or not, so any mistake you make however small will result in the direst consequences for you and your business.

You could argue that innovation and creativity is being stifled because many email marketers, not just the newbies are not pushing hard enough at the boundaries because we are trying so hard to avoid making any mistakes. One of the most striking things about email is how quickly opinion coalesces around any given “best “practice. Once consensus is reached, very few bother to actually test whether “better” practice exists. The great thing about working at Alchemy Worx is we are encouraged to push the boundaries and within reason question everything in the search for a better solution for our clients.

Here are some great examples of accepted practice that do not stand up to close scrutiny.

1) Long subject lines are bad
Not necessarily true. At Alchemy Worx, we have spent a lot of time researching subject line length and have found that while it is true that shorter subject lines are better at driving opens longer subject lines are better at driving clicks because they deliver a more qualified audience to the offer.

2) There is a best time of day or day of week to send your email
Some think that sending emails at a specific time, or on a certain day, produces a better response by itself. But do subscribers REALLY open emails just because it’s 3pm on a Friday or 12.00 on a Wednesday? We have spent more than 5 years analysing client data to see if there is a best time or day to send email. There isn’t.

When it comes to timing the only thing that has a consistently significant impact on sales generated by an email is proximity to payday. Emails sent just before or after payday generate more revenue than those sent mid-month.

3) You should remove inactive subscribers from your list
Of course any sane marketer would immediately stop mailing anyone on their list who they knew for certain would never transact again and/or actively disliked receiving their emails. The issue isn’t if you should take an inactive or disgruntled person off the list – of course you should and most people do - but HOW do you tell they ARE inactive or disgruntled.

With very few exceptions when it comes to sales and marketing, long term inactivity is perfectly normal. After all, how often do you actively interact with marketing communications of any kind from a car dealer, insurance company, estate agent, bank, consumer electronics retailer, hotel chain etc.? Yet almost all “best practice” documents seem to advocate indiscriminately purging your list of every subscriber who has not opened an email for 3, 6 or 12 months.

Most inactive people on your list are people who want your email, but haven’t needed your product, service or information in that time. We call these people unemotionally subscribed.

They are happy to ignore your messages until they are ready to buy, because it is easier than unsubscribing and having to remember your URL or Google you at a later date. Here are 2 real examples:

  • £70,000 generated by subscribers who had not opened or clicked on the previous 25 to 40 emails – it was a great offer.
  • 14% of 2008 revenue and 7 % of 2009 revenue generated by subscribers who did not open or click at all in 2007

What do declining email engagement measures mean?

Q. Open and click rates have been falling over the past couple of years as social media has taken off. So is email marketing in trouble

The connection between the rise of social media and email open and click rates is a spurious one and for me obscures the real surprise, which is the fact that email performance has remained very robust despite huge year on year increases in email volumes. According to the latest Email Benchmarking Report produced by the Direct Marketing Association, UK marketers sent over 1.7 billion emails in the first half of 2010. That’s an increase of 50% against the same period in 2009!

A 50% increase, and yet open and click rates held up year on year at 24% and 11% respectively. Email is delivering huge numbers of additional clicks at an estimated CPC of between 5p and 7p. Beat those numbers!

Without a doubt, email is still by far the most cost effective way to get a marketing message in front of any given individual or list and is huge amounts of traffic to brands at a fraction of the cost of search or banners – which is why Facebook and Twitter are so reliant on email. It is without the doubt the driving force behind e-commerce AND social media.

Are there better engagement measures for email?

Q. Many would say that open and click rates aren't the best way to assess campaign engagement or effectiveness anyway. Which other measures can email marketers consider?

I agree. Open and click rates are extremely misleading metrics and can lead you astray. We prefer to focus on hard numbers. So for example you have a list of 100,000 subscribers who you send one email a month to and your average open rate is 20% and click rate 7% (20,000 opens and 7000 clicks). You decide to send 2 emails a month to your list. Your open rate and click rates will almost certainly fall to say 17% and 5% respectively. So you could conclude that your tactic has failed because sending more email has resulted in a drop of around 15% in your open and click rates. Or you could conclude that increasing your mailing frequency to 2 a month is a huge success because you are getting 34,000 opens and 10,000 clicks.

More recommendations on "best practices"

Q. What about your own winning approaches or "best practices"  - please suggest some marketers should consider to increase engagement with their subscribers?

Hmm, where to start? Here are some of the strategies and tactics that I believe are effective:

First, optimise and use your data! Capture relevant data like gender, birthdays and anniversaries – and use it to target content and offers. Detail is the key here. So if you’re a travel company, in which month did your subscriber book their holiday? Once you know this, you can ramp-up your offers around this time next year.

Or maybe you’re selling electronic goods. Does a customer favour a particular product category like TVs? If so, use dynamic content to personalise things like newsletters, and to cross-sell into related categories. ‘Bought that? Maybe you’d also like this?’

But don’t over engineer the segmentation. You don’t want to pigeon-hole your subscribers too much as it limits cross-selling opportunities.

Next, introduce and develop more lifecycle emails as they provide value to your subscriber. Welcome email programmes are vital to engagement. Create a welcome series rather than just one email. This enables you to convey ALL the benefits of being a subscriber.

Emails based on recipient behaviour or actions can be highly effective. You might enable people to pre-register for updates on new phone releases, or notify someone when a product they tried and failed to order is now back in stock.

Offer tips and advice. This is value-added content they might not be able to get via social media channels. And think about whether it’s wise to direct people to Facebook or Twitter for this content. If you’re an email marketer, surely it should be the other way around. Also, offer exclusive content ONLY to email subscribers – things like genuine incentives and discounts.

Hot topics

Q. Finally, which aspects of email marketing excite you most at the moment?

I am most excited by research we are conducting with our clients which shows that email is a very powerful branding tool. It is leading us to completely rethink our approach to subject lines in particular. Because every single message you send has an incremental – and if you do your job properly – positive impact on the recipient.

The preoccupation with engagement defined and measured by open and click rates means that we treat each message we send out as a singular and unique event that has not been affected in any positive way by the emails we sent before, nor does it impact any emails we send subsequently. This is simply not the case.

If the industry average for open rates is 24% it means that the vast majority (75%) of people on your list will not open your message no matter what you do. Yet we spend all our time trying to come up with a subject line that will make everyone open the email! If you think of each message as delivering a subtle yet powerful brand impression and that you have 12, 52 or more opportunities a year to put your message across you would start to realise that the unopened emails are as important if not more important than the ones that get opened! Particularly as we live in a multi-channel world.

So for example if you sent an email on Friday with the Subject line “20% off all Australian wine in store this weekend” you would not consider the unopened emails as wasted.

Email as the new broadcast channel – now THAT is controversial!

About Alchemy Worx

Alchemy Worx is the UK's largest full-service email marketing agency. From strategy, planning, design and copywriting to production, testing, reporting, and analysis, we understand every step of the email marketing cycle. Our clients range from small businesses to charities to global brands and FTSE100 companies global retailers. They trust us to design, build and deploy effective email communications and campaigns, time and again. We're proud to say that 99.6% of our clients are retained business.

By Dave Chaffey

Digital strategist Dr Dave Chaffey is co-founder and Content Director of Smart Insights. Dave is editor of the 100+ templates, ebooks and courses in the digital marketing resource library created by our team of 25+ Digital Marketing experts. Our resources are used by our Premium members in more than 100 countries to Plan, Manage and Optimize their digital marketing. Free members can access our sample templates here. Please connect on LinkedIn to receive updates or ask me a question. For my full profile and other social networks, see the Dave Chaffey profile page on Smart Insights. Dave is a keynote speaker, trainer and consultant who is author of 5 bestselling books on digital marketing including Digital Marketing Excellence and Digital Marketing: Strategy, Implementation and Practice. In 2004 he was recognised by the Chartered Institute of Marketing as one of 50 marketing ‘gurus’ worldwide who have helped shape the future of marketing.

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