My ideas on how to deal with unpredictability in email marketing in the year ahead
As your local Greek philosopher never tires of telling you, the only constant is change.
Many industry experts devote the occasional post or two in January to predicting how email marketing will develop this year.
Instead, I'd like to look at what we might do to better exploit or cope with the dynamic nature of the email and online marketing environment in 2012. Because change isn't always as predictable as we'd like it to be.
Please chime in with your own ideas!
1. Revisit the basics
Like every year, vendors and the media will regale us in 2012 with all sorts of clever things you can do with your email marketing. Clever things that can bring great results, such as shopping cart abandonment emails that pull in £250 in sales for each £1 invested.
Not everyone can access the necessary tools, data or investment resources to make use of these tools and tactics. But, fortunately, basic email marketing is still incredibly successful. And even those that can exploit those advanced tools and tactics are still well served to review their efforts and make sure the basics are covered.
It's not the glamourous side of email, but brilliant works of architecture are no good if the foundations are faulty.
So are your sign-up forms optimised? Is the unsubscribe process clear and does it offer suggested alternatives for getting your commercial messages? Did you test your templates using one of the widely-available design preview tools? Have you made use of preheaders? Have you looked at your welcome message since you wrote it ten years ago?
Do you even have a welcome message?
A survey of leading UK retailers, for example, found three in five did not. Yet we know that such messages can lead to significant response increases across the lifetime of the subscriber.
2. Keep a focus on real value
Well, yeah, of course. Email marketing success depends on a value exchange. You get a positive reaction (in thought and/or deed) from recipients, they get value from your emails.
Unfortunately, it's easy to make three mistakes when we consider the meaning of this value.
Under pressure to meet financial targets, we sometimes focus solely on the value we get from recipients and forget to account for their needs, too.
- Don't overestimate the value of your emails
We can forget that recipients are not normally quite as excited about our organisation, products and services as we are. Overestimating the value we send can mean we end up sending email to people who don't want it or shouldn't even get it.
- Expand the definition of value
We tend to focus on monetary incentives or informative advice as the twin pillars of email's value to subscribers. But it can be more than that. People also get value from fun and entertainment, stories, a sense that they belong, a thank you or even just a regular reminder that you're there next time they need something that you sell.
3. Develop uniqueness
One thing we can be sure of in 2012: there will be more and more calls on people's attention. Read this, view this, download this, buy this...over here! No, over here! Here!
So tied up with the idea of value is the idea of uniqueness. When people make decisions on what deserves less attention, value counts, but particularly value that can't be got elsewhere.
So what might make your email irreplaceable?
You might be lucky and have a brand relationship with the subscriber or the kind of content that makes you largely immune to competition. If not, what you send and how you present it (voice, style, personality and creativity) are potential differentiators.
4. Look for little improvements
Even if you don't have the resources or time to make fundamental changes to your design, tactics or strategy, you can still improve results by testing small changes to your emails.
Many of the potential response boosts are temporary, but that doesn't make them less valuable. Some examples:
- Subject line tests that lift open rates 100%
- CTA wording changes that increase click rates 50%
- From line tests for 20% more clicks
5. Bite the metrics bullet
We love numbers, we just hate analysing them (unless you're an analyst).
But the longer I work online, the more dangers I see in superficial analysis, and the more benefits in a little deeper thought about what metrics might (and might not) mean.
Pressed for time, we tend to take numbers at face value...leading us to make poor decisions. And it doesn't help that the results of surveys and studies are commonly reported without a whisker of critical analysis.
Don't assume your first or preferred interpretation is the correct one.
For example, the higher open rate on your latest email might well be due to your superb subject line skills. It might also be because:
- you solved a deliverability problem at Yahoo so more emails actually landed in the inbox
- the poor weather kept everyone indoors on the PC
- your TV ad just played during the World Cup final
- there was less spam this week to clutter up the inbox
- your last email was excellent, raising expectations
- you just added a huge number of new subscribers (open rates tend to be highest among more recent sign-ups)
- you just removed a large number of subscribers from your list who never opened an email, so the open rate went up, even though the number of people opening the email stayed the same.
In particular, beware the pull of popularity metrics like list size (and Twitter followers, and Klout and...)
They're relatively easy to measure and they speak to a basic human need to gain the approval of the masses.
All have value, but increasing your popularity metrics should not normally be a goal in itself, but part of a wider strategy to increase the metrics that truly define success.
In some instances, growing these popularity metrics can backfire, causing you to lose focus on your important audiences in lieu of chasing the numbers.
As vendors come up with new ways to measure popularity and influence, especially through sophisticated-sounding social algorithms, the seductive appeal of such metrics can only grow.
So a sense of perspective is vital in 2012 for keeping a focus on what really matters.
What do you think?