Last month’s opportunity to deliver the opening keynote address at the fourth annual Email Innovation Summit helped me bring together many of the principles that have guided me in my own marketing journey.
What I’ve learned is that it’s not enough just to focus on innovation. We also must help marketers make the dream come true in their companies, and that’s a much bigger battle.
Mark Twain understood this hesitancy, even back in the 19th Century:
“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor, catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”
Ah, that sounds lovely, doesn’t it? So why aren’t more of us sailing our marketing ships into the uncharted territory of email improvement?
The parable of the elephant and the rope can explain it:
An elephant trainer explained why he could keep his gentle giant in place with just a skinny rope, one end tied to a small stake and the other to the elephant’s front leg:
“When they are very young and much smaller we use the same size rope to tie them and, at that age, it’s enough to hold them. As they grow up, they are conditioned to believe they cannot break away. They believe the rope can still hold them, so they never try to break free.”
So, you tried something new once, and it failed. So that ended your experimentation. Did you pull the plug too soon or give in to a risk-averse boss? Either way, you’re still bound to fears and old practices that haven’t proved they still work in the modern email world.
Email norms, fears and bad best practices hold you back
I’m often called upon to help clients break away from the past, from fears, failure and outdated practices. As I’m not an employee, I haven’t bought into their methods, history and company culture. So, my solutions can transcend those earthbound limitations.
My challenge with these clients is to help them get past the ideas that keep them chained to a broken model of email marketing.
Three things conspire to keep marketers tied to past practices:
1. Email has many norms that we don’t question.
Effective email marketing isn’t as easy as loading an email list and pushing a button. But because we can get decent results with a minimum of effort, we aren’t challenged to improve it.
We as email marketers have also let our technology vendors educate us. Now, I love good marketing technology as much as anyone, and I respect vendors who can provide solid thought leadership that advances our professional education, not just push a product.
But, having vendors dominate the marketing landscape too often means we let the tactics drive our decision-making instead of solid strategy that fits our specific goals and requirements.
2. We’re driven by fear.
Every marketer has fears, but email marketers must deal with some unique nightmares. Like these:
- Spam complaints
- ISP penalties
- Failed campaigns
- Fraud and malicious emails
So, to manage our fears, we take the safest path. We turn to email best practices to keep us in the inbox, out of the spam folder and off the blacklist, and to “silver bullet” fix-alls. And that leads me to a third problem.
3. Bad ideas can masquerade as best practices.
In theory, a best practice is an idea that reflects a consensus on the best way to do something. But not all best practices are created equal! I go into depth on this concept in an earlier OI post, “Not all Email Best Practices are Equal…nor are all of them best practices.” But, in a nutshell, beware of “best practices” that are archaic, self-serving, untested or based on conventional wisdom instead of proof.
9 ways to bring innovation – and marketing – back into email marketing
Lateral thinking can help you break out of the box, get past your fears and break free of practices that have held you back. Here’s Edward De Bono characterized it in his book, The Use of Lateral Thinking:
“Everyone has the right to doubt everything as often as he pleases and the duty to do it at least once. No way of looking at things is too sacred to be reconsidered. No way of doing things is beyond improvement.”
Lateral thinking involves standing back, looking at the big picture and understanding concepts. It requires you to focus on the parts that have perhaps been overlooked, challenging assumptions and seeking alternatives.
These nine approaches to “be innovative” within email marketing can help you break free of the figurative rope that’s tying your leg to conventional wisdom, archaic practices and the “everybody does it” mentality that squashes initiative and fresh thinking:
1. Be a strategist, not a technician.
When we let technology drive our decision-making, we can end up creating a disconnected experience for our customers. We can avoid that by creating a strategy first and then applying technology to carry out the strategy. Avoid creating a program around a tool
A Tripolis/Holistic Email Marketing survey in 2018 found only 56% of email marketers base their technology decisions on how well they support their business strategy. The rest will focus on tactics or simply use whatever their technology platforms provide.
2. Be wise in your testing approach.
Testing in email works. All too often we just don’t do it right. We might have been taught the wrong way or not taught at all. So, when it doesn’t work, we get disillusioned and drop out.
Testing has three goals:
Gain an uplift.
Learn something about our customers.
Share learnings with other team members and channels.
You will get best results when you adopt a scientific approach that incorporates a hypothesis tied to your campaign or program objective. It’s easy to do simple A/B testing on a subject line or call to action, but those results likely will apply only to that campaign. Aim higher, testing over multiple campaigns to gain statistical significance and long-term gains.
3. Be the director of your customer’s journey.
You know your customers better than anyone else in the company because you have the data. So, you should be the one sitting in the director’s chair, guiding everything from mapping the customer journey to organizing the email program and the landing pages associated with those emails.
4. Be holistic in your approach to email.
Exchange your campaign-focused mindset for one that focuses on email’s role in the customer journey and how to use email to engage with customers, to keep them on the path through conversion and to bring them back if they step off it or go inactive.
5. Be excited about gaining permission.
Permission is mandatory – not just from a legal stance but also because permission-based email performs better. Embrace the permission quest! Look for opportunities to gain permission beyond the permission blank on your home page.
A Pure360/Holistic Email Marketing survey found web forms generate 72% of database opt-ins, but only 50% of email marketers own their web forms. Fight for your right to control web forms, from content to design and location!
6. Be focused on the customer experience.
As I explained in an earlier OI post, New Research: Helpful, Personalised, Customer-Focused Emails Drive Higher Engagement, successful email marketing rests on three pillars:
- It focuses on benefits for your customers, not just features
- It aims to help them meet their own needs.
- It uses data to personalize the messages.
7. Be subscriber-oriented in your reporting.
Think beyond the campaign and top of funnel metrics such as the open rate. Use metrics that focus on customers and subscribers. We shouldn’t limit ourselves to making decisions only based on campaign metrics. This helps us to measure success using the correct metrics and make strategic decisions that will keep us focused on our objectives
8. Be focused on your objectives at all times.
Names matter! Name your various email programs according to what you want to achieve from them. If you use a welcome email or program to drive new customers back to your website to buy from you for the first time, rename it “first-purchase program.” This will help you align every element of your program to work toward that goal.
9. Be a successful marketer by optimizing for success.
Be careful with the metrics you choose to measure your email performance. You might be tempted to stick with easily accessible top-of-funnel metrics like open and click rates, but this path can lead you to optimize for the wrong results. Your success metric must map back to your objective, such as conversions, order value, account set-up or re-engagement.
Your overall quest: Bring marketing back into email marketing
After a stagnant period of email development, email trends and technology are developing at a breakneck pace. It’s exciting to be in email again! But all this buzz and change mean it’s easy to get distracted by what’s new.
The nine innovative approaches I outline here will support one major quest: to bring marketing back into email marketing. As I noted at the beginning, successful email marketing takes more than a bunch of emails and a message.
Marketing is both art and science. When we get both right, we create an email program that serves everyone – your brand, your marketing program and your customers – to the best of its abilities!
Remember what Mark Twain said: “Explore. Dream. Discover.” And then let me know you did!
(this blog first appeared on Only Influencers)