Why you need to test every aspect of your e-mail program and use the data this testing generates when making decisions and assessing performance.
The Email Experience Council's recent Miami conference highlighted – perhaps inadvertently – the critical role of testing data in assessing your e-mail marketing program's performance.
As always at e-mail conferences, attendees spent plenty of time debating whether specific e-mail messages adhered to "best practices" or flouted them, either unintentionally or deliberately.
A number of sessions, including one where I was a panel participant, generated some unexpected conversation changes during critiques of actual e-mail messages for how well they met best practices:
What's the lesson here? It isn't "My instincts can beat up your best practices."
Instead, these examples underscore why you need to test every aspect of your e-mail program and use the data this testing generates when making decisions and assessing performance.
Example: "Best Practice" vs. "What Works" for Managing Inactivity
The emerging best practice when dealing with dormant addresses says to remove those that have no actions associated with them: no clicks, opens, or conversions.
Although many marketers object to purging non-bouncing addresses (even those that don't respond), it actually has a basis in deliverability concerns, because some ISPs are starting to base inbox delivery decisions on whether their customers act on your e-mails or just ignore them.
If you implement this best practice without testing it first or using the right metrics to measure the data, you do your business a great disservice.
Conversely, you need to be concerned with averages and how changing the dominator can change those rates you measure. Simply dropping inactive subscribers from mailings raises all your average numbers like open rate, CTR (define), and even complaint rates, because all are based with "delivered" as the common denominator.
What Are Best Practices, Anyway?
They're tactics that should help you solve problems, correct mistakes, and optimize your e-mail marketing in order to attain that magical e-mail hat trick of more ROI (define), resources, and respect from management.
As my e-mail marketing colleague Loren McDonald likes to point out, however, we should think of them as "generally accepted best practices," which implies that "best practices" aren't necessarily universal rules of implementation.
Never implement a best practice blindly, just because someone like me tells you to do it during a panel discussion or in a trade publication. Always confirm it via testing against your own experiences, market, and mailing list.
On the other hand, don't sneer at a best practice just because it would upset your company's usual e-mail marketing approach or common belief system. Testing and performance data drive many best-practice recommendations. Always ask yourself, "What could I do differently to get a better result?" Learning the best practices for list acquisition, management, content, frequency, etc. is your first step.
The "what works" defense, after all, can merely defend the status quo. Can you make it work better? Testing can show you the answer. But you must listen to the data, and let it make the final decision for you.
Until next time, keep on deliverin'!
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Stefan Pollard, who started his career in online marketing in 1999, was considered a selfless mentor and champion of best practices in e-mail marketing. He held the position of senior strategic consultant at Responsys where he was responsible for developing e-mail marketing and lifecycle messaging strategies to increase clients' ROI. Before that, Stefan led the e-mail consulting program for Lyris clients, frequently speaking at industry events on best practices. Prior to that, he managed the audit process and consulted with clients to improve their e-mail delivery challenges for Habeas. As an e-mail marketer, he spent several years building and executing acquisition and retention campaigns at E-Loan and Cybergold.com. He died May 14, 2010.
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