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Which Came First, Your Email Content or Your Segment?

  |  April 21, 2014   |  Comments

The audience and content conundrum can be very chicken and egg for many brands, especially their email marketers.

Many years ago, I started my career in direct mail. At that time, direct mail was to marketing what email is to marketing today. Highly effective and trackable, but expensive, direct mail required marketers to think through the audience and offer in order to monetize and drive incremental behavior.

There was not a brand I worked with that was interested in spending significant dollars per piece if the direct mail campaign was going to encourage behavior that was inevitable anyway. As a result of this budget-consciousness, solid data analysis and segment identification practices were prevalent. I can't tell you how much time I spent aligning the traits of various decile segments and cluster audiences in order to recommend the ideal offer to my clients. The offers were crafted specifically for a customer group with a goal of driving incremental behavior changes against a control group.

Is there a single soul out there that does this for their email programs today? Do any of you actually measure incremental behavior, or is it merely revenue for the program or the channel, or just straight revenue growth?

Email is inexpensive to send out the door and because logic can be built into the content presentation, thinking through your approach ahead of time is actually atypical. The more typical approach today is to test responses in real time, with very little effort put into the definition on the front end. Some brands will create an offer and identify the best-aligned targets or segments. More often than not, though, emails are simply sent to everyone. While I am not suggesting we revert back to the regimented ways of the "direct mail" past, I think we can certainly learn a little something from the methodical approaches that were once commonplace, especially if we want the email marketing channel to continue producing results for us well into the future.

The reality today is that many email marketers inherit or are handed content and audience segments from other members of their marketing department. I had one client tell me they felt like a "trained monkey," just doing what they were told - even though they had significant expertise in the email marketing channel, including insight that could really improve their company's approach to email campaigns. Unfortunately, they felt their opinion always fell on deaf ears. And it did, until we had the data to defend the position.

Audience Inheritance

If, like these companies, you inherit audience segments from other departments, it often isn't enough to tell them how they could have done better - you need to show them. Start small and look at ways you can logically break up a segment (into more granular, logical targets) so that you can provide some analysis about program performance.

This is a very common strategy when evaluating engaged versus unengaged subscribers. I worked with one brand that simply started breaking out the engaged and unengaged subscribers to identify more cohesively the segment that was driving meaningful lifts in revenue. The marketing team was reluctant to suppress these unengaged folks from their email sends for fear that they would be leaving revenue on the table. Simply segmenting out that audience for clearer tracking revealed that they were, in fact, contributing negligible revenue to the program and were actually driving the majority of all the spam complaints.

By following this simple segmentation and testing strategy, you can provide the insight, backed up by solid data, to grab a seat at the proverbial table. At the same time, you benefit by garnering terrific insight into how your audience segments perform, and can better inform future decisions.

Content Inheritance

This one is a little trickier. But with real-time testing, content inheritance also can be overcome. Not all customers respond to all offers, all the time. Too frequently, brands just want to push the latest offer out the door because offers typically are the main reason subscribers joined a company's email list in the first place. The recommendation here is to push for some content testing opportunities.

Sometimes it isn't about the offer itself. Rather, it can be about how the offer is presented. Years ago I worked with a brand that offered a "how to" email, leveraging products they sold as part of a demonstration. They insisted that in order to effectively monetize these efforts, the products needed to be featured in their email communication with big call-to-action buttons for each product. We recommended a creative/content grudge match of sorts - testing their promotionally focused communication against our content-driven communication. The content version merely featured a lifestyle shot that complemented the "how-to" topic of the month with some headlines stating what the recipient could learn. No call-to-action, no product features, no prices. Not only did our non-traditional, content-driven version win, it generated more revenue than any other campaign in the portfolio. I am not insisting these types of tests are always going to tilt in your favor, but you just don't know until you try.

The audience and content conundrum can be very chicken and egg for many brands, especially their email marketers. Make the best of that reality, and then learn and grow from it so that you can deliver the best email possible to your customers.

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Kara Trivunovic

As an email marketing veteran dating back to 1999, Kara Trivunovic has been actively involved in programmatic email development, execution, and strategy in a variety of senior positions on the client, agency, and provider side. She was founder and principal of The Email Advisor, a respected email marketing consultancy focusing on email strategy and channel optimization that was subsequently acquired by an enterprise email service provider in 2009. Over the course of her career, she has had the opportunity to work with a variety of brands and global organizations structuring a variety of custom email education programs, conceptualizing and implementing new and innovative email programs, optimizing contact strategies, and developing staffing and budget plans. Kara currently serves as the vice president of digital solutions at Epsilon.

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