3 Direct Marketing Principles to Improve Your Email Marketing

It’ll be 10 years this month since I went out on my own as an email marketing consultant. The anniversary has me thinking about how much has changed – and how much has stayed the same – during this period in the industry.

I was looking back over the conference sessions I was giving back then – one of them, which I co-presented with my colleague (and copywriter extraordinaire) Pat Friesen, was called “Email & Direct Mail: Are They Direct Marketing’s Kissing Cousins?” At that time, many of the people attending conferences to learn about email marketing had a solid grounding in offline direct mail. The goal of this presentation was to educate these folks on which aspects of offline direct marketing applied – and which did not.

Fast forward to 2011. As a whole, marketers have a much better understanding of email. But it surprises me that many people working in the email space today don’t seem to have any background in the basics of direct marketing. If you fall into this category, here are some tips for using traditional direct marketing principles to make your email marketing more effective – and more profitable.

Return on Investment

This is one of the most basic principles of direct marketing – it’s all about the results. I find too many of my clients focused on getting the email sent – then moving on to getting the next email sent rather than spending time on analyzing the results (“Too busy. We have deadlines you know!”). This is a mistake.

It’s not about getting the email out – it’s about what the email returns to help your bottom line. You need to set a goal for the email before the send (something else I often see missing) and then analyze the results to see if you met it. Wondering where to start? Here’s a past column that goes into more detail.

In direct marketing it’s usually about revenue. While return-on-investment (ROI) is the standard metric here, revenue-per-email (RPE), which is easier to calculate, can also be used. Just use something!


Testing is a staple of direct marketing. You don’t make changes to your creative without testing it first. Unless it’s the launch of a product you have a control version, which is the best-performing (see ROI above) creative execution to date. If you want to make changes, you create a test version that incorporates them. Then you do an A/B split test (splitting the list randomly and sending one group the control version and the other the test version) to see which performs better. The winner is your control for the next send.

If you have a direct marketing background, this seems simplistic. But for many of the email marketers I work with and meet, it’s a new concept. This is the only way to continually build on your success. If you’re constantly changing your creative without testing, there’s a good chance you’re taking two steps back for every one step forward.

I also see email marketers that only test subject lines. In the offline direct mail world, this would be like only testing envelope copy. It’s a mistake. I know it’s easy, but there are so many other things to test that have a higher likelihood of boosting your bottom line results significantly.

If you aren’t familiar with best practices in direct marketing testing, educate yourself. Here’s the first of a series of articles I wrote on testing. Or find a book (print or electronic) that talks about traditional direct mail testing.

Third-Party List Rental

There are a lot of differences between renting email lists and renting postal service address lists, but one key element is the same: ensuring you have a high quality list. The email list rental world has made great strides in the past 10 years – there are many more high quality lists available. But some email marketers have no idea about how to identify a good versus bad list.

You start with a data card; every legitimate list available for rental has a data card. It details how the list was built and provides demographic and other information about the people on the list. It also tells you about ways you can slice and dice the list – called “selects” – to better target your marketing. For more on data cards, see this column of mine.

I get calls all the time from new email marketers that spent $100 for hundreds of thousands of email addresses and were dismayed by the results. I’ve also seen large household-name organizations paying top dollar for lists that were built via dubious means. If you’re renting a list, analyze the data card and make sure you’re comfortable with how the list was built. If there’s not a data card, walk away.

I often call email the “grandmother” of the online marketing world – it’s been around longer and it’s not as sexy as social. But for most companies, it’s delivering a much higher ROI. Offline direct marketing is, in many ways, the “grandmother” of email marketing and many of the basic principles are just as relevant for email as they are for direct mail. If you’re looking to do well in this industry in the future, be sure to look back and get grounded in the principles.

Until next time,


Jeanne is traveling today. This column was originally published Aug. 8, 2011.

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