An Automated E-Mail Strategy?

I was speaking with a colleague last week, someone I very much like and respect. The topic of email marketing strategy came up. His immediate response: “That’s all automated on our system.”


I know we’re getting ever more data about our email initiatives. We’ve had open rates and click-throughs for years. Marketers worth their salt also look at conversions (to whatever action they promote) and return on investment (ROI).

The technology behind email has advanced, too, making segmentation, behavioral targeting, dynamic content, and other tools easier and less expensive to implement. It allows us to better fulfill the promise of Seth Godin’s “personal, relevant, and anticipated” mantra, laid out five years ago in his book, “Permission Marketing.”

Is it possible to completely automate an email marketing strategy?

A recent Forrester study asked people to identify the biggest challenges regarding data collection and analysis. What do you think tops that list? Pulling together the data? Developing analytical models? Interpreting the results? No. The biggest issue, cited by more than half the respondents, is acting on the findings.

Acting on findings isn’t something that can be automated completely. Sure, you can identify multiple segments within your email list and determine you need to approach them at different frequencies, with different offers, content, or creative. You still need a marketing professional, not a machine, to put together details of the strategy; at a basic level, the specific offer, content, and creative for each group.

The devil is in the details. You can have the best marketing strategy in the world, but if it’s not implemented as you intended, results can be mediocre. It’s easy to know what you should do, much harder to actually do it.

Budget issues, resource limitations, even the experience level of those involved can make or break a great plan. You need a strong marketing professional, one who can prioritize to get the best out of creative teams and keep strategy on track for success.

This holds more true if you test with each send, as we all should. The data can show a low open rate, indicating a test to raise it. But data can’t suggest subject line changes, preview pane content, or alternate sender addresses. You need a person to do that.

Raw data alone won’t tell you how to segment an audience. You need a marketing professional who knows the industry, has a feel for the competitive environment, understands your organization’s goals, and so on. Can you turn these things into data points? Sure. But would it allow you to automate the entire process? Probably not. It would be very expensive (if you could even do it), and you’d still need ongoing input and adjustments to changes in the market from a real person.

The qualitative side of a marketing strategy isn’t going away. It can’t. But it’s increasingly marginalized and undervalued. You can have the most powerful email marketing solution in the world, one that allows all sorts of segmentation and dynamic content. But without someone who understands how to leverage this for you, it can’t fulfill its promise.

SPSS and SAS are part of the solution, but not all of it. A strong qualitative marketer, in-house or a consultant, helps turn findings into a comprehensive strategy, then manage a plan’s creative implementation.

I’ve attended four different events on email marketing and related topics in the past month and received an overview of a fifth. In each, I found email marketers hungry for more information about email marketing.

They weren’t looking for the basics. They weren’t looking for more data points on email initiatives (although more data is a good thing). They want advanced advice and qualitative information on making email marketing more effective.

Like Forrester’s survey respondents, they had the data. They want to know how to develop the qualitative side to put their plans into action.

A completely automated email strategy? Perhaps someday you’ll be able to “set it and forget it.” But I doubt that day will ever come.



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