Best Practices and Testing in E-mail Marketing

I’m just back from the Email Evolution Conference in Miami. If you didn’t attend, please consider going next year. Lots of good speakers, lots of great sessions, lots of smart attendees, lots of valuable discussions – and it’s all e-mail, all the time.

One particular discussion, which began on Monday in the full-day workshop that Tamara Gielen and I taught, and which went through the entire conference, was about best practices and testing. It was an important reminder about evaluating e-mail campaigns and I wanted to share it here.

The audience for our session was great (big thanks to anyone reading this who joined us that day). They had lots of questions, which Tamara and I answered based on our knowledge of and experience with e-mail marketing.

When people ask questions, they are looking for actionable advice. As speakers, we realize this and do our best to provide guidance based on best practices and our own work with clients. Sometimes this is easy – but sometimes it’s difficult to provide an answer that pleases the questioner.

I’ve been asked to provide subject lines for a specific campaign based on about 60 seconds of explanation from an attendee. Something like this is near impossible to answer to the satisfaction of the person that asked. Really good subject lines take time to develop and require in-depth knowledge of the audience, the goals for the campaign, the e-mail and landing page creative, the offer, and the product or service being marketed.

On Monday, a question was asked about hyper-personalization in e-mail – including lots of personalized information about the recipient to drive response. We all talk about relevance and including personalized information in an e-mail can help drive relevance. But there’s a fine line here. An e-mail can come off as “big brotherish” and actually repel, rather than engage, readers if you seem to have a lot of information about them and they don’t know how you got it or they don’t feel comfortable with the fact that you have it.

A few years ago I got an e-mail from someone asking me to check out their Web site and then give them a call to chat about how I might be able to help them. I clicked on the link and visited their site. When I went back to my e-mail a bit later to respond, there was another e-mail from the contact. He said that he saw that I was on his site and referenced to me the pages that I had visited. I know that this is possible with Web analytics, but I felt very uncomfortable that I was being “watched” as I explored his site. We all know that this happens in the aggregate, but to have someone looking at my specific activity and letting me know that he was doing it was a bit off-putting. “Stalker” is the term that comes to mind.

Using click-stream data to drive e-mail content and relevance is good. If I was looking at dresses on your Web site yesterday and didn’t buy, by all means send me an e-mail today with images of dresses and a discount offer to drive me back to purchase. But if you tell me in that e-mail that you know I was looking at dresses on your site yesterday and that you know I didn’t buy, that starts getting a bit creepy, at least to me personally as a consumer. Some other people might not mind. It just depends on your audience.

So, there’s a fine line between using what we know to market effectively and turning people off. You have to know your audience and use your best judgment. I made this point and referenced a company that I remember as a kid doing hyper-personalization in direct mail. As an adult and a consumer, it’s not something that appeals to me personally. It seems phony.

Turns out that someone from that organization was in the room – and when I spoke with her and others from their organization, the hyper-personalization (which they now do in e-mail) works great for their market. They’ve tested it and while most of us would say what they’re doing is not a best practice, they have open and click-through rates that most companies would be envious of. At which point, all of us “experts” agreed that while this isn’t something we see as a best practice in general, it works for them and they should keep doing it.

So, the lesson from this is something that we all say, but perhaps not enough: test it. If you have an idea for something that can increase response, try it out with your audience and see if it does. What matters is what works for your program, not what the conventional wisdom sees as a best practice.

As a speaker, “test it” could be the answer to just about any question asked. But that wouldn’t be very satisfying to the asker. So, we try to provide thoughts based on our experiences and best practice – but “test it” always needs to be part of the equation. That’s the only way you will truly find out what works with your audience.

Until next time,


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