Context Matters

A couple of years ago at a ClickZ conference in Boston, when the new economy was in full blather and froth, I finished a speech by telling a story about my late Uncle Edwin, whom we all knew as “Uncle Sonny.”

I gave a rambling, fulsome account of his biography, which included references to skin grafts he donated to a young burn victim he didn’t know and the fact that he introduced me to the fine art of picking dewberries along dusty railroad sidings. I could tell the crowd was getting restless as I went deeper and deeper into the minutia of one man’s life.

The audience wanted a payoff that would tie everything together. I was aware of that. Instead, I gave them the only ending that I thought was appropriate in a time of frenzied business activity, “I wish each of you an ordinary life.” (It wasn’t a “stage wish,” either. I meant it. And, now, in the light of all that’s transpired since, I’m so glad that I offered that particular wish.)

In telling the story about my Uncle Sonny at that conference, I was, consciously, going against the grain. (I don’t mean that to sound as though I was being courageous. It was, after all, just a speech for a group of marketers.) I was acutely aware of the context. And I moved against it.

Like my speech at this conference, every message has a context in which it is communicated and received. You need to be aware of these contexts. When possible, you should create your marketing messages with an awareness of them.

When I first open my email box in the morning, I am not the same person that I am when opening it in late afternoon or late evening. If I am reading your email marketing message while I’m traveling, that’s quite a different experience than reading it late at night in my apartment.

Then, too, there is the context of world events and news. (I could give an extensive reference to September 11 here, but I’m not going to. I think myself and others have “used” September 11 too much. Though our intentions might have been good, a point comes when silence is the only course. The novelist and thinker Walker Percy pointed out how certain words can become exhausted and lose their claim upon us. I fear that through overuse and over-exposure, all of us have lost September 11. Wanting to signify and memorialize an event of this magnitude is natural, but there’s been an overabundance of packaging, promotion, and stage management. We’ve all made and consumed too much “product.” I believe we will cover over the sacred for years. It has time, though; it can wait for rediscovery.)

National and world events can drain away the substance and urgency of a given marketing message. For example, on that bizarre weekend when almost all news media were relentlessly focused on the search for John F. Kennedy Jr.’s plane, my Web visits were different. It was as though my eyes had wax on them. Very little could reach me. Colors seemed muted.

There are still other contexts. For example, right now is a tough time to be marketing enterprise software. In classic binge-and-purge fashion, corporate technology buyers have gone from giddy to cynical. They’ve heard all the buzzwords. They know that ROI is what everybody says and very few deliver. So, are you going to send the same old email marketing message into this den of wolves? Don’t bother.

What follows is a taxonomy of contexts that can effect your business-to-business (B2B) email marketing campaign. It is not exhaustive, but I think it’s a good start. I begin with the recipient, that is, the reader, and move out from there.

The Reader

The reader works in a profession that has its own challenges and concerns. She is in a particular industry, such as automotive or pharmaceuticals. She has a place on the organizational chart and may want to move up or just hunker down. The reader is at home, in an office, or on the road. He is a member of a certain generation. He is working for a specific company that has recently had a bad quarter or a management shakeup. Because of concerns about viruses, the reader may be suspicious of any email that appears to have an attached file. She is a customer or a prospect. She may be employed by a public company whose annual report featured intriguing hints about an upcoming corporate product or initiative. The reader may be in Argentina or Singapore. He could be a top corporate technologist.

The Medium

A lot can be said about the context created by the email medium itself. But for the purposes of this column, let’s focus on the first impression of the email environment. You open your email box, most likely with some sense of dread or anticipation, and what do you see? Columns of visually uninteresting text, including sender and subject lines and dates. You scan the columns looking for anything familiar: a familiar person’s or company’s name. You take a note of things that are different from the usual pattern. For example: a subject line that is centered as opposed to left-justified. You may notice that one email or another has an attached file.

Friends, let’s pause for a moment. In this email box — just a bunch of columns with not much room for copy or any kind of differentiation — you have the arena in which campaigns live or die. Some days, it seems a marvel that these campaigns work at all. Mercifully, though, they do. I think it’s because readers, despite being jaded by increasingly bizarre forms of porn spam and other gimmickry, still like getting mail and being acknowledged.

The Sender

Is this email from a brand-name company or a person I’ve heard of? Has this company been in the news lately and, if so, was the coverage favorable or not? Am I a customer of this company? Is the email coming from a media outlet that I rely on or trust? Is the email from a professional peer, a fellow CFO or CIO?

The Macro

Has the economy rebounded? Did Bill Gates or Larry Ellison say something that bears repeating? Is it a presidential election year? Is it an oppressively hot summer? Did Wall Street recently have a record day?

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