Digital MarketingEmail MarketingCorners You Can Cut (and Ones You Can’t)

Corners You Can Cut (and Ones You Can't)

When (and how) to deviate from e-mail campaign standard operating procedure -- without busting your budget or schedule.

It’s easy to get spoiled when your company has a large, well-structured e-mail development program. You figure out the strategy and write a project brief. Your external agencies and internal support teams implement and handle all the details: creative, list pull, conversion tracking, and send. You handle reviews and approvals along the way, then revel in the (hopefully successful) results.

But what about when this process is overkill?

No matter how large your company, there may be times when standard operating procedure for developing e-mail isn’t a good fit:

  • Microsegmentation: Even if you have several million names on your list, there may be times when you need to send to a segment of just a few thousand, just a few hundred, even less than 100. When you’re dealing with small quantities like this, using professional agency services (as good as they are) can kill your cost per order (CPO).
  • Budget constraints: Even big companies have budgets. Strategic products get more dollars; secondary or unproven products are allocated less. If your budget’s tight, you could easily spend it all on the creative portion of the e-mail with nothing left for the send, no matter what the list size.
  • Time constraints: Most schedules require a few weeks to get an e-mail from brief to send. A week to write and approve copy, another week for design, four days for e-mail service provider (ESP) setup. And that’s assuming everything goes smoothly. Sometimes, you don’t have that much time. If you’re looking to leverage breaking news, spending almost a month getting an e-mail out the door won’t cut it.

How do you get these things done with a reasonable CPO, without breaking your budget or timeframe? Sometimes you have to let go of your cushy standard operating procedure and get your hands dirty. Here are some tips for doing that, without jeopardizing quality.


When you work with top agencies, creative for a single e-mail can start at $5,000. That’s not counting a landing page, multiple versions, or images you must pay for. Can’t justify this? There are options.

If you have to go it alone on creative, try to find previous e-mail creative you can use as a starting point. Get the HTML and make changes that way. Keep it simple. It’s not hard to change copy. Just be very cautious. Programs like FrontPage can add code that won’t render correctly in e-mail clients, though it looks fine in a Web browser. I like to use FrontPage to visually check the code, but I always cut, paste, and save just the code I’ve purposely changed in Notepad.

Before you send, double check that the code is clean. Your ESP may offer a check. Mine did, but I wasn’t certain what was wrong or how to fix it. To get more detail, I used a search engine to find another free online HTML code checker, then did a search on the error messages. I learned how to clean up my code.


Many big companies outsource list work, such as merge/purge to suppress unsubscribes, remove current customers, and segment. Just because you usually have an outside vendor do this doesn’t mean you don’t have the resources in-house. Check. If your internal data processing team can do you a favor, just this once, it can save you thousands of dollars. Just be sure they’re clear about the rules. If you send to someone who previously unsubscribed, even by mistake, it’s a CAN-SPAM violation.

Conversion Tracking

This is always worth the money if you use e-mail to sell. If you don’t have a way to track conversions, you won’t know whether the e-mail was effective. Some Web analytics packages allow you to do this easily and cheaply; in other cases, you must pay an analytics agency to do it. Agency fees for this type of tracking can start around $750. It’s money well spent. Just do it. Don’t skimp here.

The Send

I’m a huge ESP fan, especially the full-service kind. But if your budget can’t muster a setup fee of $1,000 or more, it’s time to look for alternatives. Many full-service ESPs offer self-service options. You get the same quality deliverability, tracking, and reporting you’d get on a full-service send, you just have to drive the actual send yourself.

Most of these systems aren’t quite as user-friendly as lower-end systems designed for self-service. But if you spend a little time with them, you can usually figure it out (and most ESPs offer some level of training/support for self-service clients). Be careful. If you’re not trained, it’s easy to mess things up.

Ask your ESP if you can use its self-service option for smaller quantity, lower budget, or tighter timeframe sends. You’ll still have to pay the CPM (define) fee, but this can eliminate the setup fee associated with each send.

What’s It All Worth?

Is it a lot more trouble and effort to do it yourself, instead of using your standard operating procedure? Yes, but if it’s just a once-in-a-while thing, it can pay off.

As example below shows, if you can do it yourself, your total cost — and CPO — could drop significantly:

Standard Operating
Proceedure ($)
Do-It-Yourself ($)
Creative 5,000
List 2,000
Conversion tracking 750 750
Send* 1,007 7
Total cost 8,757 757
Orders 40 40
Cost per order 219 19
*Assumes setup fee of $1,000, $7 CPM, Q=1,000.

I don’t recommend doing this all the time. Just in special circumstances when your usual e-mail marketing machine is overkill. Try it yourself and let me know how it goes.

Until next time,


Want more e-mail marketing information? ClickZ E-Mail Reference is an archive of all our e-mail columns, organized by topic.

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