Creating a Good E-Mail Marketing Strategy

More than 200 years ago, Voltaire said, “The perfect is the enemy of the good.” It’s a concept that still holds true today.

A recent Jupiter Research executive survey asked e-mail marketers what their greatest challenge was for improving their e-mail programs. The answer: “Knowing where to begin.” My response to these confused marketers: Start somewhere; start anywhere. Even the smallest change you make today will start you down the path to the right strategy.

It’s like preparing to run a marathon. Creating the perfect training program of running, cross-training, and weights will help you build strength and stamina and earn a respectable race time. But the time you spent developing that program will be wasted unless you first decide to run the marathon and take your first training run.

Similarly, if you wait until you have the “perfect” e-mail-marketing strategy, you could overlook a “good” first step, which could actually lead you to your perfect solution. The following five areas are where e-mail marketers often get stymied. I suggest the “perfect” solution and a “good” first step to get started.


Perfect: When your Web analytics and e-mail platforms are integrated, Web-site browser data can give you the best in-market data to create meaningful segments for more relevant e-mail.

Good: Your e-mail click data gives you the same type of information about consumers’ pre-purchase intent. So, code your links by product or product category. Use that as your first segmentation category.

Triggered Messaging

Perfect: Suppose you want to reduce your cart-abandonment rate with a triggered message that reminds the visitor to complete the sale. You’ll get richer information for cross-sells with integrated Web analytics, which can pinpoint items left in carts so that recommendation engines can suggest alternatives.

Good: Your e-mail service provider’s pixel-tracking service can report when visitors abandon their carts. Use that information to generate an e-mail with a generic offer to return. If that pays off, you can make a better business case for investing in the Web analytics integration you need for the more sophisticated strategy.

Suppressing Inactive Subscribers

This is a hot issue. Most marketers evaluate it from an economic perspective: “Will I make more money than it costs to keep e-mailing these people?” However, the cost to e-mail inactives goes beyond just the monetary expense. List churn is the real driver, but it’s hard to test and analyze.

Perfect: Answer the churn question: “Do I want to risk driving away customers, not just from my e-mail program but also from my company or brand, because of inappropriate frequency or e-mail irrelevance?”

Good: Answer this question: “Do I want to risk having my e-mail blocked by the major ISPs because I continue to e-mail the inactive segment of my database?”

Many marketers’ first instinct is to suppress their inactives, but a more thoughtful and profitable first step is to reduce frequency to that segment. And when you do send to the inactive segment, you should throttle the delivery. You’re less likely to risk damaging your active mailing list — your high-performing asset — while retaining your inactive list as an asset that still produces income above the marginal cost to send.

Figuring Your E-mail Acquisition Costs

If you don’t know how much you spend to acquire a new e-mail address, you can’t think about the economics of e-mail acquisition or the cost of increased frequency on churn.

Perfect: Calculate your current e-mail acquisition costs, if you haven’t done it already, or update your estimate, if it’s been more than a year. This is a thoughtful exercise that will involve others at your company and some time and effort to find the most accurate number, which also figures into your e-mail program’s ROI (define).

Good: Dig out an old envelope, sharpen a pencil, and make a few educated guesses. Do it by the end of this week. If you can’t do this 10-minute exercise or lack the figures to tell you, then just pick a number: $1, $3, or $5. This will at least start you on the discipline of knowing that e-mail addresses do have a value and will prompt you to make decisions in this context.

Optimizing the Production Process

Perfect: Redesign the production process to spend less time on getting the mail out and more time thinking strategically about how to improve the current messages and how to move the program toward more triggered, lifecycle actions.

Good: Use message templates to reduce time spent creating e-mail for broadcast campaigns. A good template allows some flexibility for creativity, but also reduces repetitious hand-coding.

I encourage clients to use templates on standard e-mail messages to improve productivity. Your creative team might be concerned about the structure a template imposes, but other people already assume that templates are being used. In two separate client meetings recently, each client’s CMO remarked, “I thought we already used a template.” They didn’t. Every Web site uses a template. Your e-mail should, too.

Think Someday; Act Today

Waiting for the perfect strategy to meet a business goal forces you to adopt a someday viewpoint. Yes, you should always work toward a long-term goal, but a today approach encourages you to find something you can do now to start the improvement process.

As Nike says, “Just do it.” It can be anything.

Join us for a one-day Online Marketing Summit in a city near you from May 5, 2009, to July 1, 2009. Choose from one of 11 one-day events designed to help interactive marketers do their jobs more effectively. All sessions are new this year and cover such topics as social media, e-mail marketing, search, and integrated marketing. Register 30 days in advance and get a $40 discount!

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