E-Mail: Online Marketing’s Overlooked Stepchild?

Before SEO (define), before PPC (define) SEM (define), before interstitials, dayparting, and road blocks, there was email. But lately, I’ve felt email has taken a backseat to search engines, banners, and other types of online marketing. Case in point:

  • A recent survey delving into how marketers choose online agencies lists “expertise in search engine marketing” front and center, along with a number of other factors. E-mail expertise? Not on the list.
  • Many large organizations that optimize banners and search to the nth degree seem to consider email an afterthought. Their segmentation, targeting, testing, and analysis are focused on the former. E-mail is sent and reported on, but not scrutinized to the extent of other online marketing efforts.
  • E-mail has long suffered from an identity crisis. Tell people you do online marketing, and they immediately ask about PPC search. Tell them you do email, and too often the response is “Oh, you do spam.”

E-mail is like any other type of marketing. It takes time to perfect your approach. Many marketers seem impatient with email. If they don’t hit a homerun out of the park with their initial efforts, they stop trying.

I’m big on industry benchmarks. Though meeting them isn’t a requirement for success, they do provide a framework for projections. Yet instead of inspiring marketers to test, benchmarks are often viewed as unattainable ideals. “Those numbers must be inflated” is an all-to-common reaction. I’ve worked with clients more than once over the years where we took a dog of an email program and turned it around, creating programs that rival or surpass those “inflated” industry benchmarks. It’s not rocket science, just marketing fundamentals. Here’s a quick refresher:

  1. Track. To get where you’re going, you have to know where you are. The most effective tracking goes beyond opens and clicks, following readers all through the process. It tracks their activity on the landing page and any other site pages or offline stepping stones that lead to the desired action, be it entering contact information for lead generation, making an on- or offline purchase, or something else.
  2. Report. As I was recently reminded by a colleague, it’s easy to get bogged down in email reports. There are very powerful reporting systems out there for email. They cover everything you could imagine, and more. But don’t let yourself get overwhelmed. Focus on the basics: email messages assumed delivered, unique opens, unique clicks. Save the more advanced stuff for later. Improving basic metrics is the best way to see big results in a short time. More detailed information is better for fine-tuning after you’ve come close to your goals.
  3. Analyze. Tracking and reporting are good, but without analysis you won’t go anywhere. Why do you see the results you see? I like to review reports, then percolate on the results. It takes time to develop an understanding and articulate findings and next steps. Reporting is a science; analysis is a bit of an art.
  4. Test. I once got into a debate about testing. A colleague said you should never send email with doing at least one test. Though testing is important, there are times (a daily email newsletter with a long-term retention focus) when not every send must include a test. If you want to improve results, particularly if your goal is an immediate one (lead generation, sales), testing is critical. Doing an A/B split on your list is the best way to go. That way, macro environmental issues won’t color results (as they might if you try to compare this month’s results to last month’s).

    Is your list so small an A/B split can’t provide statistically significant samples? Conduct A/B tests over the course of a few months. Repeat the same test until the sample sizes are statistically significant. Then compare the results, declare a winner, and start the process over by testing a different email factor.

  5. Implement. Lessons aren’t of any use until they’re put into practice. Turn what testing tells you into standard operating procedure. Be sure to document what the lesson is and how you plan to make it part of your email program going forward. Historic information is very valuable; you don’t want someone new to change a key success factor without knowing it.
  6. Repeat. E-mail is an ongoing process. You’re never really done. Success in email marketing is always about taking your efforts to the next level. If your cost per order is down to $5, shoot for $4.50. It’s about constant improvement, not a one-time win.

If email isn’t considered as sexy as search or as creative as banners in your organization, it’s time for a jumpstart. Your agency or creative team may view other forms of online marketing as more exciting than email. But done properly email can be a real asset to any online marketing program.

Until next time,


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