Ten Steps for Developing an Effective E-mail Strategy, Part 1

Strategy is one of the most important, and the most overlooked, elements of a successful e-mail marketing campaign. It’s possible to practice e-mail marketing for years without a formal strategy. But there comes a time when you need one to take your efforts to the next level. Here’s how.

I’d been creating e-mail strategies for years, but I never gave the develop process a lot of thought until I had to write a chapter about it for my book. That the publisher is giving this chapter away as a sample to sell the book tells me it’s good; but it was the most difficult one to write.

E-mail strategy is a lot like teaching someone to ride a bicycle: work directly with an eager student and a bike, and it’s a can-do proposition. But ask me (or anyone else, for that matter) to write out directions students can use to teach themselves to ride a bike, well, that’s a much greater challenge.

Here are the 10 steps you need to take to develop an effective e-mail strategy:

  1. Identify qualitative goals.
  2. Analyze the current situation.
  3. Complete a competitive analysis.
  4. Define the target audience.
  5. Determine which types of e-mail meet your needs.
  6. Develop a content strategy and a frequency and send schedule.
  7. Design the e-mail template.
  8. Create quantitative goals.
  9. Compile budget and ROI (define) projections.
  10. Evaluate results and tweak the strategy accordingly.

I’ll cover the first two in this column, and we’ll tackle the rest in subsequent columns. That gives me adequate space for each step and provides you time to work on your own plan, bit by bit, as we go. If you keep up, you’ll have a full plan in eight weeks. Then you can begin to implement it.

Identify Qualitative Goals

This is a just a fancy way of asking what you want an e-mail program to do for your organization. We’re not talking numbers here, just simple prose. Things like:

  • Sell my products.
  • Deliver qualified leads for my services.
  • Entice people to register for my events.
  • Drive repeat traffic to my Web site.
  • Generate revenue via advertising.
  • Build my reputation as an expert in my field.
  • Keep my company top of mind with prospects.

There are a million ways to express qualitative goals. Use language you’re comfortable with. That said, all qualitative goals tend to revolve around one of two things:

  • Acquiring new customers and/or revenue
  • Retaining or renewing existing customers and/or revenue

Your industry may use “clients,” “members,” “donors,” “subscribers,” “advertisers,” or another term in place of “customers.” Whatever you call them, it’s all about acquisition and retention.

Analyze the Current Situation

This isn’t nearly as involved as it sounds. You probably have most of the information in your head right now. You just need to get it down on paper so you can use it more effectively. Another plus to putting it in writing: it’s easier to share with superiors, peers, and subordinates and helps assure that everyone is, literally, on the same page.

This will be an easier and quicker exercise if you focus. Get away from the ringing phone, close your door, or post your “do not disturb” sign on your cubicle. Don’t look at e-mail or IM. It’s hard to focus when you’re being interrupted.

Start with brainstorming and writing down the basics:

  • House list
    • How many e-mail addresses do you have?
    • How did you acquire them?
    • What’s your monthly growth rate?
    • What are your best sources of new names?
    • How much, on average, does it cost to acquire a new e-mail address?
    • What else do you know about your house list?

  • Current e-mail campaigns
    • How frequently do you mail?
    • What do you mail? Include campaigns and one-offs.
    • What’s your current e-mail marketing budget?
    • How much does it cost you, on average, to send 1,000 e-mail messages?
    • How does your e-mail perform?
      • Deliverability, opens, and clicks
      • Conversions and bottom-line success measures, like leads, sales, renewals, and revenue
      • Any other performance metrics relevant to your qualitative goals

    • What else do you know about your current e-mail campaigns?

  • Other marketing
    • What other online marketing are you doing related to your qualitative goals?
      • How well do they perform?
      • Are they related to e-mail marketing efforts?

    • Offline marketing
      • How well do these perform?
      • Are they related to e-mail marketing efforts?

    • What else do you know about your other current marketing campaigns?

  • Other aspects of your current e-mail situation
    • What staff or outside expertise on e-mail and your industry do you have access to?
    • How well does your current e-mail technology solution meet your needs?
    • What’s the process for developing an e-mail from scratch?
    • How do you determine what gets sent to whom, when, and how often?

Keep looking over what you’ve written and add to it. Don’t worry about organization or structure now, just dive in and keep jotting down the things you know about your current program.

It may be easier to do this in a room with a whiteboard (I love whiteboards!) and a small team of people who are responsible for e-mail. Do whatever it takes to get it all out of your head (or heads) and down on paper for posterity.

Once you’ve got it all down, look at it. This is where strategy becomes like a puzzle. All the pieces are there in what you’ve written, you just need to put them together in a logical way that provides a snapshot of your program.

The goal is to identify your current e-mail program’s strengths and weaknesses. These should be things under your control, not factors outside your organization’s sphere of influence. We’ll include these in a strengths-weaknesses-opportunities-threats (SWOT) analysis later, but don’t worry about that right now. You’re looking for good things you can further leverage (strengths) as well as shortcomings you have the means to either improve or compensate for (weaknesses).

Strengths might include things like:

  • We have industry thought-leaders on our advisory board who are willing to contribute articles to any e-mail newsletters we publish, free of charge.
  • There are over 10,000 e-mail addresses on our house e-mail list we can communicate with, and it’s growing 3 percent every month.
  • Our Web site has an effective online order process in place.

Weaknesses might include things like:

  • Our in-house e-mail marketing expertise and experience are limited.
  • We’re using an outdated e-mail system that doesn’t provide adequate tracking and reporting.
  • The turnaround time for producing a single e-mail is so long that the information’s no longer timely.

Prioritize to identify which items are your biggest strengths and biggest weaknesses. These are the things most likely to help you reach (strengths) keep you from (weaknesses) your qualitative goals.

Keep your list of strengths and weaknesses handy. Look at it every day. Make notes and feel free to add to or review them as necessary. There’ll come a time when you no longer feel a strong need to change them. That’s when you’ll know they’re complete.

In the next column, I’ll tackle items three and four: complete a competitive analysis, and define the target audience.

Until then, good luck with those qualitative goals and analyses of your current situation. Feel free to contact me if you have questions.

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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