There Are No Email Experts Yet

Depending on what kind of ears you have, you can hear one of two things:

You can hear chaos and conclude that nobody knows what they’re talking about. And feel depressed. Or you can hear chaos and conclude that nobody knows what they’re talking about. And grin from ear to ear.

Last week I attended (and spoke) at IIR’s Effective Email Marketing Strategies conference in New York. It was chaos. Almost everything that each speaker said contradicted what another speaker said. One said that it works better to identify your company name in the subject line of outbound email. Another said this is a bad idea.

One speaker said to use the word “free” in your subject line. Another said, good luck with my spam filter. One said to pre-check the opt-in box when asking for permission to market from your web site. Another said, that’s not opt-in. One speaker said that short email copy works best: one screen with one link.

Another speaker said long email copy works best. One said go for text-only messages, another said use HTML. One said email response rates from opt-in lists are at about 2.5 percent. Someone else said 13 percent. Someone else said 18 percent. (But almost everyone agreed that the last figure came from someone who had clearly been chewing too many coffee beans before reaching for the microphone.)

So what’s a person to do when the experts disagree? From my observations at the conference, people reacted in one of two ways:

One group felt disappointed. These were the people who paid a good dollar to come and get the answers they needed to take back to their jobs. They needed figures. They needed proven case histories. They needed the how-to manual of email marketing success.

This wasn’t an unreasonable expectation. We all go to conferences to collect “actionable solutions.” Does this mean that the email experts at this conference failed to deliver?

I don’t think so.

I think all the contradictions and the lack of “actionable solutions” simply reflects the real infancy of the email marketing industry. There are no manuals yet. You can’t go to the bookstore and find a 10-step guide. You can’t look at 50 years of test results and draw some conclusions that are going to be correct to within a tenth of a percentage point.

We’re just not there yet. Everyone is still learning — and making lots of mistakes. Which is why another group of people chatting in the corridors at this conference reacted in a quite different way.

These were the entrepreneurs. This is where you found the gleaming eyes. Because when you find a young industry in its infancy and still in a state of chaos, you also find opportunity. Where you see contradictions among the experts, you see the need for solutions. Where you see the lack of a definitive guide to success, you see an unmet market demand.

What did I take away from the conference?

I was excited to see the chaotic convergence of two of the hottest areas in online marketing — direct marketing and email. I was delighted to see that nobody has the answers yet. And I was really interested to see that some larger and more established online companies appear to be lagging behind in these key areas.

The smaller companies, still light on their feet, seem to be getting there faster. Which is great. Because the Internet economy still provides the perfect environment in which the little guys/girls can prevail.

Until, of course, they become big guys/girls.

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