We Tried Email — It Didn’t Work

Nothing is more frustrating than trying to overcome a prospect’s aversion to email marketing. Typically, the aversion was created by someone walking into the prospect’s office and proffering email marketing as the silver bullet, a cure-all, and a magic wand. When email marketing failed to meet these lofty expectations, the prospect turned sour on the entire concept. Truth is, email marketing (like any other form of direct marketing) is a process that requires an analytical mind and a strong stomach for failure.

It should come as no surprise email marketing is not the rainbow to the pot of gold some make it out to be. Email marketing is an electronic extension of direct marketing. Nothing more, nothing less. Any direct marketing professional worth her salt will tell you building a prosperous direct marketing program is a heuristic process of tests. They end in both success and failure. Each positive test identifies a variable to success that will be leveraged as frequently as possible in the future. Each negative test identifies a variable to failure to be avoided like the plague in the future.

There can be major breakthroughs, but as with anything else success is usually achieved in baby steps, not giant leaps forward. Unfortunately, many marketing professionals unfamiliar with the principles of direct have been led to believe email is an express train to fortune.

One of email marketing’s great advantages over other forms of marketing (even many forms of direct marketing) is measurability. The sheer amount of customer data that can be collected and analyzed from a single campaign can overwhelm. This data provides answers to questions that couldn’t even be asked with other forms of marketing.

In most instances, marketing professionals who have written email off don’t realize the level to which email is measurable. They have defined success in the simplest terms: incremental sales revenue. I agree generating incremental sales revenue is the ultimate goal of any marketing program, but a one-and-done mindset regarding executions that don’t generate incremental sales revenue is unwise.

I offer the experience of a prospect-turned-client who had tried email marketing and pronounced it a failure. When an associate of mine probed with questions about target audience, offer, subject line, open rate, click-through rate, and unsubscribe rate, it became obvious this marketing professional was completely unfamiliar with basic email marketing terminology and capabilities.

Upon being referred to a member of the marketing professional’s team, we learned the information was available, but nobody bothered to analyze the data. Instead, the team measured sales revenue on the day the email campaign launched and compared it to the average daily sales revenue generated the prior month. This analysis indicated the email campaign generated a lift in sales, but not enough to achieve the internal hurdle management set for the campaign. Credit the prospect-turned-client for allowing us to perform a cursory review of the campaign and associated customer data.

Through that review we learned the following:

  • The audience for the email campaign was every customer who had provided an email address to the client, but the offer was a significant discount on a single item. The item was within one of many product categories. Although the aggregate click-through rate for the campaign was disappointing, the click-through rate among individuals who had purchased items within the same product category was well above average. Past purchase history is a reliable indicator of future purchase intent. By targeting the offer to a smaller audience, the one most likely to be interested in the item, the client could achieve similar results and reduce email transmission expenses. In addition, it could deliver messages tailored to the purchase history of the remaining audience.

  • The click-through rate among recipients who had purchased within the same product category was well above average, but the conversion rate among these customers was below expectations. On investigation, we learned the email linked to the home page, although the offer featured one specific item. This likely created confusion and frustration among customers who clicked on the link. When people are willing to give you money, make it simple to collect. By linking the customer directly to the product page, the client would reduce (probably eliminate) customer frustration, hence increased conversion rates.

These were just two opportunities for improvement we found in a cursory review of the campaign. Future email campaigns incorporated our recommendations. Some paid dividends. Others showed no promise. Remember: Email marketing is wrought with failure.

Email marketing is a continuum, not a single point in time. It cannot be deemed a success or failure by any single execution. It’s a process requiring constant analysis of customer data to determine aspects that succeeded and those that failed.

Solutions to the aspects that failed are developed, implemented, and measured. Email marketing is no express train to fortune. It’s a never-ending local that makes many stops. Many places are better than where you were before. Be prepared for a journey — it’s worth the trip.

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