This month’s column for MediaPost Email Insider is really about keeping you honest with your email program’s objectives. Remember, your objective is not to send email – it’s to drive your business forward. Sometimes in our efforts to get out an email for the sake of getting out an email, we hunt around for the right hook to lead with and often spy what is topical. Here are some tips on how to use topical to your advantage, and when to resist the temptation to jump into a conversation your brand doesn’t really want to have in the first place.

Would Your Read This Column If It Were About Super Bowl Ads?
by Mike May
Published on 2.9.11 in MediaPost’s Email Insider

Despite what the title may lead you to believe, this column is not about Super Bowl ads. It certainly could be. As an audience of marketers, I may be correct in assuming that you might be interested in Super Bowl ads.. Plus, everybody else is writing about Super Bowl ads. Among an audience of marketers, there is perhaps no more topical topic.

On the other hand, the topic is so topical that it’s hackneyed at this point. By Monday at lunchtime, how many articles, tweets and blog posts had you read about Super Bowl ads? That was days ago; what can I possibly have to add to the discussion? If I write about Super Bowl ads now, I’m the very opposite of what I intend to be by picking up this topical trend.

And while you may be a targeted audience for this topic, as an email marketer I am not uniquely qualified to write about Super Bowl ads. However topical, for me Super Bowl ads are decidedly off-topic.

As an email columnist, I’ve shown some restraint here. As email marketers, sometimes the lure to be topical is too strong to resist. To wit: do a search in your inbox for “Valentine” in the subject line. (Repeat it again in a week for the full effect.) You’ll see some messages that are well-targeted, perhaps from retailers that have every business capitalizing on the collective mindshare we have for the upcoming holiday.

Looking in my own inbox, I see… well, never mind what kind of stores I seem to shop at (a lot) around Valentine’s Day. Moving on, I also see a message from a travel site. That’s stretching it a bit, as this travel site also knows I book family vacations and rent minivans when I travel. That message from a promotional marketing company has no business playing the V-Day card, nor does my alma mater’s Annual Giving department. (Seriously? You want me to give my college a Valentine’s Day gift?) I shudder at what is going to show up in the next few days.

Here are some of the rules I try to follow on the topic of topical emails:

1. Be authentic. Topical is the new beige. Email marketers who rely on what is newsworthy or current to forge a connection with their subscribers are like the guy at the cocktail party who, at a lull in the conversation, blurts out, “So how about those Caps?” having never even watched a full pro hockey game in his life. If Valentine’s Day is important to your business, by all means use it. If it’s not, you run the risk of looking like you don’t know what you are talking about or — or worse, like you cannot think of a genuine reason to ask for your subscribers’ attention. I don’t want to talk hockey with a guy who doesn’t know hockey; subscribers deserve the same conversational respect.

2. Do your homework. To be fair, your email database is probably not rich enough to indicate how many hockey games per month each subscriber attends. But you do know if they purchased gardening equipment last spring, traveled to Park City in March, or opened a message about barbeque  tips. Use what you do know, and say something meaningful to your subscribers, instead of resorting to trendy platitudes.

3. If you don’t have anything interesting to say… If there is a topical storm already brewing in the inbox and you are on the outside, wait it out. Adding your voice only increases the din. Let the storm pass and then re-engage your subscribers. (A tip: don’t begin with, “So, how about that storm?”)