Originally published in MediaPost’s Email Insider

Last week I was at the office of one of our clients, conducting a couple of days’ worth of sessions on The Strategic Email Program. One of the meetings was with the heads of the organization’s various business units and other members of the senior management team. These are people who do not have day-to-day responsibility for email marketing, but whose function requires them to oversee communications strategy and all of the levers that drive their businesses. You want to talk big picture? These people use big pictures as tiles in enormous mosaics.

At one point, the discussion turned towards the delivery of messages – not deliverability or the percentage of messages that reached the inbox or were opened, but the connection between the brand and the subscriber that is impacted each time a message is sent. If you have a strong relationship with your subscribers, every message reinforces that connection. But if the relationship is tenuous, unwanted or irrelevant messages can stretch it thinner. Much of the day was about balancing today’s immediate and urgent needs with the long-term health of the email business, to make sure that it’s still strong enough to support tomorrow’s needs, and next quarter’s, and the needs of your business in five years. Because each message can amplify the relationship between the brand and the subscriber, discretion becomes the greater part of valor and email should be a highly purposeful process. “Your objective is not to get out the mail, like USPS,” I suggested. “Your objective is to move your business forward, and to use email when it helps you to achieve that objective.”

To my mind, the only thing better than a metaphor is an extended metaphor. One member of the group, the organization’s CTO, made me a lifelong fan by saying, “We actually should be a lot more like FedEx than the USPS, right? I hate seeing the mail carrier – he doesn’t bring me anything but junk or bills. But when I see the FedEx truck pull up, I’m at the door waiting for the driver.”

The whole group picked up on this thread, turning it into an eye-opening conversation about the difference between Permission and Anticipation. Here is some of what we discussed:

Start with permission, but don’t end there: Permission is a fundamental tenet of email marketing, of course. It’s the cost of doing business but is only the first step in the relationship between your brand and subscribers. The next step is attention. If you have teenage children you already know the difference between permission and attention: being allowed to talk to them is a far cry from them actually listening to you. Similarly with email, the objective is to move beyond permission to engaged listening, and ultimately to anticipation. If your subscribers react to your brand in their inbox in the same way they do to the FedEx truck in front of their house, you’ve built a powerful and lasting relationship.

Delivery is an opportunity for excitement: My wife orders pretty regularly from HauteLook and Gild Group, a class of retailers we commonly refer to as “60% off dot com”. When I see one of their boxes on the stoop I immediately text her the message “60% off!” (Today there were 2 packages so the message was “120% off!”). Can your email messages be as anticipated as $249 jeans for $115 and free shipping? I don’t know, but that’s certainly something to shoot for.

Excitement is in the eye of the beholder (ie, not yours): I do not go through the mail and message her gleefully “Unsolicited offer for a low APR! Ooh, and two 120-page catalogs from the same company!” As exciting as high ROI and customer acquisition is to you, it’s probably less so to untargeted or disinterested prospects. For the long-term health of your email program, look beyond near-term ROI and consider the enduring relationship you’d like to have with your subscribers.

Permission creates doors; anticipation opens them: Signing on a new subscriber does not necessarily mean that person is ready to do business with you. In our parcel-delivery metaphor, it means you are now allowed to knock on that person’s door. They may or may not hear you, and they may or may not open the door if they do hear you. But if you are bringing something they’re waiting for, the door will open and your delivery is welcome.

Don’t confuse anticipation for another brand with your own: I’ve often posited that the greatest challenge to each company’s email program is every other company’s email programs: full inboxes and chaotic calls for attention create a nearly impermeable clutter. But one of the members of the group I spoke with spun it differently. She wondered if the source of that clutter wasn’t actually a driver of higher open rates. “I have to be in my inbox all the time because there is a lot of what I genuinely want or need in there. So I click and open just about everything, even if it’s not what I want, just to get it out of the way to make room for the stuff I am waiting for.” The conclusion we drew is that any attention paid to the inbox can be an opportunity. Take advantage of it with messages that reward that attention, instead of hijack it.