This month for my article in MediaPost’s Email Insider I write about some all new challenges facing email marketers. Actually they’re not exactly new but they don’t get the airplay that deliverability and engagement metrics do. Instead, I focus on some of the internal challenges that could hamper your email program – internal perception, budget cuts, and management issues. But don’t worry – if you made it through the SPAM crisis of 2005 and you’ve integrated into mobile devices without missing a step, you’ll tackle these in stride as well.

Skeptics, Scourges And Scallywags: Marginalizing Your Email Program’s Internal Challenges
by Mike May
published on 6.1.11 in MediaPost’s Email Insider

We all know email is hard. Deliverability challenges, narrowing windows of attention, increased clutter, multiple platforms and devices all conspire to drive even the most seasoned email marketers to MediaPost and other trade pubs to read advice on how to make a little bit easier. The truth is that even with increased expertise, email doesn’t get easier; you just get better results.

And all of those challenges are just the external ones – what is going on in and around your subscribers’ inboxes that makes it more difficult to connect with them. Email marketers face a litany of internal challenges as well, each of which can create obstacles as aggravating as deliverability hiccups and waning engagement metrics. Internal perception, budgeting and resource allocation, staffing and management all can have as significant an impact on your email program as the size of your house list or the results of your A/B testing.

You probably already have goals in place to measure the improvement of your email program against external metrics, whether it is to boost the readership of your primary newsletter or generate a greater percentage of transactions from email. Consider adding these internal goals as well, to make sure your email program has the support it needs to meet all its objectives:

1. Communicate email’s achievements. Your email program does a lot of good that goes largely unheralded. Because it is not as expensive as search, as visible as print or TV advertising, or as sexy as social, it doesn’t enjoy as much attention from the corner office. But consider a marketing campaign without the use of email — how much additional the budget for other channels would need to be, the fewer points of contact your brand would have with your customers, how attribution and metrics would trail off precipitously – and suddenly email’s true value to a communications program becomes clear. If your email program is taken for granted, it may be time for an internal PR campaign around it. To shore up perception among senior management, create a regular report touting some of email’s unsung metrics: total points of customer contact per month, number of new subscribers, percentage of transactions attributable to email. How do you share this report with senior management? With an email newsletter, naturally. (At the very least, you can study the analytics to see who is paying attention and engaged, in advance of the next budget request.)

2. Set realistic expectations. There is a danger in the perceptions of email leaning too far in the other direction as well. Just as slashing resources allocated to email can compromise your program’s performance, relying too heavily on email instead of an integrated pan-channel communications program can likewise hamstring your results. In some organizations, the budget for email is protected while other more expensive channels are subject to frequent and even radical trimming. But email can’t do everything by itself, and it’s the email marketer’s responsibility to manage expectations within the company. For example, I often hear marketers decide they’re going to send an email when they want to “reach everyone.” But “everyone” you want to reach is probably not already subscribed to your email list. And unless you consistently enjoy 100% open rates, you’re not even reaching everyone who is. When you communicate your email program’s achievements internally, be balanced in your approach and help set expectations. Your email program works better as part of an integrated communications strategy, when the burden is distributed across several channels.

3. Marginalize mavericks. Almost every organization has some email users who are a little cavalier with permission, and fast and loose with frequency guidelines. While going rogue can result in strong individual results, permission and frequency infractions can have long-term ramifications on the rest of the organization’s email program. Unexpected or too much email can result in higher unsubscribe rates, lower engagement metrics and even spam complaints — all of which can make it harder for any of your company’s messages to get through, even those sent by the marketers who stick to the straight and narrow. A little internal education on the deliverability big picture can go a long way toward reining in offenders. If that doesn’t work, consider implementing sender controls, restricting access to certain lists for some senders.

4. Institutionalize restraint. There are probably two or three times per day I would like to send an email to our entire house list. That number is easily double for each of our salespeople. But I don’t, and they don’t. If we did, our email program would be crushed under its own volume. The lure to send just one more reminder message is great — for you, and for everyone else in your company who uses email. The great challenge of email is to balance what the business wants out of email today, with what the business needs from email in the future. To achieve this goal, institutionalize restraint by tracking how key metrics (deliverability, engagement metrics, unsubscribe rates) trend over three, six and 12 months, and share these with everyone who sends email at your company. Pay attention to subscriber frequency as well. Even though each person who sends email might be sending a message every week or two, there may be some subscribers who are everyone’s list, resulting in 4 or 5 times the email volume of your average subscriber. If that happens, putting frequency caps on subscribers is a quick fix. Supplement it with revised processes for how each marketer’s lists are created or — better yet — a preferences center.