I spend a lot of time reading the email marketing columns in MediaPost and other publications, in part to keep up with current trends, but also for inspiration for my own articles. Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve tried to look at much of the email advice in the trades from the perspective of the clients I’ve been talking to. More often than not, I could almost channel their voices saying, “That’s good advice, but we’ll never be able to do it.” Much of what is written is aimed at a very small minority of email marketers. They’re the biggest companies, but hardly representative of email marketers overall. So that’s what my column in MediaPost is about this week – how the 99% of companies that are not titans of the email industry should read, interpret and even ignore the advice we industry folk often trot out in our columns.
Why and How to Ignore Email Marketing Advice
by Mike May
published on 6.28.11 in MediaPost’s Email Insider
There are no shortages of ways to improve an email program, and an equal abundance of articles, presentations and pitches on how to go about doing just that. It makes perfect sense to read, watch and hear them all if you’re a director of marketing overseeing an email group of three to five people, for whom a catalog of “best practices” reads like a daily to-do list. At some organizations, email is a mission-critical operation, and these companies have the resources, sophistication, culture and corporate directive to pursue email excellence whatever the cost.
Much of the available advice on email marketing is aimed squarely at these companies. There is sense in this, as they have the most resources and the largest email programs. If you are an email vendor or consultant, these are the companies you most want to impress. But when so many of the articles and presentations and pitches are aimed at this segment it creates the perception that theirs are average email marketing programs, in the middle of the bell curve.
They’re not — by a long shot. The marquee email clients — retailers, travel sites, financial services companies with millions of records in their database and highly sophisticated targeting, dynamic content and segmentation strategies — are the very top of the email food chain, well into the 99th percentile of email marketers in resources and expertise. Advice aimed at them may represent the pinnacle of email thought leadership, but falls on deaf ears at the vast majority of companies that rely on email but haven’t nearly the same resources. Even worse, advice designed to inspire and educate ends up discouraging marketers who can’t take advantage of it. Hear enough clients say, “That’s great advice, but we’ll never be able to do it,” and you come to realize that there’s nothing wrong with the clients, but plenty of room for improvement in the advice.
I can’t take back all the well-intentioned but ill-aimed advice I’ve given email marketers in the past. So today’s list of how-tos is not about improving your email program, but how to filter out some of the advice you can’t use, and zero in on the pieces you can:
1. All rules of eavesdropping apply. That’s what you’re doing when you read an article that is aimed at a much larger email marketing department than yours (or you); you’re eavesdropping. You’re listening into a conversation, instead of participating in it. And I know at times it almost sounds like a foreign language, where you can pick up a few words and follow the gist, but would be hard-pressed to translate. When you do find yourself listening to a conversation in a foreign language, it’s fun to test yourself and see how much you can glean. Do the same with some of the email advice you hear. Follow what you can and use the opportunity to test your comprehension. If you have time to study full-time later on, aim for fluency then.
2. Know what you’re looking for. When was the last time you saw an orange car? It’s hard to recall, right? Next time you’re on the road, look for one. I’m almost certain you’ll spy one. Why? Honing in on something specific makes it easier to ignore what is off-target and find what you seek. When you are reading an article or sitting in on a presentation, keep in mind the one or two ways you are most interested in improving your own email program. If solutions to these specific problems are in the content, you’ll find them. If they’re not there, move along. You are too busy to pay attention to all the advice you don’t have the resources to apply.
3. Take stock of what you have done, not what you haven’t. Success is measured by accomplishments, not ambition. Summiting Mt. Everest is no less a feat simply because you haven’t climbed K2 as well. More to the point, a vigorous two-hour hike is still good exercise even if you can’t point out Everest on a map (it’s in the Mahalangur Himal range in Nepal, but like much of what you read is not relevant to your specific email program, so feel free to ignore it). We industry folk often choose what to write or include in presentations based on two criteria: 1) that our audience has not yet implemented this particular piece of advice, and 2) that other columnists, presenters and analysts have not already given the same advice. If there is a 2b, it is that we don’t just want to be different; we want to be even more clever than the last person with advice. The cumulative impact of dozens of writers and presenters following these same rules is an impossibly long and unduplicated list of increasingly labyrinthine email marketing tactics jockeying for position on your to-do list. When this happens, it makes more sense to ignore the list you haven’t done and be proud of what you have accomplished already.
If reading email marketing advice makes you feel discouraged, it’s not because you’re doing it wrong; it’s because we are.