Real Magnet

3 Ways to Make Email a Means and an End

I’ve said before that the hardest thing about marketing is that you’re never finished. Your brand will always benefit from one more blog post, a new strategic partnership, a little extra thought on the copy in that collateral piece, a couple new search keywords to test, one more tweet of 140 cleverly crafted characters. It is very easy for the practice of marketing to devolve from the pursuit of building the strongest and most differentiated brands to just getting all marketing’s many tasks done.

In my experience, this phenomenon exists commonly within email marketing. Many of the marketers I know are responsible for 50%, 75% or even 100% of their company’s entire email program, yet it is only 10% of their job. The rest of the time is split between everything from social media to sales support, from public relations to strategic relationships. Fifteen years ago when I got started in email, it was more than a marketing channel we could use to drive sales and other activity. It was a source of customer insight, as exciting because of what it told us about consumer behavior as it was for how much smarter it was making us as marketers. Email throws off so much eye-opening and actionable data, it contributes as much marketers’ human capital as it does to marketing ROI. All we have to do is be really selfish and learn as much as we can from what email is teaching us, every time we send a message.

Am I wrong in perceiving that this has changed since 1997, and that change has accelerated in the past few years? Whereas email marketing used to be a means of becoming really smart about your audience (and marketing in general), email is more commonly viewed an end – one of the channels marketers need to tick off in their weekly communications to do list. This is understandable, given all the tasks and channels marketers must now juggle, particularly in light of lower budgets, smaller staffs and raised objectives. Getting smart is the nice-to-have, but getting it done is need-to-have.

While I empathize with marketers’ shift in priorities, I nevertheless believe that marketing’s true function is not to drive results today, but to build programs and accumulate institutional knowledge that will continue to drive results for many years to come. Marketers should not just be giving their companies a fish, or even teaching them to fish. Rather, we should be building reefs that attract enough fish to sustain our brands in perpetuity.

The good news is that getting smart and getting it done are not mutually exclusive. Here are three things you can do to speed up your email composition and increase its effectiveness, and which make you smarter at the same time:

1. Look at your last message’s analytics right before you send the next one. Most marketers look at analytics within the first 24 hours of sending a message, but knowing what worked (and didn’t) is more effective when you’re about to start working on the next message. This practice can also help with message composition, as knowing what content was effective last time can make the next message easier to write.

2. Find commonalities in effective subject lines. Include the phrase “subject line” in any question to an email expert, and somewhere in their response will be the phrase “A/B testing.” A/B testing is great – it is often insightful and lifts results. But it is an extra step, and extra steps require time that is often at a premium. Test when you can, and when you can’t spend 3 minutes looking at a report of your Highest Open Rate Subject Lines over the past 3, 6 or 12 months. It is less scientific, but you may find some commonalities among the subject lines that work well. (Then re-sort the table to show the real duds so you know what to avoid.) You may find that 6 of your top 10 include a company name or person’s name. Are 4 of the top 7 questions? Wouldn’t it be exciting to learn that exclamation points work! Or four word subjects. Having a suggestion of what works makes you smarter about your program, and helps you write today’s subject line (which for many emails is half the work, and most of the impact).

3. Scrutinize unsubscribes. Just as examining subject line trends gives you examples, taking note of which messages drive unsubscribes provides you with warnings. Before you write your next message, run the Messages With Highest Unsubscribe Rate report over the past 3, 6 or 12 months depending on your email volume. Look at the messages with highest unsubscribe rates, particularly if they are outliers with an unsub rate of .1% or more higher than your average. The principal reasons that people unsubscribe from email is because the messages are too frequent, or have become too boring. Look for evidence of either in your greatest offending messages. This makes creating your emails easier because knowing what not to write is as valuable as knowing what kind of content should go in an email.