This blog post is being re-published from the Real Insights Archive.

Your Email Pantry: Does the Sauce Need Moroccan Coriander, or Just Salt?
by Mike May
published on 1.15.10 in MediaPost’s Email Insider

We watch a lot of Food Network in my house. We have several shelves in the dining room crammed with cookbooks, folders overflowing with Food and Wine magazine clippings, and the better part of a full screen on the iPhone dense with recipe and grocery shopping apps. My wife and I, we cook.

But my wife does more than just cook. She is a Cook. Her palette is far more refined; she has a deeper inventory of experiences, techniques and knowledge to draw on. Her human pantry is fuller than mine. This allows her to be more creative. I sauté onions; she sweats them. I grill; she sears. I steam broccoli; she blanches and shocks bok choi. I throw in the towel; she cleans her knife on it and keeps going.

We were working up a sauce recently. She lifted a spoonful to her mouth, sipped it in, and then chewed the liquid thoughtfully, almost as if she were tasting a complex wine. “What does this need?” she asked as she offered me a spoonful. I tasted and found the sauce vaguely lacking. But absent her pantry, I could only offer feebly, “Um, it needs to be… better. (Pause.) Salt?”

But I know more about open rates than she does.

And that is the analogy within the anecdote, and this column. All of us send emails. Many of us even consider ourselves Email Marketers. And a few are the Bobby Flays of the email world, eager and equipped for a throwdown with any challenge the industry poses. We have different inventories of skills based on our experience, our backgrounds and, more often than not, how many non-email responsibilities are vying for our time.

Your email performance and metrics, however, don’t care. If email is 10% of your job or 110%, you still have to answer the same question every time you take a look at your tracking reports: “What does this need?” And the answer is the same as the one I mumbled: “It needs to be… better.”

Sometimes improvement is easy and accessible, like salt is to a cook. Tweak a subject line; re-send soft bounces; add some pre-header text. All these are within reach, and whether you’re tasting or testing the results come to you quickly.

On occasion, however, the answer requires a fresh infusion of creativity, or experience, or resources. What to do then?

Many of the articles and best practices and case studies available in the trades and at conferences are aimed at the professional Email Marketers. Maybe that’s not you right now, so a lot of what you read and hear seems out of reach. I know that can create a perplexing combination of frustration and motivation. Our Food and Wine magazine subscription is in my wife’s name, not mine. I’ve never braised or poached or blanched anything in my life, and if I have seared I assure you it was entirely by accident.  I’m stymied by many of the recipes for true “Cooks” I read. Still, I want to create meals that nobody unsubscribes from. Where do I start? Where do you start? How does the sender of emails complete the apprenticeship and become an Email Marketer?

There are dozens of ways to get there, but they all start from the same point – an earnest desire to achieve mastery, and to endure the sacrifices it requires. It’s early in the year, and as good a time as any to take stock. How much does mastery mean to you? What sacrifices are you willing to endure – working one hour later one night each week? Delegating a responsibility to dig deeper into email? Tweak the budget to free up some resources to attend another conference or workshop? If you have desire that isn’t supported by circumstances, now is the time to change one or the other. (Circumstances are a lot easier to change, believe me.)

Once you have the desire and reset your course, all it takes is a little time. Or in the case of our sauce, thyme. What a difference a pinch made.