Email Strategies, Redefining the Basics

Building a good email strategy means more than having a newsletter. Is your newsletter truly relevant to your subscribers? Or is it little more than a sales letter? This article, the first of two parts, will help you tune your approach so that subscribers actually look forward to seeing your email in their in boxes.

Email 2007

As a user and as a market researcher, my year with emails started with a bang. Between January and February I unsubscribed from four newsletters, had to help clean up an email list which had been blocked by Spamhaus, clarified my email strategies for at least the next few months, and began looking at seriously cutting down on the amount of emails (opt in) I get on my four monitored email addresses. In the process of vetting my emails and clarifying my own email sending strategies, I ran across a lot of work online done by marketers who are beginning to push the concept that email should become more valuable in increasing offline sales, and should not just be used to promote online sales. I also encountered a new definition of spam emails (which thankfully hasn’t been adopted by Spamhaus or we would all be in trouble).

I will go through some of my experiences and what I learned as I contemplated writing this article. I will also explain why I unsubscribed from some emails which I started off with exceptionally well, but with time simply grew aggravating (leading to a new definition of spam).

As a dear friend of mine says, "How does all this affect the price per barrel of crude oil on the open market?" Well, if you run an email campaign, this article will give you an idea of what top web sites will be doing for the rest of the year (give or take a few). It will also help you keep your present subscriber base (this is going to get much harder as attention spans shorten) and I think most importantly, it will give you some tips on how to avoid being put on a black list.

User Experience

In order to get information on various topics, ranging from Internet marketing to health and fitness (apart from a few others), I subscribe to probably hundreds of newsletters. Some I receive on a daily basis, some weekly; of course I don’t read all the emails, but I keep a lot of them for reference purposes. In fact, I actually search my emails for some keywords. As I mentioned, however, I had to sign off from three Internet marketing newsletters, and one customer service newsletter.

I had signed up for all four and had always paid attention to them (which is probably why I unsubscribed). They did everything right; they had text and HTML formats, no heavy graphics or animations, the subject lines were always relevant, and I never noticed any other strange emails from third parties 2-3 weeks after I subscribed to them. However, they practically ruined what would have been a good experience for me by not having any content whatsoever.

Now why were these web sites sending me emails when they have no (I mean zero) content? There was a certain size range that these web sites fell into, and I believe that it will be these mini kinds of web sites that will have major problems with their email campaigns. In this current age of extremely short attention spans and dozens of emails daily, it has gotten to the point that people do not open their emails unless they see a name that they recognize. So how do these opt-in emails fail where some other types of web sites do exactly  the same thing and score big (and never get unsubscribed)?

Now the four newsletters I unsubscribed from had several things in common. First they had no content; every email was a sales letter, and a lot of times they were not even trying to sell a unique hard to find product, but a product from an affiliate site (in fact, on one particular day two different emails sent me exactly the same product to buy). It’s worth noting that the sites started off by offering a unique product (a tutorial, free software, some new piece of code). By the time their first product offer ended, however, they simply started selling me products every week, and referred products at that.

Obviously these are one man operations that are following a particular philosophy: create a free product, get a mailing list, sell, sell, sell. Obviously they are making money. If you intend to create a brand that will outlive you, and if you ever want to resell your operation, however, you must have content. Content will keep your subscribers.

An illustration of a web site that uses the above model successfully is Forbes, who sends content daily yet still does product listings of unique hard to find products — their consultation services and stock tips. How do they keep me hooked? Content!

If you can’t write articles every day, don’t send emails every day. Technology even offers solutions where you do not have to write your own content; just get RSS feeds from related sites, put them in email format and shoot off your emails. It’s worth noting here that most small marketers are pretty indifferent when it comes to innovation, and very low tech in terms of coding.

I personally know some of these small marketers and they hardly ever outsource anything. Their creative is poor and their copy is generic; they do little or no SEO and depend on a network of subscribers to which they continually sell. However, some analysts (especially Al DiGuido over at Search Engine Watch’s Clickz network) believe that this kind of marketer is getting closer to a new kind of spam.

Al DiGuido believes that irrelevant email is simply spam (I hope block lists don’t agree). Any email that does not satisfy the subscriber’s implied need when s/he signed up, is spam. In actuality, subscribers routinely ignore irrelevant email, and when the email gets excessive, they unsubscribe. Information overload is a clear and present reality. You are doing your customer no favors by sending them irrelevant emails, and you are also probably losing money if you outsource sending on a per email basis.

Generate Returns, Don’t Focus on Design Alone

Still on the theme of irrelevant emails, marketers should focus on their content over their email’s creative design. Small operators don’t really have problems on this score. If they have content, they put it in; if they don’t have content, they will probably lack a serious budget for creative.

Big web sites with a marketing team or which outsource email copy and creative to an ad agency, should monitor indicators which let them know whether the emails are affecting the bottom line positively or negatively. The team responsible for creating the message must be accountable for the ROI (Return on Investment). The investment  means man hours expended, and salaries and payments received. The return is the amount of sales. If the ratio of return to investment is less than one you are probably better off without your current messaging team (retrain or fire them).

The fact is, some email is for branding, sort of like Super Bowl advertisements. Your sales won’t jump the day after (unless you have a very special offer) so the ROI is terrible in the short term, but everybody knows you and you are in their minds the next time they want to buy your next product. Some email campaigns are like that, but it’s not every company that can afford Super Bowl advertisements. Emails are much cheaper, but if the major purpose of your email campaign is to increase sales and it’s just serving as a branding tool, then your goals and your achievements are out of alignment (change the messaging team leader).

If you have a handle on what I have written so far, you will probably have a lot of work to do. So keep these points in mind: content over creative, measure ROI, avoid irrelevant emails. That’s three.

Now I will go into some other points concerning email strategies that require a little more day to day managing than these first three, and are more in line with production companies that have email advertising. You can only do these if you have a team who handles your email messaging and who also keeps in touch with your customer service section.

If you have someone who is really good at customer service, you’d better hold them and never let them go. Some people (like me) have to learn customer service the hard way (continuous feedback, win some lose some). Some individuals are just gifted in service, and email services is the only way that CRM can go on. The most important thing is "response time," the lag between the time the customer makes a complaint and the time you fix his/her problem. Now imagine all the emails and questions you will have to ask and answer in between. Frankly if I had something about myself I could repair overnight, it would be my customer relations skills specifically relating to response time (production and marketing are pretty much what I specialize in).

Your messaging team are probably great with sales copy and content, and think the creative is "cool," but what do they do when a complaint comes in? Complaints are what service is all about. Various web sites have different ways to handle complaints; some use forums, others use a system of tickets and FAQs, with email as a last resort. The basic beginner’s way is "send email to webmaster@whodunit.com."

Most of the time, your marketing and your customer relations may be separate teams with different objectives. Customer service should have knowledge of the marketing operations and vice versa. It’s not only that customer relations should continually communicate with service providers and marketers; a breakdown in this communication could have marketing making promises production cannot meet, now leaving customer relations with an insurmountable problem.

This is especially the case with service companies (SEO especially). The marketers promise top rankings, but the providers can’t guarantee anything (much less with sand box rankings). So the customer gets frustrated and starts lodging complaints; customer relations relays the complaints while trying to placate the customer with "we are working on it." Service providers immediately tell their in house customer relations "forget it, we can’t meet those demands or those deadlines."

This puts customer relations in a fix, because they cannot tell the customer (with whom they are communicating via email) the truth, which is "sorry, no can do." The customer is probably sending emails daily (especially if an initial deposit has been made). Customer relations asks management what to do, and management either offers a refund or says "handle it." If customer relations can go the refund route, the CR representative breathes a sign of relief; s/he starts the email process. If they’re told simply to "handle it," customer relations is likely to stop answering customers’ emails (even if s/he’s a CRM genius)

If you have ever had issues with service, this is probably what went on behind the scenes (it has happened several times in organizations I have worked with and even with design teams I have managed). the two major causes of this phenomenon are unrealistic customer expectations and/or poor service. By this I mean that the service provider can do it but is taking his/her sweet time to answer. Electronic customer relations management is very important, now more than ever.

You have to plan your entire email strategy while you pay attention to just a few indices. This allows you to benchmark properly and not get bogged down by too many minute details.

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