For the majority of business owners, email marketing is prized as the most profitable digital channel. Whether your business is focused on retail, services or media, the choices you make around your email program will have a dramatic impact on the online and offline success of your business, not to mention your customer’s perception of your brand. Yet, a vast majority of otherwise adept marketers and entrepreneurs still find it incredibly difficult to make good decisions when it comes to their email programs. They know the channel could be performing better for them but they don’t know exactly where to start. With so many vendors in the space charging exceptionally for their services, client-side talent and tried and true experience seems to be scarce and the true best practices of email remain elusive.
In my experience both leading email in-house programs and as an email consultant, I find common themes amongst the questions my clients tend to share. Big or small, questions about growth, measurement, and priority amongst best practices tend to be the most perplexing. I’ve tried to boil down the top six below in terms that both a novice and an expert marketer can put to good use.
1. Acquisition: How should I grow my list so that it does what I need it to for my business?
When a client tells me they want to focus on growing their email list, I first ask them why? While this seems like a straightforward question, I am surprised at how difficult it is for many business owners to articulate what it is about email that has their attention. In an ideal scenario, it is because they have identified that email is contributing directly and consistently to their bottom line. Even better, they have established an ROI on email and know what an additional email is worth to their business over time and hence, what they would be willing to pay to acquire one (the cost per lead (CPL) or cost per acquisition (CPA).
Where most business owners usually struggle is in identifying how important email quality is in this whole valuation. In other words, how important is it to your business model that the emails on your list respond the way you need them to (open, click, buy)? As anyone who has ever bought email advertising or paid for list rental, the valuation of a particular email can vary wildly depending on how the user intends to leverage it. For publishers, all emails are basically created equal as long as they open and click from time to time and don’t complain and cause messages to go to the junk folder. For retailers, on the other hand, the open and the click are relatively unimportant as long as the subscriber eventually purchases. Demographics come into play for both groups but ultimately, both the retailer and the publisher are hoping for the demographics that result in the desired revenue-driving behavior.
So, as you set up your acquisition strategy, keep in mind that your end goal is to build a list that supports your model for driving revenue and, more importantly, doesn’t do anything to hinder it like land you in the junk folder or tarnish your brand reputation.
2. Acquisition: What are the ups and downs of some different tactics?
Race to Ramp Up – Paid co-registration, sweepstakes, exclusive offers, site pop-ups, social sign-in and events are the most surefire ways to grow your list to scale quickly. With the investment of a few thousand dollars, you can likely expand your list to 10x or even 100x its current size in a matter of weeks with these tactics. If you are struggling to get the attention of bigger partners, investors or to drive site traffic because your list is too small, consider these tactics as means to grow quickly but expect also that you will experience rapid churn, dwindling engagement and deliverability issues. That being said, having a larger universe of names to work with will allow you to optimize content and influence action in a more meaningful way from your email program in a fraction of the time.
I actually champion low cost, speedy acquisition for smaller businesses because list volume is a critical part of learning who your target customer is, who your best partners will be in the customer acquisition space and it allows you a sizable audience to run some meaningful tests. I think these tactics pay for themselves over time if you are willing to put the attention and the resources necessary into carefully tracking and monitoring the sources of your emails to see which emails are performing and converting for your business.
Slow and Steady – Relying on standard best practices such as prominent email sign up on site, strong value propositions, old fashioned PR, regular social prompting and offline events will net the highest quality of names with the least chances of deliverability and junk folder challenges but you should expect to grow at a steady rate of possibly 10% a year. You will save a lot of resources in worrying about delivery and list hygiene but it’s going to take time to get partners to want to work with you, get investor attention and to optimize content with a smaller list (anything under 10,000). In the event you do get a good PR placement or shout-out from a celebrity or other influencer, you can experience bumps in this process but 10% per year is a fairly standard organic list growth trajectory without investment.
For clients less concerned with the growth of their business and most concerned with authenticity and sustainability, the Slow and Steady tactics mentioned above are going to be the best bet.
3. Format: How important is the design of my template?
The simple answer is that the template design is probably not as important as you think. While it is very important that the template be fully functional and responsive (meaning that it works well across all browsers, screen sizes and devices) but the aesthetic of the template itself is something that is often overthought. I have seen clients labor over choices such as header size, button shape, footer color when those small details will not have any significant impact on results. While there is no question it is important for branding purposes that your font, logo and image presentation render properly, save your resources to focus on more important areas such as the quality and utility of the content, the segmentation and acquisition. All too often, I have seen small business burn through internal or external resources making countless revisions in an attempt to create the ‘perfect’ template but, at the end of the day, subscribers really just want your emails to work well across every device and browser, deliver on the value prop you promised when they signed up and make their life better or easier in some way (utility). If your brand is lucky enough to have a creative resource that is not already too overwhelmed to spend quality time fine-tuning the nuances of your email template then, by all means, have them put the extra time into making it beautiful but don’t expect that will result in any major changes in response. There are now a plethora of excellent, free and low price responsive email templates available online which can be tweaked slightly to match your branding needs. I highly recommend using one of those out of the box solutions or one provided by your Email Service Provider (ESP) rather than starting from scratch. The template should take your team one to two weeks tops to develop and then stick with it for several months as users respond best to templates they know well. Don’t overthink it.
The question of text versus image ratio is also one that still comes up quite a bit. Ten years ago, spam filters were less sophisticated and did look very closely at the text to image ratio, favoring the heavier text emails because they looked the least like spam to the filter’s algorithms. In other words, the filters couldn’t ‘read’ what was in an image so they junked or blocked emails that were comprised mainly or wholly of images because they couldn’t safely evaluate the content. Filters have changed dramatically today and are far less likely to filter your email out simply because of a high image to text rate if you have an established and clean sending reputation, your lists are free of improperly formatted or unengaged emails and your sender authentication is set up correctly for your IPs and your domain. The filters are also looking at how other recipients are responding to your emails, if they are opening and clicking as well as how the specific recipient you mail to engages with your emails. For this reason, including appealing and plentiful images can actually help your response and delivery because tests show time and time again that images, especially certain types of images like attractive faces, products and food will always generate more engagement than text.
To the question of how long an email should be, I generally always suggest shorter and sweeter if your goal is conversion. Keep the links and distractions to a minimum and shuttle people to your website so they can complete the desired action as quickly as possible and before they switch over to Facebook, Instagram or that next email. There are some exceptions such as when your email is intended to be a digest or targeted at commuters, in which case you would want to include a longer format so they can enjoy your email in its entirety without having to click out. This is definitely the exception though and not the rule.
4. Vendor Selection: Do I really need to pay for enterprise service?
I generally tell clients that if their list is under 150,000, they will see no return by investing in an enterprise-level email service provider (ESP). A commercial ESP typically has minimum start-up costs in $30,000, they require a 2-3 year contractual commitment with steep volume restrictions and the implementation time always takes 2-3 months longer than you think it will. Keep in mind also that the service level you will get as a smaller business with a major ESP will be infuriating, at best, and if you are lucky enough to get a great account support team, expect frequent changes as email professionals tend to turn over quickly. It’s also important to note that commercial ESPs rely heavily on their pricey services to drive most of their revenue so you can expect to find additional fees for items such as Sender Authentication, Deliverability Management, Custom Reporting, all of which are generally unnecessary with the smaller self-service ESPs that bake those solutions in by putting controls in place to prevent you from getting into trouble.
Another popular trend away from enterprise and self-service hosted ESPs is to build-your-own email solutions. The build-your-own solution is viable and cost-effective if you have either an excellent internal development resource or work with a digital agency that can support the build and provide the service and reporting you need in place of an enterprise ESP. Their costs to send are generally pennies on the dollar compared to an enterprise ESP but you need to be prepared for very little out-of-the-box functionality and minimal service and support. In recent months, even the build-your-own solutions are becoming more service oriented and some now do offer basic reporting and other feature sets more akin to commercial ESPs, at a fraction of the cost. Look into this option if you are on a budget but expect to scale quickly.
The classic lower cost options include MailChimp, Constant Contact, and Campaign Monitor but there are new self-service ESPs and marketing tools starting to enter the market worth looking at including Klaviyo, Iterable and even Nationbuilder. If you are looking at a build-your-own solution, Mailgun and Sendgrid are two of the most common.
5. Personalization: Is it really worth the effort?
Not usually. If there is one trend that I have seen get too much attention over the last five years, it is personalization. Personalization, a close cousin of dynamic content, means leveraging some aspect of your data to populate another aspect of the message (think subject line, first name). When the feature and functionality became available a few years ago, ESPs pushed it hard promising very high returns and increased engagement and every business jumped on the bandwagon wanting to have a truly ‘one to one’ dialogue with their customer. Unfortunately, the promised results were rarely realized and what happened was an overdose of robotic and disjointed messages that lacked the editorial touch most consumers crave. Beauty and editorial authority became lost and consumers rapidly disengaged.
When in doubt, an expertly curated email featuring one key message or stunning item will almost always trump a hyper-personalized, algorithm-driven, email with several content selections curated ‘just for you’. The best email programs have an editorial voice, a personality and the sense that they were indeed sent by a trusted expert that took time and put a lot of thought into the content. If you cannot choose a priority item or message in your own email, how can your customer trust that it’s truly a priority? The best sender delivers only the very best of the content they have available and does not rely on an algorithm to choose the feature. That does not mean editors and marketers don’t rely on data to influence content decisions, just that a human oversees every message that ultimately goes out.
A transactional message is generally managed almost entirely by an automation system and not an individual sender. A marketing email, on the other hand, has been initiated by the sender and generally goes to several hundred or several thousand people at once for the purpose of spreading awareness and motivation action such as the announcement of a sale, new product launch or promotion of a video. These messages require opt-in and must include an unsubscribe link and a physical address in the email in order to be compliant with CAN SPAM regulations. A marketing message can also be triggered and could provide some form of utility or account update mixed with marketing content as with a Welcome Series or a Birthday Discount email.
Focus your main program instead on sending a few amazing emails rather than overwhelming your customers (and yourself) by sending dozens of hyper-personalized messages. Your content will be stronger, as will your brand.
6. Benchmarks: What KPIs really matter?
The KPIs that matter most to your brand are those that directly link to your revenue model. If you are in the retail space, focus on conversion. If you are in publishing, focus on engagement.
Conversion generally means focusing on sales but keep in mind that there are many stages that can lead up to a sale so also watch closely for other commitments such as account creation, event RSVP and attendance, downloads, newsletter sign-up and loyalty memberships.
Engagement, on the other hand, is still heavily focused on the open and the click but watch closely for other ways that email will influence your brand. Do organic site visits or searches peak right after an email send? What about social media activity? Are your emails influencing offline activity if you have brick and mortar stores and are you set up to track this?
Another area that often goes misunderstood in email marketing is the difference between an unsubscribe (unsub) and an abuse complaint. Abuse rates, unlike unsub rates, are a sign that consumers are angered or bothered by what you are sending. They have previously opted in for your program yet you have somehow upset them enough to click SPAM. Your content or frequency of content is missing the mark so pay attention to these numbers as they are also indicators that you could be affected by deliverability issues, especially if abuse rates climb above 0.025%.
The unsubscribe is a courteous way your consumer is letting you know that right now, your emails are no longer meeting their needs. You are either sending too many, the content isn’t relevant anymore (not always the senders fault) or they are just generally getting too many emails in their inbox. An unsub is okay and won’t hurt your deliverability. Also, keep in mind that unsubscribes always increase when your open rates do so don’t panic if you see an uptick in unsubs unless it is not also accompanied by an increase in opens. People’s needs change, don’t stress the unsubs more than you have to.