Avoid complacency in email marketing!

I ain’t afraid of no change.

I’m an iconoclast. Throughout my career (short version: studied journalism and public relations, became a photographer, then became a video guy, next became a magazine and website editor, worked in destination marketing, and now work for WhatCounts), one principle has always been at the forefront of all my endeavors: No matter how well something is working, the odds are you can figure out a way to do it a little bit better.

“But this is the way we’ve always done it” are words that no marketer can ever afford to utter, because if you’re saying that, you’ve grown comfortable and complacent in your marketing efforts, and, particularly in the digital marketing world, in which technology, trends and behaviors can radically shift on a daily basis, complacency kills.

Complacency always loses in email marketing.

My attachment to this philosophy probably comes from studying journalism: A professor once said that writers and editors need to be willing to “kill the babies.” No, she wasn’t encouraging infanticide (… at least, I hope not). The point was that you can’t allow yourself to become too attached to the words on the page and lose perspective to the point that you refuse to delete or edit them for the sake of a tighter, better-written story. The same applies to digital marketing practices, particularly email marketing. You can’t allow yourself to be comfortable inside a box.

Admittedly, complacency is an easy trap into which to fall. You do a weekly review of your email performance, you look at the metrics, you record them, and the system moves forward. Creative and subject lines stay consistent, and the trains keep running on time. Everything has come together to form a routine, a comfort zone if you will.

But you need be willing to step into, as my friend Matt Booth likes to say, “the discomfort zone.” It might sting a little at first, but it’s very easy to spend so much time working within your email campaigns that you forget to take the time to actually work on them and start saying, “Hey, what could be improved here?”

It’s often said that in order to be successful in social media, marketers need to listen. That’s equally – and probably even more – true with email. If you’ve been sending out an email every Wednesday at 8 a.m. for a year, but your open and click rates have steadily declined, would you just keep on sending that email and hope for the trends to reverse? No! (… at least, I hope not.) That’s when you start reviewing every last thing you can change in that email campaign, and start testing the bejeezus out of it.

But that’s not enough. Say you do test, and you get some data indicating that first-name personalization in your subject lines boosts open rates by a significant amount, so you implement it. That doesn’t mean you’re done. Case in point: After a metered send of an email, I discovered that my key metrics performed best when the email was sent around the lunch hour. The next week, I sent an email to this particular mailing list around the lunch hour … and the metrics were drastically different (in the wrong direction) from the previous week! Obviously, one week’s worth of testing isn’t enough: Just as one needs to avoid becoming complacent with marketing practices, it’s also essential to avoid becoming complacent with your data.

Christopher S. Penn likes to remind us that the best time to send email is when your audience wants to receive it. But just because your audience told you, six months ago, that 8 a.m. is the time when it wants to receive your messaging, that doesn’t necessarily mean that their behavior hasn’t changed in the past six months – or even in the past two weeks. One must always be refining email marketing data. Don’t just collect it – look at it, review it, study it, form a theory, test it and draw some conclusions, then do it all over again.

Change up your email newsletter.Now, after comprehensive and constant testing and gathering of data, you may reach a conclusion that your practices may not need to change, and everything is moving in the right direction. If that’s where you are (like Peter Shankman and his otherworldly open rates for his HARO newsletter) for now, then that’s groovy. Your time hasn’t been wasted – you’ve at least taken the initiative and the effort to look at what could be improved.

This isn’t a one-time process, mind you. If it’s said that websites should be redesigned every few years, it’s impossible to say just how long it will be before your audience grows bored with your email campaigns. It could be five months, or it could be five years, which is why, as I said earlier, you can never fall into the trap of saying “but this is the way we’ve always done it,” or being complacent with data you’ve already collected in the past. Much like freedom, the price of successful email marketing is eternal vigilance.

For those with solidly entrenched email practices, this can be a difficult transition to implement. There may be resistance from other stakeholders within the organization who like things the way they are right now; you may not think you have the time or resources to redesign your creative; there may be a Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man-sized mountain of other work that’s demanding your attention. But as DJ Waldow says, email is the digital glue, and it deserves – demands – the time, effort and energy needed to convince those stakeholders of the importance of change, to hunker down and do a redesign, to really study and draw conclusions from your data.

Force your email marketing efforts into the discomfort zone, don’t be afraid to say, “You know, what if we tried this?” … and remember that nothing is too sacred to be changed.

Tim Brechlin
Inbound Marketing Manager, WhatCounts

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