How your internal focus group is hurting your email marketing

One of the most critical mistakes I’ve seen in email marketing, even internally here at WhatCounts, is believing that the internal employee test focus group is representative of your actual customer base. See if this sounds familiar: you send out a test email to your staff/team/coworkers, who then offer lots of corrections, feedback, and opinions about what your customers really want.

  • “If I were a customer, I’d want to see…”
  • “If I were a client reading this, I’d click on…”
  • “If I were a subscriber, this wouldn’t interest me at all…”

There’s a strong chance that you’re sending out deeply underperforming email because you are following the advice of a focus group that is woefully out of sync with your actual customers. Back when I was marketing to college students, I had a conference call with the marketing director of a vendor who spent 10 minutes telling me that when he was a college student, he would have found X offer more appealing. I politely agreed and then ignored most of his “advice”, since he was a college student at a time when the Beatles were a new band, and our internal research indicated the opposite of his “advice” was true.

Testing is of limited help in resolving this sort of situation. If you are being advised that your audience likes flowers when in fact they really want steak, no testing combination of roses, lilies, and daisies will please them and your email marketing will suffer. You can test flower subject lines and different images all day and nothing will work significantly better for you.

How do you overcome this? The only real way to determine what your audience wants, what your audience will care about, is to ask them. Conduct external focus groups, follow them and listen carefully in social media, read their profiles, talk to them in person at events, and above all else, listen when they speak to you. If you see steak, steak, steak in the comments on your blog, in your web forms, in your search results, and in the replies to your newsletters, stop offering flowers and start offering steak!

Remember: if you don’t listen to your customer, someone else will.

Christopher S. Penn

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One Response to "How your internal focus group is hurting your email marketing"
  1. Tim Brechlin says:

    Bang on the money. I’d scream this from the mountaintops if I could: WE ARE NOT OUR AUDIENCE.

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