Understanding email marketing strategy

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If there’s one aspect of email marketing most misunderstood, it’s the entire idea of strategy. The best way to explain email marketing strategy is through analogy, so let’s look at your email marketing strategy as a summertime road trip.

Email marketing strategy is comparable to a road trip.

The first part of a road trip is deciding where you want to go. Most people wouldn’t settle for a road trip in which you just drive around randomly and hope something interesting happens. Most people have destinations and waypoints, points of interest like seeing the biggest ball of twine in Minnesota.

In email marketing strategy, this is your end business objective. What destination is your email marketing strategy supposed to help you reach? More revenue? Higher numbers of sales? Greater numbers of volunteers?

Like all road trips, when you reach your destination, you know you’re there. You know you’ve arrived. The same is true for email marketing strategy. There must be some metric that indicates that you’ve gotten where you want to go. If there isn’t, then you don’t have a viable strategy.

The second part of a road trip is deciding how you want to get there. You get out your mapping software, Google, and local reviews and you plot out all the places you want to go, then decide on your route. How far will you drive in a day? Which route has the most rest stops? Which route connects to all the desired waypoints?

In email marketing, these are your tactics, your day to day strategies that govern how you choose to send email. Do you send a weekly newsletter or a monthly newsletter? Do you have a content calendar? Where does your content come from?

Tactics need to be measured too, at least at the level of whether or not they were successfully executed. Did you ship your newsletter on time? Did your graphic designer get you all your creatives?

The final part of the road trip is methods, the individual choices you make along the way. Do you drive 55 MPH and get there a little slower, but without any speeding tickets? Do you park in the sun or the shade? Methods are tiny individual choices that may or may not influence the outcome of the road trip but can certainly change how it feels when you’re driving down the road. For example, you can get greater fuel efficiency by not using the air conditioner, but if your road trip is through Texas in July, you’ll sacrifice a great deal of comfort for a few dollars on gas.

In email marketing, methods are the choices you make in your email, most often the ones you are testing when you do A/B split testing. Do you put in a green button or a blue button? Do you go for a shorter newsletter or a longer newsletter? What subject line will you use?

Do methods need to be measured? Yes, to judge the individual small choices and improve upon them, much in the same way that you’d want to measure your fuel efficiency and improve upon it when driving. Each individual small method may not have a great impact on the final outcome (inflating tires to maximum safe pressure, for example, will give you about 1-4% more fuel efficiency), but in aggregate they can add up significantly.

The danger that most email marketers run into is confusing strategy, tactics, and methods. A/B split testing isn’t a strategy, much in the same way that driving 55 MPH isn’t a strategy. None of these methods have anything to do with choosing a destination.

More important, if you’re not getting results out of your email marketing program, consider whether you’ve got a viable strategy (destination) first before questioning your tactics and methods. It doesn’t matter how fast you make the car go if you’re driving in the wrong direction, and it doesn’t matter how much you optimize your open rates or click rates if you don’t have a business goal.

Christopher S. Penn
Director of Inbound Marketing, WhatCounts


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