Email Is a Product, Not an Advertisement
Customers don't choose to receive your print advertisements, your search and display ads, or even some of your direct mail.
They subscribe to a newspaper, and happen to receive your print ad within it. They search or read content online, and see a pay-per-click ad. Or their names are in a database because they're attending an event and your direct mail appears in their mailboxes.
Email is different.
Customers Buy Your Email Marketing From You
Sure, they don't use cash. But if you're sending to an opt-in list, customers have chosen to pay for your email marketing with their time and space in their inboxes.
This doesn't make any of the advertising tactics I mention wrong or ineffective (the pages of Target Marketing magazine are filled with examples of marketers profiting from them). But it does mean you have to understand how your customers' motivations for email marketing are different.
How do you deliver information and offers to people that they want to receive and help them find the things they are looking for? You treat email as a product. And like any good product developer, you create something customers want.
Customers want email. According to a MarketingSherpa survey of 2,057 people in January 2015, we discovered that a large majority of U.S. adults, 72 percent, prefer communication with companies to happen through email (second place was postal mail at 48 percent).
But you don't care if customers want any email marketing; your job is to ensure customers want your email marketing. So how do you break through the digital clutter filling consumers' inboxes? Here are three ideas to help you put the customer first and turn your email marketing into a product.
Idea No. 1: Technology Can Help With Segmentation and Personalization
Email service providers (ESPs) and marketing automation platforms can help you segment your audience and deliver the content its members want when they want it.
Eventful, an online retailer for concerts and local event tickets, went a step further. It essentially created an email marketing product for its customers.
Let's say a person in Jacksonville, Fla., searches Eventful to see if Pearl Jam is coming to town. If there is no concert coming up, the site asks, "Would you like to be notified when Pearl Jam comes to Jacksonville?"
The Pearl Jam fan can then "Demand It!" and let the band know that one of its rock shows is wanted in Jacksonville, while also signing up for email notifications about upcoming events in the area.
Once completed, Eventful has a piece of information about this person. The company has developed recommendation and personalization technology to leverage that piece of information and better predict other performers its customers may like, based on the performers who subscribers have already told Eventful about, in order to deliver more personalized recommendations through its email marketing.
"In essence, I'd like to think I'm enabling them to be that person that knows everything that's going on in their neighborhood," said Ryan Blomberg, Eventful's director of engineering.
As a result of its email marketing product, Eventful was able to increase purchases by 66 percent.
Idea No. 2: But Technology Isn't Magic
Technology is helpful, but ESPs and automation simply create email "buckets" that you have to fill with something. You have to think of the content that goes in the buckets as a product, just like a newspaper or magazine creates a product with the content it produces.
If you're struggling with content, just know you are not alone. During an onstage interview at the 2014 MarketingSherpa Email Summit, Byron O'Dell said content takes much longer to build than technology for a multi-touch lead nurturing program.
And Byron is the senior director of demand management for Jane's Defence at IHS. It's a content company, and content creation was even hard for Byron.
"Don't mistake having a marketing automation platform for having a process, because they're two different things. A CRM system is just a box, and if you choose to fill it with your old processes, you're going to get the old results. If you choose to fill it with new processes that are optimized for the buying behaviors, then you can expect to get different results," he said.
"But if you're missing content from the beginning, you can't even start that process."
By creating content to enable its audience to do jobs better, IHS increased its email clickthrough rate by 1,112 percent.
Idea No. 3: Test to Improve Your Product
Testing isn't new. Savvy direct marketers have been testing direct mail long before the Internet. However, the Internet makes testing faster and cheaper. And perhaps nowhere is it easier to test than in email.
By testing its welcome email, CNET learned customers preferred shorter welcome emails, thus improving its email marketing "product."
"If we're going to take the time to run a special program, like these programs, we're going to test them. If we can't test them, we're not going to run them," said Diana Primeau, director of member services at CNET.
Testing led to a 26 percent average clickthrough rate increase for CNET's welcome and nurturing program.
And because you can test more easily with email, you should not just be running random tests. Your tests should be sequenced to build up a better customer theory to help create a better email marketing product.
For example, we recently ran a subject line contest on the MarketingExperiments Blog in association with the Moz Blog. We asked readers of both blogs to write the best subject line for an email for VolunteerMatch, a nonprofit that helps interested people find volunteering opportunities.
But we didn't ask for random subject lines. We defined categories of value (for example, "Better, more opportunities to choose from") and asked marketers to provide subject lines that best expressed those values.
Of the 224 subject lines received, we tested seven of them to help understand what value was most important to VolunteerMatch's audience.
We were able to identify a subject line that helped produce a 40 percent higher clickthrough rate than the lowest performer. But we also learned about the customer; what values were important and what words in the subject line expression most resonated.
What Is Your Product?
Email marketing doesn't need to be synonymous with junk mail; by treating your email marketing as a product and putting the customers' needs first, it can be highly valued content that helps consumers find what they are seeking.
Daniel Burstein is the director of editorial content at MarketingSherpa. Reach him at email@example.com.
Daniel Burstein is the Senior Director, Content and Marketing at MECLABS Institute. Daniel oversees all content and marketing coming from the MarketingExperiments and MarketingSherpa brands while helping to shape the marketing direction for MECLABS — digging for actionable discoveries while serving as an advocate for the audience.