Rethinking Email Engagement: Best Practices vs. Revenue
In no other marketing discipline have "best" practices and revenue been at such odds as they have been in email marketing. The conflict arises from the fact that the incremental cost of sending another million emails is virtually nothing and, therefore, marketers were, until recently, incented to always send more. It's been commonly accepted that while margins diminish with increased volumes, revenue increases generally outpaced the cost of sending incrementally more email.
As a result, the advice to be more targeted and more relevant contradicted the volume-centric approach to driving revenue; moreover, the fact that the oft-discussed "consumer fatigue" was not readily manifesting itself, email marketers discussed best practices but frequently implemented a "more is more" approach to email marketing.
Then, in 2006, ISPs started to rethink how they evaluated inbound email. AOL, Gmail, Microsoft and Yahoo! began to realize that the old approach of counting complaints and hard bounces was a poor way to identify spammers. The truth was that spammers found "work-arounds" that allowed them to avoid ISP thresholds.
How did a seemingly unrelated event, like changes to email filters, force marketers to rethink application of email marketing best practices?
The "new" approach to email filtering meant ISPs evaluate email senders based on their ability to engage consumers in the inbox. In short, ISPs look at how targeted consumers are interacting with an email marketer's messages. For marketers who are able to drive solid engagement rates, ISPs reward them with inbox placement. On the contrary, marketers who are relatively unsuccessful at driving email opens and clicks find their marketing emails landing in junk folders.
As a result, marketers must rethink their approach. First, simply sending more emails in the same period actually drives down overall engagement rates, forcing marketers to carefully consider the critical "what" and "to whom" when it comes to email marketing.
Second, because ISPs started looking at engagement rates, marketers must consider how far back into their database to go to identify prospects for a campaign. Mailing more "inactive" customers drives down engagement rates, while simply cutting off "X-month" inactives significantly reduces the targetable audience.
Finally, with the emphasis on how well a marketer engages the audience, email marketers should look for new ways to drive engagement rates; things like optimal email deployment times, as well as win-back and welcome strategies, now have to evolve from being intellectual conversations to email marketing realities.
In the end, companies looking to drive strong revenue via the email channel need to consider new practices and approaches that drive favorable results both on the marketing and ISP-filter fronts-the areas of focus need to include:
- Strong Engagement Program. A strong engagement program goes beyond a welcome process-it includes understanding how, and over what time, consumers engage with an email marketing program. Smart marketers engage in a two-phased approach: First, the marketer leverages a strong welcome/engagement program and, second, the marketer targets consumers at a point just before the likelihood of an unengaged user interacting with a message drops to nearly zero.
- Intelligent Win-Back Program. Today, most win-back programs take the "Hail Mary" approach to reengaging consumers. After a year of no activity, marketers attempt to win back consumers with an all-or-nothing email offer. Given the emphasis on engagement metric at ISPs, intelligent marketers will engage in a phased win-back program that emphasizes automatically targeting consumers early in their disengagement and, more importantly, it leverage multiple re-engagement touches.
- Personalization of Email Deployment. I am not talking about putting a first and last name in the body of the email, but about leveraging a consumer's email interaction time to determine when an email should be deployed and to that consumer. Allowing consumers to dictate, through their open and click behavior, when their emails are deployed not only ensures that the email will be top of inbox but, more importantly, that the email arrives when a consumer is ready to interact with it. This, in turn, ensures that engagement rates remain high and ISPs view marketers favorably.
- The New Face of Deliverability. Ensure that your deliverability team considers marketing, not just technical aspects of a campaign. Deliverability teams in 2012 need to look more like cutting-edge marketing teams than anti-abuse teams. With ISPs looking at engagement rates more than ever before, modern deliverability teams need to not only be able to identify technical issues with email deployment, but they also need to be able to identify issues with marketing results and suggest changes in marketing tactics that will both drive consumer engagement and ultimately consumer lifetime value.