The Who, What, When, Why and How of Successful Email Marketing, Part I

email-marketing-article In today’s social media era, email marketing is hardly the newest, most popular kid on the block, but it still remains a powerful weapon in any marketer’s arsenal, as it’s a highly efficient and cost-effective way of communicating with your existing customers as well as new prospects. It’s also simple to execute. With options ranging from online services like MailChimp, Constant Contact and Emma to customized, cloud-based platforms that can be integrated with your CRM system, you can easily create and manage your own email marketing campaigns. It’s not all sunshine and rainbows in the land of email marketing, however. Because of the low barrier to entry (specifically the aforementioned cost and ease of use), many companies dive right in without fully developing a sound long-term strategy. Yes, getting started with email marketing is easy, but doing it well is what will make the difference between a campaign that captivates and motivates versus one that is ignored and condemned to the trash folder. In this two-part series, we’ll cover the fundamentals of successful email marketing – specifically what you should be saying, how you should be saying it, when and why you should be doing so, and to whom you should be speaking.

The Who

Taking these points in reverse order, let’s start with the who. When it comes to email marketing, the quality of the list of recipients to whom your campaign will be targeted is a make-or-break factor in its ultimate success. There are no shortage of companies that are all too eager to sell you lists of addresses. However, even if these are “opt-in” lists of people who are supposedly willing to receive such emails, a purchased list will always be far less effective than one you have assembled yourself. People who have interacted with your business before – even if their encounter was as brief as a visit your website or your trade show booth – are much more likely to want to hear from you again and, as a result, will be more receptive to your message. To provide you with an example, I have recently done some email marketing work for a company that runs a series of zombie-themed adventure races. Participants sign up to run these 5k races and be chased by actors dressed as zombies, while others sign up to be the zombies doing the chasing. The company does use email marketing but not to find new participants; those generally come via word-of-mouth, social media sharing and advertising links from other websites. Instead, they rely on email marketing solely to communicate with people who have already signed up for a new race and those who have participated in the past. The messages that are sent either provide important logistical details for upcoming events to registrants or advertise future races and promotions of interest. Because all recipients are already familiar with the company, these emails are not perceived as an unwanted inbox intrusion. Rather, they are welcomed as valuable and welcome communication from an organization with whom they have already established a relationship. As a result, the company’s email blasts are typically opened by over 60 percent of recipients, and some boast open rates in excess of 80 percent. Anyone who has ever done any email marketing with tell you that an open rate of 60+ percent is incredible. By contrast, the expected open rate for a campaign to anonymous recipients on a purchased list is 5-10 percent at best. The difference is clear: people who recognize and appreciate your brand are more likely to open your emails. They are also more likely to read your message and take the action you desire.

Beyond open rates

While the percentage of people that open your email is an important metric to consider, it isn’t the only statistic you should concern yourself with. It’s also to critical to examine how many of those who read your message take the next step and engage in some fashion, such as by clicking on a link. Someone who simply opens your email, gives it a quick cursory glance, then immediately deletes that message is not a success story. Yes, they clicked on the email, and they will be counted in your open rate statistics, but they did not engage with your company in any meaningful way, and they will likely forget about you as soon as that message hits the trash heap. By contrast, someone who knows your company and has interacted with your business in the past will not only be more inclined to open and read your email but to take action after they have read it, whether that comes in the form of visiting your site to read the full text of a blog article or press release, downloading a whitepaper, registering for an event or making a purchase. And isn’t that the ultimate goal? After all, you’re not going after simple opens; you want people to take steps that further solidify their relationship with your business, and a better quality list will yield these more meaningful results.

Quality over quantity

Let’s look at some numbers: if you email 10,000 people whose addresses were purchased and who have no prior connection to your business, you will get a fairly low open rate – say 5% (a common figure for these types of lists), which means you should expect that only about 500 of those 10,000 people will actually open your message. Next, we take a list of contacts that you have careful curated over the years from customers you have done business with and connections you have made. The list will certainly be smaller – let’s say only 1,000 names in total. If you see an open rate of 30% (which is about average when you look at open rates across all industries), about 300 people would open your message. Yes, you would get more opens from the bigger list, but again, quantity does not mean quality! The majority of those 500 opens from the purchased list will junk the email immediately, while very few will engage in any way. By contrast, the 300 people who opened the email in our second example will, in the end, yield a much higher rate of engagement, which is the true measure of a successful campaign.

The Why

Even if you are communicating with contacts who know your company and have done business with you before, you cannot violate the cardinal rule of trustcasting, which holds that any and all efforts dedicated to the promotion of your business must be founded in building trust. When it comes to email marketing, the way you build trust is by demonstrating to your recipients that you respect their time and attention. Never send a purely self-promotional message; only communicate if you have something of real value to offer them. That value can come in any number of forms, whether it’s a great discount offer or a highly informative bit of content. Of course, the recipient’s perception of value is tied closely to the frequency of your communication. Email too often and you will become an annoyance, no matter how great your offering is. At best, people will begin to ignore your emails or see them as white noise. At worst, they will unsubscribe from the messages altogether. On the flip side, if you do not reach out often enough, you run the risk of slipping out of sight and out of mind. The trick is to find the balance between these two extremes by devising a plan that allows you to email frequently enough to provide value but not so often that you become a bother. Establish a schedule for your emails that will act as a guideline. I use the word “guideline” for a specific reason here – because this schedule should be flexible and not written in stone. If you insist on sending out an email blast simply because your schedule dictates that it’s time but yet you don’t have anything of true value to communicate, your emails will be ignored because while they will be reliable, they will not be important. Again, the schedule is just a guide; you must use your judgment as to whether it’s right to send an email or whether it’s best to wait.

A case study in scheduling

During the first week of every month, my company sends an email to our entire list of contacts featuring all of the events that we have scheduled for that month. Because we run upwards of 10 or more events each month, it would be impractical to send a separate email promoting each one (that would quickly put us in the “annoying” category). In addition, we also send two different newsletter-style emails – one that goes out to our clients on a monthly basis and one that goes out to our partners and vendors on a quarterly basis. However, there have been many months where we do not have enough relevant, valuable content to justify sending a newsletter to our clients. If this is the case, we simply skip that particular month. For our vendors, who already receive our emails with less frequency, we usually delay our blast by one month rather than let an entire quarter pass with no communication. In both cases, whenever we decide to skip a planned release, we make a concentrated effort to find something of value to send the following month to ensure that we stay on the radar with our readers. In addition to these regular emails, we sometimes send important, time-sensitive communication, such as service disruption alerts based on planned downtime or impending storms. In the event that circumstances necessitate sending these one-off emails, we adjust the timing of our other monthly blasts accordingly to ensure that we do not send too many emails within too short a timeframe. As this example shows, each month may be slightly different in its execution, but with a sound plan in place, you can make sure that you maintain an ideal balance of timely, non-intrusive communication.

The When

As with almost every form of marketing communication, timing plays a key role in determining whether your message is received. There are many conflicting reports on what day of the week and time of day are optimal for sending email blasts, but here are my findings based on extensive experience: Mondays and Fridays are the worst weekdays to send emails. Unless there is an urgent reason why you need to send your communication on one of these days, it’s best to avoid them altogether. This trend is easily explained, as inbox traffic tends to be exceptionally heavy on Mondays, and by Friday, everyone is primarily focused on tying up loose ends before the weekend. Instead, I find that mid-week emails (Tuesday through Thursday) have much better open and engagement rates. When it comes to the time of day, I have found that early is better than late. Emails that land prior to the start of the business day – say at 6:00 a.m. – seem to perform best. These emails greet readers in their inbox as soon as they arrive at the office (or during breakfast if they are checking email prior to heading in) and seem to perform better than ones sent even just a few hours later. And as a general rule of thumb, blasts sent in the morning outperform those that are sent after lunch or towards the end of the workday. When scheduling your next email blasts, I recommend planning an early morning, mid-week delivery, but within this window, try playing around with some different day/time combinations to see which ones work best for your particular audience.

More to come

So far we have taken a look at the quality of the recipients to whom our campaigns are sent and we have solidified a strategy for when and why to send them to ensure that we do not overwhelm those recipients with messages that are unimportant or unnecessary. In the next installment of this series, we will explore the remaining two fundamentals of email marketing success – what we will say and how we will say it.