How Many Ways Can You Mess Up An Email Program?

Sounds like a negative topic, but I'm really upbeat about this. If it weren't for marketing people making the same mistakes, half the agencies and service organizations wouldn't have jobs. While I'm enthusiastic about the email and CRM space, it's a bit numbing to watch organizations do the same thing over and over again. That's why my theme is five ways you can mess up your email program -- so you can learn from others' mistakes.


1. Continuing to rotate email vendors. For years it's been a trend to go through annual reviews of your email platform partners. While I agree with this in principle, and actually wrote about it a few years ago, it is a colossal drain of time and energy. Most companies that go through this exercise and submit RFPs haven't really thought about what they need, have shallow requirements and even less insight into the vendor options available.

While you may save 25% in negotiating pricing, you will spend that going through the review and transition process in most cases. I firmly believe there is only a 20% variance in productivity gaps between the top 10 to 15 email platforms on the market. This means if you are in high production mode and send a lot of email, you will have more risk than others with a less optimal user interface (UI), or campaign management workflow or reporting layer. But if you operate under less production pressure, the variance between the platforms will not pay off because you think the UI is better.



Best advice is to commit to a partnership with your delivery partner and stay the course until you decide to make a corporate move to integrate transactional messaging or consolidate all your business units, or some anomaly blows your traditional volume and campaign needs out of whack. Otherwise commit and focus on the basics rather than spending a lot of energy making vendors jump through hoops; you won't learn as much as you think.

2. Benchmarking from the industry. I've also written a lot about this. But I find that external benchmarks are virtually useless as performance or even forecasting tools. They are not contextual to your industry, to your approach, to the relationships you've developed with your clients and how you've built these through email over time. Don't waste energy trying to get your numbers to match industry stats or putting undue pressure on your teams to meet these. It's like comparing grading scales of schools in separate states; they just don't match and shouldn't be used for funding.

3. Mismanaging acquisition. The best way to screw up an email program is to be irresponsible with the acquisition and building of a database. Gathering names and email addresses is not difficult, it's just a net/sum game. But so many companies don't realize the cost of acquisition when they have a poor game plan for retention through digital channels. You'll end up adding to the overburdened email staffs' issues by adding erroneous records to a database that gradually bring down performance, and create unrealistic expectations for return on investment.

Many companies would benefit from a 30% reduction of their database today. Don't let the allure of acquisition put a burden on retention principles. We ran into this problem with a client last year where they greatly overestimated the value of their database to find out that 20% were dormant at best. Talk about putting your team behind the eight-ball.

4. Not understanding social networking theory. Forward to a Friend was a great idea years ago, but has always been a shallow strategy. It is critical that you understand the principles of networking theory and the innate nature of how people build their networks, tribes, and communities; how people use tools to enable these networks; and how digital has greatly changed the game. You will seek an alternate view where you place less value on individual attributes and more value on relationships and ties, and the dynamics of the networks each build. This is something you'd better know, or you'll never master direct marketing.

5. Continuing to churn the resource pool. There are a lot of new people in email marketing, with very few who have a long tenure. Problem is, it's such an isolated channel in most organizations that the email people tend to recycle through the organization and stay for a limited time. I am a firm believer that a marketing organization doesn't need to have thought leaders in a channel per se, but employees do need to have domain experience to some degree. You won't ever retain that at any strategic or tactical level if you don't retain the channel expertise. Combine this issue with issue #1 (churning vendors) and you are reinventing your program every few years and not evolving it as you should.

The channel is strong, the vendors in the space are much more mature than they used to be, and there are a lot of voices in the space sharing thought leadership openly -- but the channel will continue to grow at a nominal rate if we continue to make these same mistakes over and over again.

8 comments about "How Many Ways Can You Mess Up An Email Program?".
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  1. Brandi Heinz from Follett Software Company, June 29, 2009 at 11:55 a.m.

    I really enjoy the insights - especially #1 - in this economy, cutting corners with costs is tempting, but doesn't always benefit you in the long run. Additionally, when you are switching around, you are potentially impacting your deliverability with the changes of your ISP.

  2. Bill Kaplan from FreshAddress, Inc., June 29, 2009 at 12:06 p.m.

    Great topic although I have a slightly different take on David's 5 recommendations:

    1) Rotating email vendors - While it's true that email platforms are not that different across the many excellent ESPs, the level of service, care, and expertise offered by each ESP varies significantly. If you're not getting the attention and performance you expect, then switching ESPs may be exactly what your company needs to optimize your email marketing efforts.

    2) Industry benchmarking - I disagree that this is useless info. How else can you properly evaluate how you're doing and what goals you should be setting for your team and company? What I'm sure David meant to say is that one needs to perform this market research carefully, taking into account the variations across industries and product markets. If your leading competitor is driving $1 million/week through email marketing and you're doing $100,000/week, you're doing something wrong. This info is critical to know!

    3) Acquisition - Right on target. Spend a few more dollars up front carefully vetting your providers and cleaning and validating email addresses BEFORE sticking them into your database. This is absolutely one area where price highly correlates with quality.

    4) Not understanding social networking theory - Sounds great in theory and I'm all for new technologies and leveraging every piece of available data possible to optimize any pursuit. That being said, virtually no one is making any money leveraging social tools these days so stop sweating it and wasting money that could be put to better use elsewhere. I'm not saying to completely ignore social networking. I'm just saying to view this as something that might generate fruit one day so plan your resources accordingly.

    5) Churning the resource pool - An employee with email experience is useless if he/she is not performing. Keep your solid employees and get rid of the dead wood. Over time, you'll end up with all solid performers with experience in the channel.

    Final important mistake not to repeat: Neglecting email list hygiene. Your email marketing performance is highly correlated with your true email deliverability metrics. Since the vast majority of email deliverability issues arise from problems with the underlying list, it's critical to keep this list as fresh and up-to-date as possible so as to reduce the three primary casues of blocking and blacklisting: excessive "this is spam" complaints, excessive bounce rates, and the existence of spamtraps.

    Email continues to outperform every other marketing channel. If you focus on your priorities and continue to learn from your mistakes, you'll see a dramatic impact on your bottom line.

  3. Dave Hendricks from LiveIntent, June 29, 2009 at 12:43 p.m.

    David - you speak with the confidence and authority of someone who has made the mistakes himself!

    Changing providers makes sense sometimes, and at other times it doesn't. Essentially, changing email providers falls prey to the 'definition of insanity' - that is if you change providers but do not also change your own processes and programs. Providers all have weaknesses, and they are all challenged by their own technology. However, like all systems, they require good input to drive the best output (results).

    A close working relationship with your ESP, including expectation and goal setting, measurement, feedback, planning and iterative improvement all contribute to mutual success.

    Thanks for taking the time to write a thoughtful piece like this.


  4. Cynthia Edwards from Razorfish, June 29, 2009 at 12:46 p.m.

    In response to Bill Kaplan's statement, "virtually no one is making any money leveraging social tools these days" -- Dell Outlet announced this month that it had earned $3M from Twitter.

    And they are not the only earner. Social media and email will become more and more intertwined as time goes by.

  5. Kurt Johansen from Johansen International, June 29, 2009 at 6:17 p.m.

    David a very insightful piece. I particularly enjoyed your comments on 'Forward To A Friend'. My experience with over 500 emails in various categories indicates this is the less used and ignored link in an email campaign. So much we are now discontinuing it and will live with the notion if someone truly likes our email then they will forward it on without us having to trace a link and gain an extra name.
    Cheers Kurt Johansen - Australia's Email Marketing Guru -

  6. Britta Meyer from Loomia, June 29, 2009 at 6:24 p.m.

    i agree with Cynthia in terms of the inevitable integration of social media with email, a combination which should prove highly effective for marketers if executed correctly. having been on the provider side of both, email services and social technologies, i'm quite encouraged by the latest developments in the space, such as Strongmail's social media features, and others are not far behind. i have no doubt about the innovation on the technology side, though marketers need to understand that users of social media behave fundamentally different from email recipients, and best practices have yet to be established.

  7. david Baker from RedPill, June 30, 2009 at 2:56 p.m.

    Wow, so many comments .. love it..

    1. Dave Hendricks.. YES, I've made many mistakes, so I speak from pain, experience and whatever you want to call hopefully some will listen and take stock. I agree full tilt... you have to change your view if you change vendors, vendors are so poorly treated in most cases they add little value... but you can't change the spots on a leopard, and process is hard to change, but if you decide to uproot your technology and partners, then reevaluate your working model as well and make a long-term investment in this... few see the implications and costs to a business of going through this exercise outside of pure cost savings.

    2. Bill K. Love your input, obviously from different market perspectives, but you are dead on with regard to research.. it is important.. but what I was stating was about performance metrics, so category roll up or other research criteria, which I highly value.. but see too many request for click through rate metrics to help inform direction.. flawed approach... As for Network Theory.. I disagree... while it isn't a channel like email, it is a strategic approach and will change how we develop sites, dm strategies, retention strategies etc... so if you define as a channel, NO it won't drive revenue, but growth is about combined excellence, NOT channel attribution..

  8. Neil Capel from Sailthru, July 16, 2009 at 10:20 a.m.

    A very true article, we always push our customers "to do unto others as you would have them do unto you". It's generally a good rule in email marketing, and thats why we have our own published best practices on forward to a friend etc.

    ESP's usually encourage you to send as much mail as possible, it's much better to send quality email.

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