Email Decision-Making: Beyond Revenue Or Best Practices

"Where should I put the unsubscribe link?" "Should I use a prechecked box to increase opt-ins?" "Should I send email to the addresses we collected via business cards gathered at trade shows three years ago?"

Whenever someone asks questions like these about email marketing, the answer has seemingly been pretty easy: "It depends, so test it. When in doubt, follow the generally accepted best practice." 

But, like everything else in the email world, I believe the conversation has become much more complex, and the easy answer often isn't the right one.

At one time, we might have cited the best practice as the only way to answer questions like these or to plan out an email program. That might be the right answer if you work in an optimal situation, with an understanding management, a clean list, a healthy budget and so on. 

But let's say the client is a start-up with a one-person marketing department where every penny is counted, and the goal is to get more people to buy its products at the highest margin possible, while successfully landing another round of venture capital financing.  



The supposed best practice may not necessarily be the right answer. I'm not condoning short cuts or shady practices, of course. However, there are many more factors to consider when coming up with the right answer in real-world situations.

Many email thought leaders and Email Insider columnists contend that the concept of "best practices" is dead, that there are no longer right answers that apply broadly. While I don't really disagree, I do believe there are directional best practices - or principles that work broadly. However, best practices alone won't always solve a problem or get your email program where it needs to be.  

Essentially, the question has evolved from "Can I do it?" to "Should I do it, and what could happen if I do?" 

Example: The Prechecked Opt-In Box 

Should you use an opt-in form with the permission box already checked? This should be a simple question. But you'd be surprised how much emotion one little checkmark can stir up among marketers.

The list below outlines just some of the factors that might go into your decision-making process on this or other email marketing questions:

1. What do other marketers do? If the majority of your competitors use prechecked boxes, then you might consider it the default practice that would be expected by consumers opting into your program. Or you might take a contrarian view and decide to focus on quality, using the higher level of permission as part of your positioning.

2. What are you trying to accomplish? If your goal is list growth, using a prechecked box is the likely answer. If your goal is engaged and responsive customers with a high lifetime customer value, you might opt for unchecked.

3. What's the best practice? Here, the "best practice" depends on where you sit. Marketers under revenue pressure contend that a transparent prechecked box is the best practice, as it leads to greater opt-ins and conversions. Those with a strict permission/consumer choice bent will argue that gaining affirmative consent via checking a box is the best practice.

4. What's legal? In the United State, CAN-SPAM doesn't prohibit use of a prechecked box, but does define its use as not being "affirmative consent" -- which then requires use of special language in emails. In other countries around the world, the email laws may apply very differently. So your decision-making approach needs to consider a global versus localized answer.

5. What's ethical? How visible is your prechecked box? If you bury the box somewhere, you are likely going to gain more opt-ins -- but you also haven't been transparent and will likely generate a higher number of spam complaints and the wrath of some customers.

6. What do your numbers show? Have you used both unchecked and prechecked boxes in the past or conducted an A/B test? Do the higher number of subscribers from a prechecked box lead to greater conversion and revenue than the unchecked approach?

7. What does management want? You might be under pressure to deliver a specific list size or show a certain growth percentage in order to preserve your share of the marketing budget.  

8. What do ISPs/accreditation providers require? Whitelisting or other trusted-sender services might frown on prechecked boxes or make issue resolution more difficult with ISPs.

9. What are the trade-offs? In this example, general consensus is that prechecked boxes lead to more opt-ins -- but whether subscribers that actively check a box are more engaged and responsive, is a point frequently debated. Regardless, almost every email decision involves trade-offs around something like quality versus quantity. 

10. Impact on brand and trust? Brand perception and trust has become paramount in marketing decisions. If we deploy a marketing approach not favored by a sizable number of prospects and customers, will that impact their trust when we ask them to buy something? Depending on your audience, a prechecked box may have no effect, or it could lead to a public attack on Twitter. 

This seemingly simple prechecked versus unchecked box decision reveals that there can perhaps a dozen or more factors to consider -- not simply what is best practice or which approach generates more revenue. 

What do you think? Not about the prechecked box issue -- I use that merely as an illustration -- but about the things marketers must consider when choosing the best course for their email programs? Let me know what I've left out and keep the conversation going.

Until next time, take it up a notch!

3 comments about "Email Decision-Making: Beyond Revenue Or Best Practices".
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  1. Gretchen Scheiman from Alchemy Worx, April 22, 2011 at 9:27 a.m.

    Nicely articulated summary of the many decision factors businesses need to take into account when making changes to their email programs. Even when there are "best practices" or at least commonly used practices, there is no one right answer.

  2. Chad White from Litmus, April 22, 2011 at 1:50 p.m.

    While best practices don't provide "one size fits all" answers, they do provide a sensible starting point for testing. The recent anti-best practices sentiment seems to promote an "anything goes" attitude, which is really dangerous considering how few email marketers perform rigorous testing. Marketers should have good data to support deviating from best practices.

  3. Loren McDonald from IBM Marketing Cloud, April 22, 2011 at 2:23 p.m.

    Thanks Gretchen...I'm sure I could have come up with another half dozen aspects to the simple example of to precheck or not. I know I am certainly guilty the last 10 years of saying "X, Y or Z" is the best practice. When in fact, there are always outlying situations or practices that may not work in certain verticals or email types.

    I do think there are email principles that most people can agree on. For example, most probably agree that "welcome emails" are a good practice for all of the often cited reasons. How welcome emails are implemented (how many, the cadence, offers/no offers, short and sweet vs detailed content, etc..." is debateable but more importantly, the best approach probably varies greatly by the goals of the company and situation.

    But even with welcome emails, I'm sure there are siutations that call for not sending a welcome email or at least sending a promotional or other type of email prior to a welcome email.

    Chad - thanks for your comment. I don't think there is really an anti-best practices sentiment. I think it is more that as an industry we've all realized that what's right or best for one company may not be right for another.

    As I said above, I do think there are "principles" or "generally accepted best practices" that can/should serve as a starting/testing point for marketers struggling with the right answer.

    But even then, who is to say what the best practice starting point is? You or I might say, per my column above, that an unchecked opt-in box is clearly the best practice. That approach provides a higher level of consent, higher quality list with more engaged subscribers. But then ask 100 e-retailers and they might say we are crazy and that the only best practice is to capture as many opt-ins as possible - and then it is up to the email program to deliver value and keep them egaged once they've opted in.

    I think that is a big part of the "anti-best practices" sentiment you refer to - who is to say which one is the best practice?

    Appreciate the comments.

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