Attention, Not Permission, Makes Email Strategic Communications Asset

We refer to email as a permission-based channel, but permission is not really the objective of an email program. It’s the cost of doing business, to be sure. Before anything else, you need to have earned the right to reach out to a customer or prospect through email.

But the real objective of your email program is attention. The critical role of attention in email occurred to me last week at a conference. While many of you were at the Email Insider Summit in snowy Utah, I was getting a few more days’ use out of my flip-flops in Miami Beach, speaking at the Specialty Information Publishers Association Annual Marketing Conference. (You had better skiing, but my hotel had yacht parking. Seriously.) I spoke there about how recognizing and honoring the distinction between attention and permission is the difference between using email as a mere tool, and considering it a strategic communications asset.

If you’re a parent, particularly of a child between four and 18 years old, you already know the distinction I’m talking about. No doubt you have permission to talk to your kids whenever you want. But do you always have your kids’ attention? Permission just gets you in the game, but attention is where results come from. 



To consider your email program as a strategic communications asset, think of it as a jar full of pennies. Sometimes you need to draw against that asset to meet the needs of your business. Maybe it is by sending another reminder email when your first didn’t get the results you needed, or emailing to your list on behalf of a partner you’re doing business with who insisted on reaching your subscribers as part of a sponsorship or other deal. Maybe you have to tweak the content of your educational and informational newsletter to be a little more promotional to hit your numbers by the end of the quarter. We all have to do this, and I’m not about to tell you to stop. What good is an asset if you can’t use it to drive your business forward? But we also have to remember that every time we compromise the attention our subscribers have lent us, we’re taking pennies out of that jar. We are diminishing the value of our asset.

Imagine that instead of being an email marketer, you run a retail distribution center for apparel specialty stores. One of the assets you rely on in your business is a forklift, which you use to lift, transport and load pallets of jeans and handbags and graphic T-shirts onto trucks, where they’re shipped off to different stores. Your forklift would do you no good if you were afraid to use it for fear of it breaking, so of course you end up using it all the time. But then you get so reliant on it that if it were to break down, your business would grind to a screeching halt. Instinctively we realize this, so we keep the forklift topped off with fluids, perform regular maintenance -- and, I don’t know, send it to a forklift spa. I’m not exactly sure what makes a forklift happy but if my business counts on it I’d figure it out, and do it.

We need to regard and treat our email programs in the same way the warehouse manager treats his forklift. Since it is impossible to fully preserve the pristine value of that asset and actually derive some value from it, our only choice  -- if we want to have a strong and vital email program in the future -- is to replenish the asset as we use it. If we are taking pennies out of the jar, we need to find ways to put them back in.

To be more precise then, the objective of a strategic email program is not permission, and not just attention, but sustainable attention. There are times we need to take advantage of the attention we have earned, and times when we have to reward our subscribers for the attention they have given us. Adding new subscribers, restoring a content balance that satisfies our audience, adding a preferences center and improving our targeting and segmenting all help replenish the value of our email asset, and add pennies back to that jar. Only in this way can we ensure that the strategic communications asset our business relies on today will be just as useful in the coming years.

1 comment about "Attention, Not Permission, Makes Email Strategic Communications Asset".
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  1. Craig Swerdloff from LeadSpend, Inc., December 14, 2011 at 2:48 p.m.


    Great post all around. I appreciate the analogies. Sometimes we ad pennies to our email marketing program (preference centers, exclusive content, improving targeting), and other times we deduct pennies (list rental, increased frequency, etc.).

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