Who Are You Really Competing With?

When I’ve argued in the past that marketers need to understand more about their competitors’ email programs, I inadvertently left out one small detail: Many don’t know who their competitors really are. They think they do, but things are different in the inbox.

The inbox is a unique marketing environment because its capacity to hold messages is virtually infinite. Meanwhile consumers’ capacity to process marketing messages is sharply limited. So they’re forced to choose which to read and which to ignore.

This is a huge part of why engagement matters in competitive email intelligence: Knowing which messages get read and which get ignored is vastly more useful than knowing only what gets sent. Marketers that know which messages inspire action –  or don’t –  can optimize their programs to engage subscribers, get better response, and bolster deliverability by demonstrating that users want their email.

Another unique aspect of the inbox is the adjacency of unrelated brands and messages: Marketing messages abut other, often dissimilar marketing messages, social media notifications, news alerts and publications, transactional email, personal communication, and more. Even mailbox automation solutions group fundamentally unlike messages together. Only in the inbox are so many totally unrelated messages pitted against each other for audience attention. And that’s why many email marketers don’t know who their real competitors are: They compete with everyone.



Consider this example: An airline regularly emails subscribers about weekend getaway specials. Its marketing team closely monitors other airlines, especially two direct competitors that fly to common destinations and use similar marketing tactics. The airline’s competitive email intelligence may indicate that their engagement rates are far and away the best among their group of three. But unless their engagement rates are better than the daily deal sites, cruise lines, regional tourism boards, concert promoters, and other marketers emailing with weekend entertainment offers, these competitors are probably outmaneuvering them in the battle for subscriber attention. The airline’s program may be badly underperforming –  just like the other airlines’ programs.

Knowing that your real competition in the inbox is every sender in the world doesn’t necessarily help you compete. But this might: Start by including a wider set of senders in your competitive email intelligence program. Watch the leaders in adjacent or tangential categories. Monitor how much email they send, when they send, which of their messages subscribers are reading – or ignoring. Develop a benchmark to place your email performance along a broad spectrum of senders (not just marketers), and test and optimize your program against theirs. Even the broadest indices of email performance are relevant to your efforts. While you’ll never make specific decisions based on universal averages, you’ll have a contextual measure of how your program performs against the best senders.

Someday soon you’ll be able to narrow your focus to specifically identify whose emails your subscribers are seeing, and how they engage with it. Until then, use available insight to make sure you’re comparing your program to the senders you’re really competing with in the inbox – not just a handful that happen to sell what you sell.

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