Commentary

Email Journey Useful -- But Only Up To A Point

Two thousand years ago Laozi wrote, “A good traveler has no fixed plans, and is not intent on arriving.” Not that Laozi, the founder of Taoism, was offering travel advice. Like all philosophers, his words drive at a universal truth: the importance of keeping an open mind.

The operative word is fixed, because Laozi doubtless understood that all human endeavors depend on planning, and all plans inevitably collapse in the face of execution. Laozi would have made a hell of an email marketer.

While plenty has changed in terms of email marketing technology, the essential input remains a business construct called a lifecycle. I say essential, because the lifecycle drives how we think about orchestration, workflow and consumer journey tools that coordinate cross-channel communication. But the more complex an organization’s email portfolio becomes, the harder it is to think and execute with a lifecycle mindset.

The consumer journey is just one example of the challenge that occurs when managing communication streams today. To build a journey, you need to know your audience, segments and the rules for engagement. You need to know the timing of campaigns and the general intent (promotion versus buy, for example). You need to build in logic that’s based on behaviors, events, time of delivery and a whatever data-driven changes you can deploy.

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What’s changed with the rise of automation in general and programmatic in particular is that you now need to be able to optimize, test, reuse content and allow for micro-segments if 1:1 marketing is your aspirational goal.

I’ve worked with a number of journey tools, each of which breaks down as complexity and automation increases. This probably wouldn’t surprise Laozi, who if he were alive and working in email marketing today, might remark that our focus on arriving somewhere specific (1:1, for example) is ultimately undermined by our need to architect each moment of a customer’s journey into a fixed point with a corresponding response.

Of course, that’s not how email marketers express their frustration with the limitations of lifecycle thinking. The comments I hear most run along the lines of, It’s easier to rebuild than try to modify an existing stream, or Those streams are deploy and forget.

Gary Deasi explained this problem in an interview that’s well worth a read. In a nutshell, marketers fall in love with the demo of a journey-building framework, but then they fail to figure out how to make that journey operational. Now, don’t get me wrong. Customer journey mapping has tremendous value, but it doesn’t have production value, which is where email marketing wins.

Think of it this way: journey mapping for the sake of messaging streams helps you visualize the interrelationships between channels, but that picture becomes a tangled mess as you dive deep into the weeds, which is where 1:1 marketing happens. Scale becomes the enemy of that kind of complex thinking.

As marketers embrace an environment increasingly dominated by machine learning and automation, our logic can no longer live inside the individual message streams.

 A birthday greeting is a prime example of 1:1 marketing, but its value is dubious if the messaging is predicated on a rule that’s specific to a particular stream. Doing linear and even branching journeys becomes far too complicated to manage across a portfolio of email communications.

Going forward, we need to think in terms of a logic that lives inside a larger template, one predicated on data, not lifecycle assumptions. To paraphrase Laozi, email marketing isn’t about arriving at 1:1, it’s about a mindset that makes the 1:1 conversation possible.

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