What Makes A Great Email Marketing Program?

This year marks the 20th that I’ve been working in the email industry. I thought it might be a good time to codify some of what I’ve learned over that time about what makes an excellent email marketing program. 

The best programs do many of the following:

Understand subscribers’ context and give them what they need: The most successful programs understand the “state” of subscribers and provide the information and utility that they need at that moment. Are they gathering information to make a considered purchase? Are they in the middle of a business trip and need some ideas for dinner near the hotel? Is it time to replenish a previous purchase? These programs then provide the appropriate materials for this context.

Sophisticated use of campaign-based messaging: The traditional campaign-based messaging still makes up the majority of email messages received by mailbox providers. This type of messaging is easy (and easy to do poorly.) The best programs personalize the campaign content based on observed behaviors from email, websites, and apps. The best programs also personalize cadence based on the ability of subscribers to absorb messaging.



Understand where subscribers are in their lifecycle: It’s amazing how many programs don’t have a good understanding of the critical points in their subscriber lifecycles. Great programs know when they start to lose the interest of subscribers and work to create programs that address those key time frames. 

Investment in a single source of truth for customer data: A lot of the tactics mentioned above require a commitment to a unified view of customer data by combining data across channel siloes. It’s hard, detailed and expensive work but the results are typically two to five times more opens, clicks and conversions per subscriber.   

Use the right metrics: Great email marketing programs understand that the scarce resource in their world is engaged subscribers. Their metrics focus on the opens, clicks, conversions, unsubscribes,  complaints, web site visits and revenue generated per subscriber per unit of time. They understand that having a large number of primary email addresses on their list (that are active with all marketing email) is key to having a successful program. They, therefore, focus on the quality of addresses by acquisition source. They understand that deliverability is an important determinant of email performance and measure deliverability for their most active subscribers

Focus on a very few things: It is remarkable how understaffed email marketing teams are.  The most effective teams have one to three key projects that they are working on at any one time (depending on the size of the team). Management focuses on the progress of these projects and provides them with the resources that are required. 

Kaizen, not big bang: When working on these projects, the best email marketing programs expect to iterate to greatness. They don’t expect to get it right the first time. They employ the concept of Kaizen (continual improvement of business processes). Patience and tweaking are key.

Retain the team: One of the most interesting aspects of having the same clients for five, 10 and (nearly) 20 years is the remarkable team turnover that you see on email marketing teams. Sometimes it seems that personnel on email marketing teams have the same life expectancy as the red-shirted crew members on a “Star Trek” away mission(for those of you who don’t know, that’s not very long). The best programs have long-tenured teams and have found ways to build logical career paths inside the email team.  

I’ve enjoyed (almost) every day of the last 20 years. I’m pleased to pronounce that the frequent reports of email’s death have been greatly exaggerated. Email remains the exciting, innovative heart of interactive marketing. I wonder what the next 20 years will bring.

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