The last year or so has really challenged me to think differently about the e-mail channel--how to speak about it evangelically to other practitioners, influencers and pundits. The most provocative thing I can say is this: it all starts with establishing a profile for an e-mail customer.
I have found that the vast majority of the people I speak to--people I meet at conferences, clients, prospects and even e-mail companies--struggle to put good assessments on this channel. Not because they aren't bright, but because e-mail is a practice that is predicated on multiple kinds of expertise in strategy, technology, creative and analysis. In spite of this, many people still think there is a silver bullet that will magically fix their program. Perhaps this explains why they support audits and consultative support from the outside, and never get anything that is "action-able."
Unfortunately, sometimes a consultant will view an e-mail program and deem it deficient based on a single attribute (for example: the creative treatment simply didn't resonate with him). But there is more to success than the appeal of the creative--a great open rate, or meeting any of the myriad benchmarks referred to in the 260-page Marketing Sherpa report. But it all stems from the value of an e-mail address.
The one thing I can share with you that will make you a better, more responsible advocate for the value of this channel is: know the value of an e-mail address to your business. If you don't know this, you are dead in the water. No campaign, creative idea or program will work or last without understanding this value. Among other things, it helps you understand how much to invest in acquisition, activation and retention strategies. And I'm not talking about customer lifetime value, which is a term very few can "sell" organizationally. An e-mail address has a monetary value in terms of revenue because it's associated with a customer or profile; and it also has a response weight. This means that gaining response over time, and investment in that address, have different costs--and one CLTV isn't the same for all e-mail addresses.
Many e-mail programs get thrown under the bus because the managers haven't built a good value story. The first time the program is challenged over diminishing response, they blame it on the consumer, the industry, the channel, SPAM and every other obstacle they can think of--when in fact, the essential problem is their inability to navigate the program around these obstacles. If measuring the success of an e-mail program is relegated to open rates and click-through rates, those obstacles just get bigger. The quote I put on my signature line these days is "Obstacles are those things you see when you lose sight of your goals."
The best advice I can give you, speaking as one who runs an e-mail practice across many different verticals, is to build out a customer valuation that is tied to something of importance to your company (revenue, costs savings, cost of reach etc.) and then spread the word about it. You'll find that once you know what the value of an e-mail address is to your business, you can know what latitudes you have to invest in acquisition, how long you have to convert the customer, which segments you should focus on, which aspects of your program require the most attention, and, lastly, what support you'll need from the organization to reach your goal.