E-mail: Yes, Let's Take It 'Personal'

It's one of the advertising agency executive's classic laments: "The client won't spend in the medium because he doesn't use it himself." If you're on the agency side, you've probably encountered this situation at one point or another. Usually, the agency takes issue with a client's reasoning when he or she uses his own media consumption habits as the acid test for that of the target audience. And yes, such reasoning is incredibly lame.

But we ought not to confuse the "Focus Group of One" situation (as I like to refer to it) with smart business sense and good intuition. Yesterday morning, VP David Baker's E-mail Insider column entitled "E-mail: Let's Not Take It 'Personal'" crossed my desk, lamenting a client's supposed lack of vision concerning the e-mail channel. In the column, he says the following:

"Recently, in a meeting, a CEO said to me, 'I believe we could stop doing e-mail completely and I wouldn't see an impact on our business. Every time we send an e-mail we lose customers.' How do you combat such a dire view of a channel you've spent so much time learning to manage?"



First off, an investment in learning about a channel on the agency side does not constitute an obligation on the part of the client to spend money in that channel, but let's put that issue aside for a moment.

As a CEO, it's one thing to say that you don't believe in a particular channel because you don't use it yourself. It's another thing entirely to look at an e-mail campaign's results and come to the conclusion that sending broadcast e-mails results in a loss of customers. Can you picture being the CEO of a company and being called in front of your board to explain why you ordered the continuation of a marketing program that caused you to lose customers?

Baker goes on to write:

"In my opinion, it starts with the basis of the argument. Is the channel really contributing to your business's key performance indicators, or is it a burden to your brand? If your program is not aligned with KPIs, personal opinions and intuition take over. One of the cardinal rules of this business is that you cannot project your personal consumption or personal behavioral traits onto the traits of your customer--but in the absence of business reasons, you fall back on what you feel and experience. Translation: just because you don't like e-mail and can't manage it well, that does not mean it is useless or intrusive to your customers."

One of the other cardinal rules of this business is that there are lies, damned lies and statistics. "KPIs" are statistics, and statistics can be made to support pretty much any argument the agency feels like putting forth. KPIs are, as the word "indicator" suggests, surrogates for marketing success, a large part of which is continuing to build your customer base and sell product. KPIs are merely numbers on a spreadsheet--another set of numbers that contribute to the spreadsheet culture, which erroneously tells us that we can do no wrong if, at the end of the quarter, we've "made our numbers."

Intuitively, a channel that has been tested and has taken divots out of a client's customer base is a channel that will not likely merit an investment of time and money, until problems with it are fixed and the uphill battle for re-acceptance is fought and won. From the CEO's perspective, the e-mail channel was tested, it produced negative results, and the agency should be challenged if it recommends the channel again. That's not projecting "personal consumption or personal behavioral traits onto the traits of your customer." That's common business sense.

Whether the failure of the channel was due to poor advice or poor management, I can't be sure without knowing the specifics. But I can be sure that a client can't reasonably be expected to continue to support a channel that hasn't proven its worth.

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