Questions Matter More Than The Answers

Week before last I posted a blog venting some frustrations about our industry titled, "Your opinion is not 'Best Practice'! (and mine isn't either)."   Admittedly, I had some reservations declaring my exasperation publically, but the positive feedback I have received tells me I am not alone.


I have found that email marketers have a tendency toward black-and-white beliefs where there is a lot of grey. The classic example is "What is the best day to send email?" But the list goes on. Should you use double opt-in or single opt-in? Should you segment by demographics, psychographics, or behavioral data? Should those extra fields on your registration page be required or not? What is the best way to build your list?

Or there is the hot topic over on the EEC blog around the introduction of the render rate. Some suggest we should just fix the open rate by standardizing it -- which was discussed extensively within the roundtable before we agreed on the proposed metrics. The problem is that depending on the industry and the company looking at open rates, everyone wants to look at these numbers different ways. There is no "best practice."

The term "best practice" asserts that a particular technique, method or process has proven itself to be superior to alternative techniques, methods, or processes for delivering the intended outcome time and time again. They are proven. The results are consistent. 99 times out of 100; if you follow the best practice you will be in better shape than if you hadn't.

Too often in email marketing, these assertions are made based on the results of a single case study. Worse still, they are made based on case studies where no alternatives were sufficiently tested. These aren't best practices, they are "good ideas" that may or may not apply. Just because something worked for does not mean it will work for your company.

Teaching People to Ask Good Questions

So, who is at fault? The people answering these questions or the people asking them?

Any good professor will tell you that the most challenging part of his or her work is asking good questions. I was reminded of this watching the video of Dr. Michael Wesch  of Kansas State University accepting his award for Professor of the Year in 2008. You may already be familiar with his work as the creator of "Web 2.0 ... The Machine is Us/ing Us,"  which has been viewed on YouTube nearly 8 million times.

We would be remiss to blame it all on stupid questions. As someone who has conducted research and written whitepapers on the best day to send email, every time I hear someone ask, "What is the best day to send email?" part of me wants to reply, "That is a STUPID question!" No, it's just naïve. And there is a difference. Naïveté is based on lack of experience that leads the person asking the question to assume there is a simple answer where there isn't one.

Whether we ignore, dismiss, or provide simplistic answers to naïve questions, we perpetuate the problem. Stop! It is hurting our industry. Ask a question about the finer points of sender authentication and you will struggle to find someone without an opinion. All the while, we struggle to convince the c-suite of the value of email. We are all adept at quoting studies from the DMA showing that email marketing has phenomenal ROI, but we cannot explain why sending "just one more email" is a bad idea. Who's naïve? The CFO who just twisted your arm into sending another email, or the person who gave that CFO the DMA study and expected them to understand the nuances of how customers might perceive that one additional messages?

When my kids have a fight and one comes pleading his innocence, I always ask the same question, "How many people does it take to fight?" Whether they believe it or not, they know the only answer that will get them out of their bind is "two."

Take a minute and read Tim Walker's blog on "The Power of Naïve Questions."  He explains how, if we are honest, naïve questions force us to reassess our assumptions and use of insider language to answer questions. People asking naïve questions are trying to understand the basic concepts of our area of expertise. Our job is to teach them to ask good questions. If we want to improve the image of email marketing, this is imperative. It not only takes time, but it is a heck of a lot harder to do than simply providing the "right answer."

6 comments about "Questions Matter More Than The Answers".
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  1. Evan Brownstein from Bright Monkey Marketing, February 4, 2009 at 2:53 p.m.

    One of my favorite questions to ask about any email my clients or I send is "How likely is it that our friends or colleagues would open, act upon, and benefit from this email?" (Alternatively, "If you received this email, would you forward it and recommend the proposition/information in it to a friend or colleague?")

    This is simply a variation of Fred Reichheld's "The Ultimate Question," which is: "How likely is it that you would recommend this company to a friend or colleague?"

    In my experience, the answer to this question goes a long way to determining and demonstrating the value of any email initiative.

    Would you recommend or forward this post to friends or colleagues? Please let me know.

  2. Loren McDonald from IBM Marketing Cloud, February 4, 2009 at 3:54 p.m.

    Nice article Morgan.

    I certainly don't disagree that the term "best practice" can be misleading - I personally use the term as much or more than anyone. Much like our open rate/render rate issue, the use of the term "best practice" is often misused or misinterpreted by those involved.

    I do, however, believe there are email marketing practices that most everyone in the industry can agree are "best." I've referred to these practices in the past as "GABPs" - Generally Accepted Best Practices. While rather broad, things such as: using welcome emails, authenticating your emails, optimizing email design and coding for better rendering, using a consistent "from/sender" name - I think most people would agree are "best practices." Whether you should deploy a single welcome email versus a series or whether to include a "view mobile version" link at the top of your email versus somewhere else, is open to debate, testing and may produce different results for different companies.

    While guilty of using the term "best practice" frequently, I always caveat my points with: "these are suggested, they may not work for you and test, test, test.

    In marketing and particularly email marketing, perhaps the one universal "best practice" we can all agree on is test, test, test.

  3. Morgan Stewart from Trendline Interactive, February 4, 2009 at 4:31 p.m.

    I completely agree with your statements Loren. Yes, send a welcome message, test subject lines, don't mail to people who unsubscribe, etc. are clearly established best practices.

    I am not on a quest to kill the term "best practices" entirely, I just think we have become very liberal in our use of the term. We need to distinguish between "generally accepted best practices" and "this is a really cool idea I saw work one time". I am guilty myself, but I am determined to measure my words more carefully in the future.

    One last thought: just because something is a best practice does not mean it is even logistically feasible. I remember talking to a newspaper publisher about a "Breaking News" email program. Even though they know subject line testing would result in better response (e.g., AB test subject lines and send the winner to the masses), doing so would be contradictory to the objectives of the program.

    So even with widely accepted best practices each situation has to be assessed to determine if the technique, process, etc. can and should be applied based on higher-level objectives.

  4. John Caldwell from, February 4, 2009 at 5:30 p.m.

    Thank you, Morgan, for so eloquently bringing up the topic of teaching people to ask good questions.

    I totally agree that simplisticly answering naïve questions by rote doesn't do those asking, or the Industry as a whole, any favors.

    As the poet once said, "If you do not ask the right questions, you do not get the right answers. A question asked in the right way often points to its own answer. Asking questions is the A-B-C of diagnosis. Only the inquiring mind solves problems.”

  5. Stephanie Miller from Victory Song, February 4, 2009 at 6:48 p.m.

    Thanks, Morgan. I think you are missing a big point here.

    I have long said that best practices are healthy and good because they are starting points. But the real value of any good practioner (or consultant) is the ability to APPLY those best practices to your particular business. Lots of smart marketers do the opposite of best practices because it works for their business. They don't include a link to their privacy policy. They rent email lists. They have all image messages. They send more frequently.

    But they do these things in the right way, from a position of strength (data!) and protect themselves from damage by fierce advocacy of the subscriber experience and solid testing.

    Call it what you like. But I'd say that best practices help us by *forcing* us to question. And that is what you advocate as well, it seems. Good job!

    Stephanie Miller, Return Path

  6. Morgan Stewart from Trendline Interactive, February 5, 2009 at 1:06 p.m.

    @Stephanie Miller: If best practices are treated as a starting point, yes, I agree. “Smart marketers”, to use your term, know when to break the rules. So, why insist on calling them “best practices” if they need to be broken so often?

    In a time where a lot of companies are increasing their investment in email and cutting back in other areas—meaning there is a new wave of email marketers trying to get up to speed—I believe we would all benefit by clarifying between those things that are proven best practices and those each organization needs to investigate and test for themselves.

    So, my point is directed at what the term means when communicating to those outside our industry. I am not suggesting that email insiders don’t benefit from the dialogue, lists, articles, debates, etc. As you said, they provide a good starting point. I simply believe the term we use in these insider discussions is highly problematic.

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