How 2020's pains can lead to 2021 gains


It's easy to focus on the negatives that 2020 has brought us, like the economic, political, and social disruption from the COVID-19 pandemic and all the uncertainty that has created in our marketing programs.

But I've observed a major positive development this year as well: Marketers have paused doing business as usual, and they're re-evaluating, redesigning, and re-strategizing to meet customers where they are.

Instead of the age-old format of "What do we want to tell our customers?," they're thinking, "What do they want to hear from us?"

Instead of doing the same thing they've done year after year, with only the barest minimum of tinkering to adapt for changes in consumer behavior, I'm seeing marketers finally respond in a way that benefits the customer first.

It's something that I have been advising marketers to do for most of the 20+ years I've been in email marketing, and it has been satisfying to see the benefits marked out so clearly in this stressful year.


2020: Customer-centricity wins out

When we think about innovations in email marketing, we usually go right to something technology-based because technology often leads the way in causing us to change our approaches. (Whether that's the right course of action is a matter of debate for another Only Influencers post!)

This year, however, my nomination for email innovation of the year is this newfound focus on the customer and responding to our customers' needs, wants and situations – the true meaning of customer-centricity. It's clearly a mechanism we can use to cope with the changes and challenges this year has brought, and you need not buy a new platform or learn new coding language to make it happen.

This customer-centric movement is paying off, too. Subscribers and customers have rewarded marketers with sustained higher open rates throughout the year.

While this is an average across industries and perhaps more evident in some sectors than in others, it's a general indicator that marketers who put their customers' needs first and who filter their messages through a customer-first lens will see improvement.

Now, it's also true that click and conversion rates stayed relatively the same all year. But having higher open rates gives us a better foundation, which we can use to improve the ways we persuade subscribers to click from our emails and to convert on our landing pages.


The answer: Bring marketing back into email marketing

As I write this, we are still learning how much has changed – or, indeed, if anything substantial has changed – in the way our customers are shopping for the winter holidays. Many of us have had to throw out our campaign playbooks and ride out the uncertainties that this unsettling year has brought us.

We don't have to start with a blank notebook, though. Instead, let's rediscover good marketing practices – what works, what doesn't, and how to figure out which is which – and bring that knowledge into our email practices.

This helps us understand what our customers' objectives are and how to help them achieve those objectives. That, in turn, helps us achieve our objectives, whether for acquiring and retaining customers, hitting our revenue goals, or gaining more resources we can use to improve and expand our marketing program.

Bringing marketing back into email marketing is a central concept of my new book, Holistic Email Marketing: A practical philosophy to revolutionise your business and delight your customers, so I won't go into depth here.

But I do want to focus your attention on three areas where you can figure out how to plot a new course in 2021.

  1. Persuasion: Appealing to a different set of emotions

Knowing how to move your customers to take the actions you want is still essential to successful email marketing. Persuasion takes the customer on the long, twisty journey from awareness to action. It brings your customer closer to the sale.

By "persuasion," I don't mean manipulating customers to buy something they don't want. That technique was never really successful in driving conversions and revenue over the long term.

In today's environment, it means you will have to work harder to persuade your customers to consider your messages. Many of your customers are in economic straits, facing health crises, under stress from work or home life, or have too many other concerns weighing on their minds.

This means you will have to find new arguments, new frameworks to persuade customers to investigate what you have on offer, whether it's a sale on a day-to-day product or one email in a drip series to sell a high-consideration product.

Emotion has always been a strong driver in persuasion. But this year, the emotions that prompt customers to act can be quite different from what they were in previous years.

Persuasion example: leisure travel: Suppose you are marketing to customers who haven't booked trips for a while. Previously, they might not have had time to travel, or they booked with other agencies. These days, they might refrain because of COVID travel restrictions, fear of infection or losing money on cancelations, or personal spending cutbacks.

A healthy discount might not be enough to prompt a click if they can't travel to the country you're promoting. Instead, appealing to the human desire for both self-care and personal health safety with a trip that's within their reach could be more rewarding.

For example, the travel aggregator Travelzoo changed its marketing to promote only trips that book well into 2021 and offer full refunds with cancellations. That's reassuring for someone longing to travel but worried about the risks.

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  1. Testing: What works now?

Testing is how you can determine whether the emotions that drive your customers to click and convert have changed. I suggested above that copy playing up safety and security might be more effective than appealing to self-indulgence for travel marketers. But don't take my word for it!

Regular, hypothesis-led A/B split testing has always been a necessary part of successful email marketing. Without it, you won't know what really works and what doesn't and whether you're spending money in the right places or wasting it.

It's more important now because it will help you discover whether your customers' wants, needs and motivations have changed. Although we have seen general shifts in shopping and spending habits over the last nine months, the changes have not been universal because the effects of the pandemic are not universal.

Some people are in dire economic straits while others have prospered. Some are under near-total lockdowns while life continues pretty much as normal for others. Some consumers laugh off the effects of the pandemic while others have completely changed their way of life.

For example, a large percentage of customers have said they are unwilling to shop in stores or visit large gathering places like malls. But not everyone shares that concern. You could survey your customers to find out what they think. But you can also test different variations of your email to learn whether emails that stress in-store or curbside pick-up affect buying decisions.

Testing also reveals insights that inform your marketing strategies across all of your other channels. Your email database is a microcosm of your customer base. Your testing results can uncover shifts in customer thinking and motivation that you can use to test and update in your social media, on your website, in SMS marketing, even offline in direct marketing.


  1. Helpful marketing: More important than ever

In an earlier post on Only Influencers, I said this about my concept of helpful marketing:

"At its core, 'helpful marketing' sees every email you send as a customer-service-oriented message that delivers on the original transaction – when the customer opted in. Each message recognizes and upholds the value exchange – what you promised you would deliver in exchange for the customer's email address and other pertinent data."

Helpful marketing brings together everything that I've discussed here.

The transaction that underlies this concept of marketing – helping your customers achieve their objections, which helps you achieve yours – is the same. But your customers might have different objectives today. Saving money might be more urgent than indulging in a self-care product – or buying an indulgent product can soothe their psyches if they can't afford an expensive vacation.

Testing can help you uncover shifts in those objectives as well as the emotions that drive customers to click and convert. A helpful approach to email marketing shows you how to tune the persuasive elements in your messages so that you help your customers achieve these objectives. And, by doing so, your customers help you achieve yours.

In a year like 2020, that "win-win" approach can help you lay the foundation for an even stronger email program in 2021, backed by solid testing and improved customer relationships.