How to Kill Your Email Program in 5 Easy Steps


As a new year begins, I thought it timely to take a somewhat tongue-in-cheek look at some of the challenges that a full-on omni-channel strategy can pose to an already robust and successful email marketing/CRM program. These challenges flow from two opposing forces that exist in contemporary marketing. Each has an opposing view of what makes marketing successful, and how to achieve that success.

On the one hand, the reach-and-frequency driven world of digital and traditional media. Let’s call it the “throw-mud-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks” or “spray-and-pray” approach that clamors for a dominant share of voice. And on the other hand, the high-engagement-relationship-focused world of email marketing. Let’s call it the “take-me-by-the-hand-and-help-me-choose” approach.

Those two worlds should peacefully coexist, albeit with a certain natural tension. But when these worlds collide and compete, the customer gets caught in the crossfire and our carefully crafted email programs begin to whither.

I have written extensively on the topic of sustainability in marketing. The fundamental premise of sustainable marketing that you need to take a holistic view of your customers’ engagement with your brand. This 360° view includes not only WHAT content you share with them, but also WHERE and HOW OFTEN you engage with them.

If you really want to mess up your email marketing program, here is a five-step recipe for “success”:

1. Laser focus on channels, not on customers

Because customers are so hard to manage, right? 

It’s so easy to silo your marketing channels. Each one has its own rules, secrets, and best practices. But it’s hard to gain a holistic view of your customer outreach. To understand what content and messaging your customers are seeing, where and how often they see it across all your channels.

When you combine email with social, search, display, SMS and traditional channels like print, mail (still a thing) and broadcast, the number of impressions can balloon very quickly. Be mindful of this when orchestrating your campaigns to avoid oversharing. Adjust your frequency accordingly to achieve a balance across your media mix.

Map out your entire media landscape and try to understand what a highly engaged customer might see vs a prospective customer, etc. Use this understanding to strike a balance between quantity and impact. More importantly, make sure that each impression moves your customer forward in their buyer journey rather than treating each impression as a discreet event. And make certain that the content and messaging evolves as the customer moves forward. For example, an initial promotional CTA is no longer helpful once a customer places an item in their cart. The required action is no longer driving traffic, but rather conversion.

2. Eagerly grow your email frequency

I mean what harm is another email, right? 

The sad reality is that not everyone shares the same level of enthusiasm at the idea of reading another email from your brand. But it’s hard to resist the VP who tasks you with sending “just one more email”. I’m reminded of the famous, but rather disgusting Monty Python skit “Mr. Creosote” who literally explodes after consuming just one wafer-thin mint (warning: this is really gross).

Although one-more-email may not have such an explosive impact on your program, it may contribute to eating away at your customer relationships, sending your program into a downward spiral. You see, every time you accept “one more email”, it bulks up your already robust calendar and eventually leads to over-mailing. And let’s face it, it’s never just “one more”. It becomes a habit, and your frequency explodes.

That’s why email program stewardship is essential to long-term success and program sustainability. Think of it this way: your customers have a finite attention budget to “spend” reading your content. Once that budget is exhausted, there’s nothing left for important messages. Protect that budget at all costs.

I’ve recently noticed a lot of retailers start to mail the same message multiple times a day during peak periods. At some point, probably sooner than expected, open rates and clickthrough rates are going to suffer. When that happens, what do you do? Increase your frequency to offset the drop in engagement, of course! See where this is going?

3. Passionately target your active customers through paid media

After all people need to be reminded often, right? 

I was recently reminded by a colleague of the Rule of Seven principle by which consumers need to be exposed seven times to something for them to take action. I remember how critical this principle was 30 years ago when I worked at Canada’s largest and oldest advertising agency.

Back in the day, it was achieved with multiple flights of ads on TV and radio with magazines and newspapers added for good measure. The impact was measured through quantitative research since responses were not directly measurable. It is this lack of measurability that led to the famous quote “Half of what I spend on advertising is wasted – I just don’t know which half” – John Wanamaker.

Today, as media channels explode, marketers combine a vast number of channels to achieve a form of media synergy. They email customers for key campaigns and use the email list to create audiences so you can also target them with display campaigns in digital and social media. Then for good measure, retarget them once they leave your website in hopes of bringing them back.

The challenge with the so-called media synergy is that you quickly saturate your customers’ attention. If repetition is a good thing in moderation, it becomes annoying when your promotions are seen everywhere, all the time.

Also, this begs the following question: If you can talk to your customers for “free” using email, why would you pay to reach them in digital media with the exact same message and content?

Media synergy, and omni-channel orchestration rely on the principle that each channel communicates with customers with unique content that is appropriate for that channel. And at an appropriate frequency.

Digital audiences are great for reactivating contacts who haven’t engaged recently, or if you operate in Canada, for whom you no longer have consent. And there is value when used as a reminder of a recent visit or search. But there’s a fine line… And let’s be honest. There’s no better way to artificially inflate your ROAS (return on advertising spend) than by targeting active and engaged customers.

Before you use your entire database to create audiences for digital media, take some time to understand the impact on your customers. Take a holistic view of your media footprint that includes all channels. You may be surprized and perhaps even a little horrified to learn how often you’re badgering your customers.

This is where marketing technology tool like a DMP (data management platform) may help to get a clearer view of your media and email frequency. And help you spend your limited media budget where it will make the greatest impact: on new customer acquisition.

4. Add a healthy helping of SMS on top

'cause people are always on their phones, right? 

Don’t get me wrong, I love a timely and relevant SMS message to remind me of something important, welcome me to my favorite hotel or help track my orders.

But don’t treat SMS like you would an email. Instead create a tandem between the text message and other elements of your media mix. Like “Our best deal of the season starts tomorrow! Watch your inbox for details. Not a subscriber? Sign up here and never miss a thing.”

Oh, and make sure you have consent before sending an SMS. Just because you captured a cellphone number doesn’t mean you can use it.

5. Excitedly repeat the same message over and over

Because we so easily forget, right? 

I’m all for reinforcement, and repetition. Remember the old copywriting rule of thumb “tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, then tell they what you told them”.

But mindlessly repeating the same content, over and over, in all channels while expecting a different result is the very definition of insanity and a waste of your customer’ attention. If your offers are predictable, always promoting the same 15% off, or free delivery, repetition becomes a source of burnout. Why open an email is you already know what’s in it.

Break up the monotony by mixing it up. Don’t just send promotions. Add in informational, experiential content, tips, and advice in addition to sales messaging. Content that adds value to the relationship and helps your customers make better choices. As I wrote earlier in this article, make the message evolve as your customer moves forward in their journey.

A few last words

Obviously, nobody wants to kill their email program. But these few lines show us how easy it would be to so and how insidiously this can happen. You think you’re doing all you can to achieve the best results for your organization, while in fact you’re undermining consumer trust and engagement.

Sustainable marketing requires that you preserve consumer trust and attention by ensuring that the competing forces in your marketing mix remain in balance. And adopting a holistic view of your marketing channels is essential to preserving that balance. Marketing technology can help to provide that holistic view, breaking down the silos between the many competing channels.

But at all starts with email program stewardship to protect your customers from over-solicitation. So, the next time your VP ask for “just one more” email, do you best to resist the urge and politely explain the perils of that slippery slope. Or negotiate which other email you’ll drop from your program.

artak petrosyan oAy3PdXBDH8 unsplash 600Photo by Artak Petrosyan on Unsplash