Forget the buzzwords: Unsexy but effective keys to a successful email program

This post is a summary of a roundtable discussion I led at HRMI’s HR Marketing Matters in Las Vegas in September 2018.


5 keys to successful email program

  1. Clean data is your cornerstone

The number one mistake I see people make with email is to start with email design and messaging. That’s important, but it’s not where you start. If your data isn’t clean the messaging won’t be effective because you will be talking to the wrong people with the wrong messaging.

Are you:

  • monitoring how different lists are performing? Are certain segments or list pulls performing worse than others? Getting higher spam or unsub rates? If yes, is there an issue with your data criteria for your list pulls? (You’d be surprised how often there is a flaw in that SQL query leading to a flawed list.)
  • confirming that any custom opt-in field (usually necessary with email service providers- ESPs- if you work globally and need a check box with specific messaging) is being merged or added properly with your standard one-click unsubscribe and email preferences? (You’d also be surprised how often people create the custom opt-in field then don’t apply it properly to their list pulls.) Next question: does it KEEP working (see next point)?
  • confirming that unsubscribes and opt ins are being synched properly with your ESP? Simple releases can mess with opt-in data and synchs, so make sure you know how they work so you can monitor (see next point).
  • comparing implied data  (interest in a product because they visited a page) vs. explicit data (they actually bought something or filled out a form)? Is the implied data performing significantly worse (note: I’m assuming you have an opt-in already covered, so let’s leave that aside for now.)? Especially if you have a single page application site (SPA) or other newer applications, this data doesn’t always track properly. Make sure you know it’s accurate before relying too much on it.
  • looking at performance not just by segment but my email provider? Especially with B2C, are you monitoring opens, clicks and spam rates by hotmail/msn/outlook, gmail, yahoo and more? You can have great deliverability with one while going to the promotions or spam folder with another, so you have to look at them separately to ensure you don’t get shut out of your users’ inbox.
  • applying changes to how your organization tracks data that would impact your list pulls? Did you change the primary field for country, or merge 2 fields?

2. List management… it’s not a one-time criteria set

In case you didn’t pick up on it yet, you can’t just set it and forget it. Monitoring your lists takes vigilance. Even the best systems break. So make sure you have systems in place to monitor all these ways your email performance can go awry.

A few suggestions on how to do this:

  • Create dynamic lists in your ESP if you have the option so you can monitor the growth/decline of these lists. For example, a list of all hotmail email address, all 0 open hotmail address, all unsub hotmail addresses. Monitor monthly. 
  • Compare reports on engagement from key email types or segments so you can flag if anything goes awry. If a particular segment starts to decline, you can begin digging into why. Monitor monthly. 
  • Create dynamic lists of your email lists that break them out by engagement. 1 month, 3 months, 6 months. Monitor engagement in these lists, but also look at their criteria to ensure it’s the most accurate representation of who you’re trying to reach. Monitor quarterly. 

My recommendation? Don’t just trust yourself to get to it. Have a set meeting or report you send to hold you accountable to review. I promise, you will find changes to make and be glad you did it.

3. Know your audience… it’s about them, not you

Not all segments are equal. This is true for messaging, for timing, for deals.

Some examples:

One audience might respond only to deals, while another responds to value.

US customers could respond differently to tone of voice than Asian customers.

A segment might respond more during business hours based on their role, while others respond more when sent in the evening. (Consider smart sends based on individual opens and time zones.)

Offer email preferences so you don’t lose customers or prospects that don’t want to get everything. Give a choice.

4. Test the same thing (over and over)

A common mistake I see with email tests is a one-and-done mentality with testing. A .02% lift on one send does not a winner make.

Particularly if your list is small, a/b test the same thing at least 3 times before declaring a winner. Also test it on multiple segments. And make sure the lift is statistically significant enough to actually declare a winner.

Lastly, if the winning a/b element keeps flip flopping repeatedly, it likely means it doesn’t matter. So do whatever you want.

5. Targeted content (personalization isn’t the same)

Inserting a first name into an email doesn’t count as personalization in my book. That’s a given in today’s world. So let’s think bigger here.

Are you personalizing CTAs or messaging by segment? Are Asian, Indian, European or US customers getting different messages? In B2B, are different roles (generalist, specialist, executive) getting different messaging based on their needs? Are your images customized as well?

Going even further, are the landing pages personalized with appropriate content by segment as well?

The key to this is to start small so you learn, revise and can then iterate. Pick your most important segment and personalize for them. Send everyone else the same thing. Then add a segment each over time. Eventually it will be just a few minutes more for each email as it becomes second nature.

And there you have it. Simple but effective ways to improve your email performance. You’ve got this.

Want more where this came from? Ask me about a custom workshop on email and marketing automation.