No man is an iland

Latest posts | Feed | ...email marketing advice by Mark Brownlow

July 24, 2009
twitter statsSince I use email and Twitter to promote this site, does that make me a Twailer? Or an Emitter?

Anyway...as I'm on vacation, it seems a good time for reflection and this post outlines brief observations on some important differences between the two channels and what these differences might mean for your marketing.

I've outlined how the two shape up against various criteria, like response, relationship building etc. and end with a summary of insights.

This is very much one man's perspective so do chime in with your own opinion in the comments. There's also a complementary post with earlier observations on the Twitter Adventure.

Response rates


A recent article at Mashable suggested an average CTR on links in tweets of 2.8%.

Before we all rush to gloat about email CTRs, a direct comparison is unfair.

Links in marketing emails are intended to be clickworthy. They (hopefully) have a clear marketing purpose, clear value to the recipient and a clear call to action.

Links in Tweets may also share that quality.

But the nature of the channel also encourages you to send people links with no direct-response business objective in mind. And those kinds of links can be very hit and miss.

Throw in that it's much harder to target in Twitter and we'd expect average responses to be less than for marketing email. But...

1. Heavyweight links can also get good responses at Twitter
2. The Twitter environment is more forgiving of multiple tweets on the same topic (featuring the same link)
2. Retweeting (the Twitter equivalent of a forward) can have a big impact on response

So for "standard" content, response rates for email are broadly better than Twitter. Twitter has far too many distractions to let people respond to the mundane.

But for "standout" content that is shareworthy, Twitter can be better than email. Retweeting can drive a message around the world in minutes, since Twitter effectively supports one-to-many forwarding...email largely just one-to-one forwarding (notwithstanding all our efforts to add Share With Your Network links to messages).

Of course, there is also the issue of scale and reach (see later).

Relationship building and dialog


Twitter forces you to confront the fact that the people listening are...um...people. With email, there is a tendency to treat email addresses as numbers (it doesn't have to be that way, but it often is).

As a more personal environment, Twitter allows more direct, personal relationships than email. But a key rule applies in both channels: send a lot of meaningless, self-absorbed, self-centered messages and you'll fail in both environments. Only your true friends will keep listening and few of your customers are true friends.

Since Twitter is both personal and public, it encourages dialog and participation by a greater number of people. Assuming you're delivering value to the partners in that conversation, this also helps with relationship building.

Email builds relationships and dialog in a more subtle way. All the targeting tools at our disposal let us deliver value, which encourages loyalty. And the modern obsession with brevity neglects the fact that some information is better expressed or exchanged in more than 140 characters.

Analytics and subscriber data


The nature of Twitter makes it hard to build out data on individual followers. And even if you could, it's impractical to target content to segmented groups of followers at any scale.

That's where email scores well. You may already have detailed information on the subscriber if the sign-up comes out of a transaction. Equally, you can build up information on subscribers based on how they interact with your emails.

However, Twitter has the advantage that you can normally put a name, face and website to each follower. This is particularly important to those interested in building one-to-one relationships with a small group of individuals.

You can also learn a lot about your audience via Twitter, if you take the time to listen. Excel won't help you much so you need softer, more intuitive analytical skills.

Costs


Twitter messages don't need coding and design testing. They don't break in Outlook. So message production is cheaper and easier than email.

But Twitter's advantages in dialog and relationship building carry a cost in time. It encourages, thrives on and demands immediate responses and interaction which can place a heavy burden on your time.

Subscriber acquisition


Reach and scale is a big issue. Twitter is marvelous at building dialog and relationships, spreading shareworthy content and gathering intuitive intelligence on your audience. But its reach is still small. Any one of the big four webmail services alone manages more accounts than Twitter.

Low costs per tweet turn into high costs per click if you reach ten people rather than 10 million. Email on the other hand is ubiquitous.

Where Twitter scores well is that people will subscribe to (i.e. follow) hundreds of Twitter accounts, but only subscribe to a handful of email lists. That's a double-edged sword. While it may be easier to get people to follow you (always assuming they use Twitter), it also means your messages are competing with hundreds of tweets.

Risk


One comparison of the two channels rarely mentioned is risk.

Email marketing is not hostage to any one delivery service. You need not be reliant on a third-party service at all if you choose to use in-house software. Equally, if your email service provider declares bankruptcy tomorrow, you could switch to another one relatively quickly (not painlessly, but relatively quickly).

Twitter is Twitter. If the company ceases to operate, it's over. You can start again at another microblogging service and hope your Twitter followers migrate with you. But the fact that I can't even name an alternative service bodes badly for that. You would have to hope that former Twitter followers switch to another channel to hear from you.

Closing insights


None of the above should suggest that Twitter and email are somehow competitors. Even these quick observations make it clear that they are different tools suited to different purposes.

Email people who reject Twitter are missing an opportunity. Twitter people who reject email are missing an opportunity. No channel has some inherent superiority: judging either depends on what it can do for your business given your goals, audience and resources.

The time aspect is critical here. Jay Baer's quote on social media thought leadership is apt:

"You have to set social media limits, or you'll drive yourself crazy trying to be everywhere at once."

Both channels need the proper investment in time and/or resources to bring the best rewards. Both channels work for marketing when you recognize that those on the receiving end of the messages are looking for value from you. Attention comes with expectations and fulfilling those expectations takes commitment.

Thoughts?

Permalink | July 24, 2009 | 1 comment(s)
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July 21, 2009
search engine logoJust added 35+ new sites to the database for the custom email marketing search engine powered by Google at OnlineMarketing.info.

You can now search over 360+ hand-picked sites to uncover email marketing info without having to wade through any spammer-targeted rubbish that might have successfully gamed the traditional search listings.

Latest additions include blogs like Spamtacular, Convince and Convert and Red Pill Email, email galleries like Beautiful Email Newsletters, tools like Litmus and various services.

If you feel a site deserves listing in the search engine, leave a comment and I'll check it out on my return from vacation.

Permalink | July 21, 2009 | 13 comment(s)
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July 17, 2009
email symbolLast week we saw why it's important to identify your engaged or "best" subscribers. And we discussed how repeat opens is one way of doing this when you don't have funky customer data at your disposal.

But what other techniques can we use?

In this post, we'll cover unique opens, clickers and how we might apply lateral thinking to come up with other neat measures that don't require much work or data.

Unique opens


Your average subscriber does not open every email from you. So if you're looking for engaged subscribers, how about searching for those who open more than the average?

As in the previous post, I took four months of emails (nine issues of my e-newsletter) and used simple campaign reports to evaluate open patterns. About 68% of the list recorded at least one open over that period.

Of those 68%, this graph shows how many opened one, two, three etc. of those emails:

unique opens graph

We see that 35% of our openers opened at least half of those emails. And 8% opened every single one. So we might consider those 8% to be our best subscribers.

There are, of course, two problems with this approach.

First, a single open does not imply anyone actually "engaged" with the email, which is why we looked at repeat opens last time. A recipient might click on every email, trigger an open in a preview pane and delete it without reading.

That would put them in the 8% but you'd hardly call them engaged.

Equally, there are those reading the emails religiously who never trigger an open because they use an email client where images are blocked.

Fortunately, even basic email campaign reports also tell you who clicks on an email. So instead of looking at unique opens, perhaps we should look at unique clicks. After all, if someone clicked on a link then they must be interacting with the email.

Clickers


A look at the campaign stats for that B2B newsletter of mine found about 40% of the list had clicked on at least one of those nine emails.

So here's the same graph, again. This time it records how many of those 40% clicked on one, two, three etc. of those emails:

unique clicks graph

If you compare the two graphs, you see why it's so important to look at numbers that represent genuine interaction. About 25% of the entire list opened at least half of those nine emails. But only 3.5% of the entire list actively clicked on over half of those emails.

Still, we can treat those 3.5% as genuinely engaged subscribers.

Apply lateral thinking


If these open and click patterns aren't enough, how about digging deeper?

Example 1: If someone really likes your emails, they would maybe keep them and refer back to them later.

How about looking at open times or click times for past emails and isolating those subscribers who opened or clicked weeks and months after the email went out?

Example 2: We know that the longer someone is on a list, the less likely they are to open and click on emails.

So someone who opens every second email and signed up in 1997 is likely far more engaged that someone who opens every second email and signed up last month.

So how about splitting subscribers into segments based on sign-up date, calculating average engagement metrics for each segment and then picking out those who engage well above-average in each segment?

Example 3: Are all clicks equal? Are there some links that suggest only those with a close relationship to your brand would ever bother clicking? Are there links where you can immediately tag anyone clicking them as a "top" subscriber?

What about "behind-the-scenes" links like "learn more about the team" or "see how our factory works"?

What about people who click on customer survey links and complete the survey without any kind of incentive?

Can you find links that identify engaged subscribers in that subtle way.

My newsletter has the title "No man is an iland" and an obscure link nearby that reads "Why no S?":

newsletter screenshot

I might decide that anybody wanting to know the origins of the newsletter's title is likely more than averagely interested in what I have to say. Incidentally, 2.66% of the list have followed that link.

What other measures can you find to "out" those best subscribers?

The ultimate subscriber


If you're not happy with one or another measure, you can use two or three, compare the addresses identified and see if there's any overlap. Anyone who comes up as "engaged" using each of several different measures really is a "best subscriber".

I did the exercise and found one subscriber who fits all these criteria:
  • Actively subscribed for over two years
  • Clicked on more than half of the last nine emails
  • Registered an open on each of the last nine emails
  • Clicked at least once on the "Why no S?" link
  • Recorded more than five times the average number of total opens on at least one email
  • Recorded more than twice the average number of total opens on at least two emails
Wow. I think they deserve a reward, don't you?

(And, no, it wasn't me.)

Final thought


Many of these measures of engagement are biased by those who signed up sometime over the period of comparison.

Sometimes these new subscribers are unfairly penalized: it's hard to click on more than one email when you've only ever received one email.

Equally, new subscribers tend to open and click more often than old timers. So they can appear more engaged than they truly are.

This high level of initial engagement is why it pays to send new subscribers a specific stream of welcome messages that take account of this factor.

It may also make sense to keep new subscribers out of your "top subscribers" pot until they prove their continued interest after the initial novelty of your emails wears off.

Permalink | July 17, 2009 | 6 comment(s)
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July 14, 2009
christmas stockingWorking in a cardboard factory taught me many lessons as a teenager. The first* was the importance of proofreading: there are not a lot of alternative uses for 200,000 boxes advertising "Premium bannanas".

I also learned the importance of planning. July and August were busy times in the factory, preparing boxes for customers gearing up for the holiday season.

So...take a look back at all the great holiday email marketing advice that came out before and immediately after the end of 2009 and get some inspiration for 2010:
  • Kelly Lorenz looks back at some inbox highlights from the 2009 holiday season here and here
  • Chad White has a cool holiday subject line tree for inspiration
  • Stefan Pollard explains why patience is needed when it comes to holiday deliverability
  • Ed Henrich has some last-minute suggestions to fix your holiday email program
  • A report by Chad White reviews etailer email volumes and practices over Black Friday and Cyber Monday
  • Kristen Gregory has some simple questions to shape your holiday marketing plans
  • Cynthia Edwards suggests designing those holiday emails around seasonal emotions
  • Alex Williams talks holiday email timing, design etc. with Chad White
  • Ben Alschuler picks out some email highlights from a report on holiday marketing
  • Karen Talavera has three strategies for inspired holiday email
  • Eric Groves has advice for small businesses, warning against going the holiday discount route
  • Slides from Tamara Gielen and Andrew Kordek's "Holiday email campaigns" webinar are now online
  • Adam Holden-Bache has some super ideas and examples for holiday email themes and approaches (B2C and B2B)
  • DotMailer has advice on planning and running a Christmas campaign
  • Brent Shroyer explains the benefits of getting a fresh opt-in to a holiday campaign and how you might automate the messages
  • Chad White outlines the 18 phases of holiday messaging
  • Kelly Lorenz has a 2009 holiday planning checklist for you
  • Stefan Pollard has advice on managing email frequency during the holiday season
  • Ed Henrich looks at the steps you can take to freshen up your email approach in time for the end of the year
  • Chad White asks how you might exploit seasonal purchase habits without resorting to big frequency increases. His agency also has a reportlet on the topic of holiday retail campaigns, with guidelines and results of an analysis of previous holiday campaigns
  • Margaret Farmakis looks at some new approaches for 2009
  • Listrak outlines a 5-step holiday strategy
Each year I create a post (this one) to keep track of all the holiday marketing advice. So bookmark this and I'll add articles as they cross my desktop.

Reinventing the wheel is obviously a futile task, so be sure to consult the many articles from 2008 and before. Here the links:

Holiday email marketing 2008
Two dozen links to advice on the topic.

What the experts say
: Part 1, 2, 3 and 4
Last year I got luminaries like the Retail Email Blog's Chad White and ecommerce star Linda Bustos to advise us on early planning, winning campaigns, frequency issues, standing out from the crowd, post-holiday tactics and more...

*The second was "never headbutt a sheet of heavy-duty corrugated board".

Permalink | July 14, 2009 | 7 comment(s)
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July 10, 2009
email symbolYour list of email addresses has a wide range of people on it.

At one end of the spectrum you have those who signed up a while back, lost interest and now give any message as much attention as it takes to delete it.

At the other end are those who really value your emails. They look forward to, read, respond to and tell others about them.

Identifying the addresses at each end of this spectrum is an important exercise.

You can target the first group with a reactivation campaign. And the second group are nominally your "best" subscribers: you can thank them, perhaps target them with more email, and/or give them tools and incentives to spread the word even more than they already do.

Most people identifying their best subscribers filter their list according to the end objective. Who spends the most money? Who buys most often? Who attends the most events? Or they may use more complex models of behavior.

Which is great, but there are several problems:
  • a lot of us don't have the ability to match an email address with subsequent behavior at a website
  • a lot of us send informational emails where there is no such "result" to measure
  • not all our best subscribers respond online in a measurable way
  • the definition of best isn't just about traditional responses like sales or registrations. What about those who don't buy anything but do a great job of passing our message around?
All is not lost, however.

If you just have basic open and click data for your emails, you can still pull out "engaged" subscribers from your list by playing a little with the numbers. Here some suggestions using a real B2B newsletter as an example.

Repeat opens


Repeat opens are the forgotten statistic in email marketing.

We know the open rate has its limitations as it simply tells us whether a tiny tracking image was activated or not.

But most email marketing software and services also record how many times that tracking image was activated by any one recipient. And that's an interesting number.

Why?

Because if a tracking image is activated once, it doesn't tell us much. We don't know if they opened and read the email, or if they just triggered an open through a preview they never actually looked at.

We can never be sure if the recipient truly gave the email any attention.

But if an open is triggered many times (as measured by the repeat or total opens figure), it's highly unlikely that this is by accident. One of two things is probably happening:

1. The recipient is returning to the email again and again.

2. The recipient forwarded the email intact to others, who are triggering opens as they get the email.

Both scenarios suggest an "engaged" reader. The former is very interested in your message, the latter thinks your message is valuable enough to share.

Here's how the pattern of total opens might look for an email (based on real data from that B2B newsletter). The graph takes those who opened the email and details what percentage opened that message once, twice, three times, four times etc.:

total opens graph

Over 60% just "opened" the message once. But see how 2.2% opened the email 11 times or more. In fact, one subscriber actually opened the email 175 times. These are the folk we might zoom in on and tag as "engaged" subscribers.

Now maybe that one recipient found a dreadful error in the email and sent it to all her friends so they could share a laugh. Rather than pick out engaged subscribers from individual emails, we should maybe look at averages.

Here's what I did...

First I aggregated total opens across four months' worth of emails (nine issues) to get an average total open pattern (which is actually the graph above).

This is an interesting exercise in itself, because you can compare the average with the total open pattern for individual emails. Here's an example:

total opens graph

In this case, we can see that the holiday campaign was more engaging than the average and we can then explore why.

But I digress.

Having worked out average total open rate patterns across many emails, I calculated an average total opens per opener: 2.3.

In other words...a recipient will trigger an open an average of 2.3 times for each email that they open.

Defining what makes an engaged reader is a subjective decision, but I did it like this:

1. First I pulled out any address who opened an individual email more than five times the average. So anyone who opened any one email more than 11 times made the cut.

2. Of those names, I then recorded those addresses who opened another email more than twice the average (5 times or more).

The result was a list of "most engaged" addresses...the "influencers". Some 3.49% of the total address list fall into this category.

You can do it other ways, too. You might, for example, calculate the average total opens for each address on the list over a period of time and take the top 5% as your "best" subscribers.

Now you've probably spotted the big flaw in this approach. Thanks to image blocking, a lot of "engaged" readers may never show up through an analysis based on open rates. You only record an open when a tracking image is displayed.

Well spotted.

Next week, I'll look at some simple alternative measures that don't have this problem and explore some more flaws to the whole engagement approach...

Permalink | July 10, 2009 | 7 comment(s)
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