When expert knowledge hurts your email marketing: 5 examples

Latest posts | By Mark Brownlow | 7 Comments | Licence this content

wireless email“Permission-based lists get more opens and better deliverability.”

Not the sort of sentence you’d pause too long over.

Now re-read it with the eyes of someone who does not live and breathe email marketing. It looks something like this:

“Some kind of list gets more somethings and better somethings (and those last somethings look like they might have something to do with delivery)”

The more we immerse ourselves in any topic or activity, the more likely we are to forget that what we understand as self-evident or self-explanatory…isn’t…at least to most people. Even to people with online marketing experience.

Familiarity breeds laxity. When we know what we mean, we forget that others don’t, so clarity suffers.

And when we focus on expert minutiae and the next-big-thing, we lose sight of the bigger picture, important nuances and the value of the basics. This lures us into false assumptions and poor decisions: our email campaigns suffer.

Here are some examples to illustrate the point:

1. It’s a sign-up form – obviously

We know it’s a sign-up form, because that’s what we call it.

We know that you’re supposed to put your email address in the blank field and then click on “submit”.

And we know you should do that because then you’ll get all those lovely offers or content we send out regularly.

We know that…but does the innocent website visitor know that?

What are they likely to think when confronted with this (a real example):

sign up form

That sign-up form is a particularly crass example, but there are many places where we easily forget that the reader wasn’t sitting with us in the last campaign meeting. For example:

  • calls to action (you know what to do once you’ve read the email, because you planned the campaign…but do they know?)
  • links (you know where to click because you coded the link…but do they know?)
  • vocabulary in list messages (you know what “HTML or plain text?”, “unsubscribe”, and “whitelist this address” mean…but do they know?)

2. Email has a high ROI – obviously

Quoting email’s high ROI relative to other direct marketing channels has become an identity badge in the email marketing industry. It’s the stock expert answer to the question “why do email marketing?

Email does have a high ROI, but the strong focus on this aspect of email marketing performance can lead us to neglect all the other benefits.

It encourages the idea that email is entirely about direct, easily-measurable sales.

It invites us to ignore all the other short- and long-term influences email has on response, such as increasing relevant searches on Google or boosting store visits. Dela Quist touches on this aspect when he talks about the nudge effect and how unopened email increases sales.

Regular exposure to a sender name and subject line has an impact, regardless of whether the message is “opened”.

And regular exposure to an email’s design and content has an impact, even when no click results.

We tend, for example, to think of subject lines entirely in terms of getting the open, click, and conversion (for that great ROI!).

But how does your subject line approach change when you consider the long-term impact of exposure to them? For example, if your subject lines are always urgent or always offering discounts, what does that say about you?

The ROI focus takes emphasis away from a more holistic view of email’s value to your organization.

As Kevin Hillstrom writes:

“Each marketing activity should be measured based on the incremental sales it drives, not on the sales that modern metrics attribute to email marketing.”

3. You’d be amazed at what little tweaks can do – obviously

I’m a big fan of little tweaks. This collection of test results demonstrates how a color change, a different call-to-action, or a subject line rewrite can lead to big response lifts.

Every expert loves testing.

But…the impacts of such small changes are often temporary and rarely cumulative. Otherwise the right combination of button color, subject line and CTA would see click rates of 80% in every email.

For all their value, these cosmetic changes have a natural limit. They can draw attention and press the right psychological buttons, but they’re constrained by the nature of the email itself. If you send meat offers to vegetarians, no amount of subject line testing is going to boost your results significantly.

So sustainable, significant increases in results demand more fundamental change in what you send, who you send it to, and why. (Something worth testing, too!)

4. Optimize, accessorize, integrate – obviously

This deeper change is, it must be said, also a topic among bloggers, writers, speakers, vendors and experts. We encourage everyone to build better email marketing programs…targeted, engaging, integrated, database-driven, socially-enhanced email initiatives.

It’s not bad advice, but not everybody has the kind of business or audience (or audience size) that justifies making things more complicated.

The return from investment in sophisticated targeting technologies is very different if you sell 1000 products to an audience of millions or one product to two hundred.

When we focus on the benefits of change and improvement, we need to compare that with the costs, too: business basics can get lost in the euphoria over new toys and tools.

5. Your sender reputation matters – obviously

Perhaps the single most important factor in getting email delivered is the reputation of the sender. Delivery experts are right to remind marketers that this sender reputation is largely under their control, since it’s based on factors like spam complaints, dead addresses etc.

But most sender reputation is actually tied to the physical source of the email: the sending IP address. Not the sender as an entity (Mark Brownlow), but the sending address (the server that sends out my email).

In many cases this is one and the same: my server, my reputation, my control.

I’m not even close to being a delivery expert, but I know that hundreds of thousands of small senders that use an ESP are sharing an IP address with other senders.

So their sender reputation is largely influenced by what these other email marketers are doing.

This is not an ESP scam. Quite the reverse: small senders need to share an IP address with others to get enough email volume together to register on the dashboards of those systems measuring and allocating reputation.

Nevertheless, it means that most (small) senders are not actually in full control of their reputation, despite what all the expert advice (correctly!) tells us.

But the nuances continue. Enlightened ESPs are rewarding “good” senders by grouping them together with other good senders. So in practical terms, your reputation is, again, under your control.

So if you’re on a shared IP address, it might be worth asking your ESP how they manage the reputation of these addresses and whether good behavior is rewarded.

Oh but wait…here’s another nuance…the same practices that lead to a good sender reputation have other benefits. You keep spam complaints low by sending email that people want…which means those same emails likely get higher response rates.

So practices that are good for deliverability (even if only in theory) are good for your bottom line anyway…

Fun, isn’t it?

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7 comments on “When expert knowledge hurts your email marketing: 5 examples”

  1. Love it! You’re right – sometimes we get too caught up in it and forget that those reading and experiencing it for the first time might very well not know what the heck we are on about!

  2. Ryan Hanley says:

    I definitely can be bad with “Techno Barf”. I’m an insurance agent and as hard as this may seem I LOVE insurance. Unfortunately sometimes when I get really jacked up about something having to do with insurance I drop into super insurance geek speak…

    With very little response to follow almost always…


    Ryan H.

  3. Very good tips. I am struggling with my email marketing campaign right now and I believe the cause may be that I am getting to technical. I will definitely try to simplify it a little more and see if that helps. Thanks!

  4. Stewart Gandolf says:

    I love that this article speaks many unspoken truths, particularly #4. I take 2-3 Internet marketing CE classes each year and stay up on cutting edge. However, many great tactics just aren’t practical for us. I could and should use Google Optimizer to test my landing pages, but my conversion rates already above 20%. I don’t have time or staff to fiddle for hours to tweak out a few more percentage points. We have a million moving parts in our business, and have to spend time on “high impact” activities. As it is, we can’t even get to all of those….

  5. Wow, this article is eye-opening. Familiarity definitely breeds laxity, and I can count a couple times in the past week where I’ve forgotten to drop the lingo and speak like a human, not a “big bad email marketer.” Thanks for the reminder!

  6. Mark says:

    Thanks all for great comments. My excuse is I’m writing for an “advanced audience”, which lets me get away with jargon ;-)

    Stewart – that’s something I notice all the time. Often experts will accuse folk of ignorance when they don’t do something, when the reason we’re not doing it is simply down to business and organizational realities.

  7. Jay Mills says:

    You have done a great job here to provide excellent direction on the importance of emailing to be successful in marketing. Keep up your good posting and I hope to come back and find new information that helps me move forward and improving my email campaign