If there’s a truism in marketing, it’d be the same as the disclaimer from the old investment firm commercials: past performance is no guarantee of future results. What might have worked yesterday isn’t going to work forever. Even in the days of print-only, marketing campaigns were out-of-date almost as soon as the ink dried; today, we focus on adaptive marketing that can turn on a dime. It’s been a matter of survival for digital marketers from the beginning that they be able to change on the fly – and companies that are still around today are here because they saw how email marketing was changing right as it was happening.
For a little historical context, consider this: the internet itself is only about 25 years old. In the early years, no one outside of universities and research facilities even had an email address. In truth it wasn’t until the late 1990s that email had spread widely enough for marketers to even consider using it as a platform – and the early “wild west” efforts of some of them almost ruined it for everyone.
Once upon a time, it never occurred to anyone that a message in their email inbox wasn’t worth reading; it took years of spam and unqualified “junk” to get to where we are today. Marketers who had once relied upon print mailings — and their associated up-front costs in printing and postage — went a little giddy at the thought of a nearly free vehicle to deliver their messages. But with more enthusiasm than foresight, they went a little overboard.
Physical junk mail already existed, after all; but with the cost of postage and printing out the window, junk email could stack up faster and taller than anyone could’ve imagined. The reason was obvious: it was easier, after all, to just send an email to anyone who had an address, rather than try to weed out people who might not be interested. At first it might’ve seemed like a great strategy that showed results; but as the numbers grew, the predictable result was a lot of people getting really, really annoyed. Eventually the junk email became enough of an inconvenience (and, in the nascent days of dial-up, enough of a measurable slow-down) that developers created the first spam filters. And the rest, as far as email marketing goes, is history.
Modern email marketing has to contend with its own legacy, and is always looking to find ways to transcend the spam filters. Initial efforts went toward trying to “fool” the algorithms, but the result was nothing more than an “arms race” between marketers and anti-spam programmers. Worse still, experts in the newly-emerging field of brand management quickly realized that more damage was being done to a company’s reputation than could ever be overcome by the resulting sales tracked back to an email campaign. So a few of us looked a little harder at the problem.
The “solution” sounded simple enough: only send email marketing to people who were receptive to it. In practice, accomplishing this turns out to be incredibly complicated, and as a strategy it’s necessarily multi-faceted. In addition to crafting messages that satisfy spam filters on servers and individual machines, email marketing today needs to be immediately understood by its audience to be relevant and valuable; when social media is considered, there truly is such a thing as bad publicity.
So what should today’s email marketers take away from an understanding of this history? In a nutshell, it’s this: the importance of reaching the right inbox can’t be overstated. No matter how big or small your campaign, no matter what the message is, if it’s not successfully targeted, it’s as doomed as anything produced by the spammers of the 1990s.
Every successful business begins with a thorough business plan — and Business Plan Writing 101 includes an effort to identify and analyze the competition. So it’s no big secret that understanding how “the other guys” stay in business is a crucial part of bringing your potential customers around them, and to you. But while the tools of the digital marketing age might have changed, the fundamentals of so called “opposition research” remain the same as they’ve ever been: if you’ve got competition (and everyone does), your efforts need to focus on determining 1) what the competition is doing to attract and retain customers, and 2) how you can learn from their successes (and failures).
Just Browsing. In the “old days” getting a read on another business’ practices might’ve been as simple as walking into the competitor’s store, asking a few questions, maybe getting a price list, and then checking at the local newspaper to see how big an ad they were running. Today’s successful marketing campaigns are multi-pronged and coordinated affairs — but you can still “shop” the competition to some extent. Visit their website and imagine being their customer. What works? What would you change?
Follow and Join. If your competition is on social media, you’ve got another chance to look over their shoulder. Follow them on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, wherever they have a presence. How do they present themselves on Pinterest? What times of day do they update? There’s a huge amount of data to be mined here. Remember, they’re watching their own campaigns to see what works; if they stop posting in the evening, for example, and only post during business hours, you can bet it’s because they saw success in daytime updates.
Read your email. If you’re in the target audience for your competition, the odds are pretty good you’re already receiving marketing email from them. If you’re not, get on their lists. If there’s a place to sign up for email messages, sign up for them — and pay attention to how they arrive, when they arrive, and whether you as a potential customer found them useful. Did you have the sense they were using a verified and targeted email list, or did you feel they were using a more “shotgun” approach — and how did that make you, as a potential customer, feel?
Search for them. Again, imagining yourself as a customer who wants to buy something your competition is selling, try to find it online. Enter the search terms you believe you’d use to find the product or service — and see if your competition turns up. If they don’t, you might have found an opening for your own business. If they do, look carefully and see what they’ve done to reach the top of those search results. Are they providing extra content that’s helpful to potential customers, or are they offering a streamlined purchasing experience? Several online tools can help you see how often they update their pages; fresh, relevant content always rises to the top.
Believe in the numbers. If you’ve found (and tried) a strategy that seems to be working well for your competition, now’s the time to pay attention to your metrics — the things you can accurately measure. Whether that’s an analysis of what kinds of social media efforts bring eventual customers to your website, or simply a reckoning of what kinds of email marketing translates into sales for you, you’ve got to trust your own numbers. Don’t get stuck doing what the competition does if it doesn’t work for your business.
Successful small business owners — whether they’re new or just niche entrepreneurs — are usually hands-on kinds of people; when they see some task that needs to be completed to operate or grow their company, they tend to roll up their sleeves and get it done. That does not, importantly, mean they do it all themselves; knowing when you can handle something yourself and when you need to call in a professional is a critical part of successful time management.
Many of these “do it myself or hire it out” kinds of decisions are easy; we’re not all master plumbers, for example. But while it’s tempting to believe there’s nothing more to an email marketing campaign than downloading a template you found online somewhere, filling in the details of your doubtless irresistible upcoming sale, buying an inexpensive list of email addresses, and hitting “send,” the reality is quite different. By jumping head first into the deep end of this particularly sensitive marketing pool, you may set yourself up to cause more damage than the money saved could hope to offset. Email marketing can be a powerful tool to capture customers, drive sales, and increase your reach — but it’s not for the weekend dabbler, either.
Email marketing campaigns that work well all share several qualities, but perhaps the most important is they are well-targeted, and carefully tailored. One size rarely fits all, and this is no exception. The people at the other end must be receiving a message that makes sense for them to be reading — either demographically, geographically, or simply by virtue of knowing their interests and needs ahead of time. Professional email marketing partners build email lists not just by volume, but by quality — and the ability to segment their lists to create useful subsets of differentiated groups that can help a particular campaign be successful.
The importance of the quality of these lists cannot be overstated; in email marketing, the oldest of clichés is absolutely true: you never, ever get a second chance to make a first impression. If the message you’ve sent goes to the wrong place, you’ve labeled yourself and your company as spammers. And once you’ve found your way into someone’s spam folder, there’s a lot of work to be done to dig yourself out of it. Using a high-quality list of email addresses — with recipients that are reliably interested in the sort of things your business has to offer in the first place — is much easier and less expensive in the long run.
And these lists aren’t static; interests change, addresses change, trends change. Professionals know that building a list is the first tiny step toward having a list. It needs to be curated, updated, and maintained; the email addresses need to be checked and validated regularly, with an eye to keeping a group of addresses together that will give the biggest ROI. There’s more to email address deliverability than simply whether it exists, and professional email marketers use multiple methods to ensure your message will always get through to the people who need to see it.
Finally, successful targeting and tailoring means keeping your messages fresh and relevant to whichever part of the market you’re gunning for. And while you might be up on the latest in your field, successful online marketing trends emerge, shift and fall into irrelevance faster than you might believe possible. What worked to reach and build customer groups last month is almost certainly less effective this month; email marketing professionals are already laying ground work for the campaigns of tomorrow.