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 Even in the days of print-only, marketing campaigns were out-of-date almost as soon as the ink dried; today, we focus on adaptive marketing that can turn on a dime.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.
Anyone who’s spent part of their lives living and working in a small town will tell you it’s often something of a microcosm of the country at large. Small-town politics, for example, despite being centered around arguably more mundane matters than those on the national stage, tend to carry for local residents the relative gravity of the sausage-making wrought on C-SPAN.
But it’s only been recently that the methodology of doing business in a small town has had such relevancy to companies with larger markets. As technology has allowed us to reach more customers on the national level, it’s also brought those customers closer to us — and not acknowledging precisely how close is one of the biggest mistakes a company can make. With the advent of social media and customer-controlled websites that talk about companies for better or worse, the customer-business interaction you’d typically get in small towns is suddenly everywhere.
The result has been something of a renaissance for the particularly old-fangled notion of customer service, specifically great customer service. And the reason is simply that no marketing force a company could ever hope to exert is more powerful than the collective will of its customers — and if they’ve been treated better than they expected, they’ll communicate that far more effectively than any ad buy in any medium. We’ve discovered here that a more-than-satisfied client base is our biggest single source of new customers; we deliver better service than they’d ever hoped, and in turn they spread the good word.
Blowing away expectations to create new customers might seem like an innovative idea, but again, if you’ve lived in a small town, it’s old hat. One small town I lived in years ago had two liquor stores; one allowed people to bring their dogs in with them, and the other didn’t. Considering the dog-to-people ratio tipped in the pooches’ favor in this town, word got around. When it got back to the first owner that her customers appreciated the courtesy, she started keeping a tin of doggy treats behind the register, and forked one over to every pup. It was more than people expected, and it made the customers feel valued; they would always choose her store over the one just a few blocks over, and they told their friends so every chance they got.
Another example: there were also a handful of restaurants in this town, all doing a fine job of feeding folks good food. But at one of these restaurants, every night the chef would come out and visit with every single table in the place — periodically, and for (apparently) no reason, bringing out samples of desserts he was working on as a “sneak peek” sort of thing. It was more than people expected, and it made the customers feel valued. His restaurant was regularly full, and people recommended it to one another.
Seeing the pattern?
There’s a lot of talk about creating “raving fan” customers by under-promising and over-delivering; the problem with this approach is that most businesses don’t have the ability to manage their customers’ expectations so thoroughly. In order to over-deliver, first a business must figure out what their customers are expecting to happen — and only then can they exceed those expectations and effectively build happy customers that evangelize about their product or service.
Fortunately for anyone who’s looking to this model, the expectation at the moment is that most businesses have just terrible customer service. That’s because they’ve been able to get away with it and still keep customers; years of “press one if you’re calling about a product” produced only the mildest backlash. Indeed, it was only recently those customers have been able to talk to one another on a national level the way they would in a small town.
And to succeed with all that talking going on, you need to think like a small-town business — you need to stand head and shoulders above the competition. Surprise and impress your customers with your level of service and they’ll sing your praises until the end of time.
In The Beginning – A Brief History | 2009-2012
In the beginning of 2009, we were still recovering from the extensive losses from our failed co-reg path, but making progress and moving forward with the other core services we provided. We had a solid base of customers who were using our Enterprise ESP Platform and services, our email marketing services were going strong and we were steadily increasing the number of new companies who were using our email list cleaning and validation services.
After an intensive restructuring of our entire business plan, we now had a clear picture and vision of what the company needed to do to operate more efficiently, be more productive, promote growth and increase our revenue, while reducing our costs and overhead. We cut the fat and discontinued some services that didn’t bring us in the ROI needed to make them viable and profitable offerings. After refocusing on our core email marketing business, we determined that the three main services we provided, which are our eList Manager – email marketing platform, email marketing and publishing and email list cleaning and validation services would become our main focus.
The End of CPA and Performance Marketing
Based on being burned and not getting paid, to the tune of about $400,000, we decided not to continue running CPA, CPL, CPS or any other performance based marketing or what is commonly refereed to as affiliate marketing. Solid, reputable company’s – affiliate networks we had worked with for many years started folding their tents, going out of business, vanishing and simply not paying their publishers. We saw this as a sign of things to come and ended our long run with performance marketing. We decided to focus on our two, core email marketing models. The first is a CPM model, in which customers would pay us based on the number of emails we sent their offer to. The second model was much different. With this program, customers would only pays us when we delivered their email advertisements to a users inbox, who did not have their images blocked. We call this our Guaranteed Opens Program. Because both of these programs are prepaid, we never needed to worry about not getting paid.
Both 2010 and 2011 were solid growth years and we had increasing revenues and profits every quarter, as we fine-tuned our service offerings. We found a few niche markets that we performed very well in and focused more of our attention on developing new relationships and partnerships with companies in these markets. Luxury hotel, resorts, travel, automotive, real estate and technology were our best performing areas for acquisition email marketing. Although we had many existing customers, who used our email marketing services to promote these offerings, it seemed that referrals from existing customers were bringing in a steady flow of new customers, which included advertising agencies, marketing and PR firms as well as end user companies. These new customers and companies were using our services to help drive new, targeted traffic to their website or their customers websites to increase sales and help generate new customer revenue. Within 2012 alone, we generated between $10-12 million in hotel room reservation income, which does not include additional income earned from hotel guests staying at the property, from a total spend of roughly $1.0 to $1.2 million in email marketing expense. I delve into this in greater detail in the article, Hotel Marketing: The Missing Link.
In July 2012, we doubled our server capacity once again to accommodate the growing demand for our email list cleaning and validation service. We were on track to clean and validate in excess of 600 million email records in 2012. This service had become, from what started as an in-house service for our own internal use and benefit, an integral part of our service offering to the online marketing community and other businesses of all sizes and was generating a substantial portion of our annual revenue.
In October 2012 we launched our Email Marketing Agency, which provided a hands-off approach for any company who did not have the manpower, ability, knowledge, expertise or time to manage their email marketing in-house. This new agency service provided a simple, fully managed, turnkey email marketing services platform for companies of all sizes.
By the end of 2012, we had a great team of employees, a strategic plan in place, a phenomenal support staff and some of the most knowledgeable and efficient sales and business development people any company could hope for. While our search engine rankings were constantly improving, our website traffic increased proportionately and our revenues grew steadily on a monthly basis. We had happy customers, our business was growing at a fairly aggressive rate and I could only assume that our competition was feeling our growth, while trying to figure out how not to shrivel up and die on the vine and recoup some of their lost business.
In the conclusion of this 4 part article series, I will discuss the struggles, successes and growth for me personally, as well as Email Answers in 2013. I’ll share what I see in my crystal ball and where I see my future and the direction of Email Answers in the years ahead.