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 Even in the days of print-only, marketing campaigns were out-of-date almost as soon as the ink dried; today, we focus on adaptive marketing that can turn on a dime.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.
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.
In an age when internet etiquette is king — and marketing engagement success or failure is measured in fractions of seconds — it’s no surprise that there are still companies who struggle with their email campaigns. The potential to “scare off” a customer after a perceived slight is real, and even companies with the best of intentions can find themselves having alienated someone in the process of trying to create a customer.
So when a typical decision maker hears about renting an email list, they’re immediately — and perhaps justifiably — turned off. They imagine sending bulk messages out to people who signed up for some completely different message: an orthodontist’s office sending “cold call” style marketing material to a list collected by plumbing supply houses, for example. Intuitively, the results would seem obvious: immediate failure, permanent relegation to a customer’s spam folder, and irreparable damage to the brand in general.
Truly, there is nothing good that can come from sending a poorly targeted message in general; the key to understanding why renting an email list can actually be wildly successful is realizing that your rented list doesn’t have to be untargeted. In fact, with the right marketing partner, your rented email list has the potential to deliver better results than your existing list — and create customers from potential pools you might otherwise have missed.
Like everything else in business, it’s usually a matter of working with a vendor who knows what they’re doing — and when renting an email list, you’ve got to ensure your source has done its homework.
Size matters. In this case, we’re not talking about the size of the company you’re going to rent from itself, but rather the size of its verified, valid, and deliverable email list. You’re not going to use every name they’ve got, of course, but rather a geographically and demographically specific portion that fits your company’s goals; that means you must begin with a large enough set to whittle down and fulfill your needs. Pro tip: if an email list “landlord” tells you they’ve got a set of email addresses that works for every business at every level, don’t walk, run away and find a provider that can offer multiple well-targeted versions of potential lists that are good matches with your campaign, product or service.
Customize your campaign. When you prepare a message for a new set of potential customers, whatever you were doing with your existing ones isn’t going to work. Your email needs to be carefully crafted to convey your message to the particular demographics you’re targeting — and come from the standpoint of speaking to the reasons these particular people opted-in to the list you’re renting. This is not a project for the inexperienced; ensure you’re working with a marketing partner who has a solid understanding of how to capture these customers in this new environment.
Shop around. There’s no substitute for sitting down and investing the time to research the company you’re about to entrust with your brand. There are shady characters everywhere, and internet marketing seems to attract its fair share of them. Look for companies who specialize in email marketing in general, and who offer email list rental as just one part of their suite of services. And try to find a provider who has been around for a while and has had measurable success. Past performance is, as they say, no guarantee of future results — but a company with wins under its belt will be able to point to them and explain why their methods will work for you as well.