Who Cares if Email Marketing Pays for Itself?

Let me suggest a modest proposal: run your email marketing program at a loss.  As in, if you’re a retailer, stop worrying how much each email nets in incremental sales.  As in, if you’re a B2B marketer, stop worrying about how many leads each email generates.  As in, if you’re some other kind of marketer, double your email marketing budget and hang the cost.

After 10 years of articles about email marketing’s superior ROI, throwing fiscal caution to the wind seems like the worst idea since rolling coal.  Naturally, I don’t suggest taking this step for its own sake.  Rather, I suggest adjusting the way we evaluate email marketing to serve a purpose that serves the broader enterprise: research.

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Go ahead. Rip it up.

OK, I’ve exaggerated my point of view in a shameless attempt to get your attention.  However, I strongly endorse using email as an inexpensive, flexible and fast research tool.  Let’s look at what you could achieve by integrating research into your email marketing.

Simply put, email recipients open and click on what interests them, much in the way that Howard Gossage famously said “people don’t read ads; they read what interests them.  Sometimes, it’s an ad.”  In that vein, larding emails with provocative subject lines and calls to action can help you get at the heart of what interests your audiences.

Issues that matter to your customers

Use content blocks in your emails to see what kinds of topics draw attention from your email recipients.  Imagine a financial services brand trying to suss out what its customers want, for instance.  It could design an email with headlines for articles on saving for college, investing for retirement or putting money away for a dream trip and see what customers really care about.  This insight powers not just future emails but other content initiatives by the brand.

Fast feedback on new ideas

Got a new idea for an offer?  Gauge interest in it by surfacing it in an email against your current offer and see what kind of uptake it gets.  While true new product development might lie outside the capabilities of an email, it might serve to answer some foundational questions.  Most obviously, an email-delivered survey will get some quick answers, albeit with a highly skewed sample.

A more discrete approach would involve using subject line, call-to-action and body copy to highlight some aspects of a current product or service over others.  For instance, let’s say a cookware manufacturer wanted to know whether to develop new products based on sleek design, versatility or value.  The email marketer could test different subject lines for the same product email highlighting one of those aspects for a current product to see which one draws the strongest response:

  •  Imagine the sleek design of [brand] in your kitchen
  • Use [brand] to make a variety of meals
  • Buy [brand] for cookware you’ll have for a lifetime

Again, these insights go beyond the email and into broader product marketing and development.

A cheap way to place bets

I’ve personally learned some unexpected and useful things about audiences via email.  For instance, in one test, I learned that IT managers prefer longer articles than the “less is more” credo of email might suggest.  These customers and prospects really wanted to know more about my client’s products and how they worked.  In turn, that insight could have a major impact on the types of collateral and marketing materials that the clients could develop.

Is there something you’ve always wanted to know about your customers?  Test your hunches by developing emails that address your hunch and see what happens.  Such as:

  • Do your customers engage heavily in social media?  Expose your Facebook or Instagram content in your email and see how they respond?
  • Culturally, what grabs your audience?  Test images or content related to specific cultural entities (music, fine art, movies, etc.) and see what works.

All exaggeration aside, most marketers barely tap into email marketing for its insight capabilities.  And, for the record, I don’t endorse giving up on email’s outstanding performance any more than I suggest eating Irish children.

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