Email Marketing

Email Marketing Tips, Trends and Techniques with Return Path’s Stephanie Miller

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For our latest B2B Thought Leader Interview, we had the chance to talk to Stephanie Miller, Return Path’s email marketing expert. With over 20 years of direct marketing experience, Stephanie Miller is an expert on email marketing best practices. Miller is a regular contributor to the email deliverability blog, deliverability.com, and co-author of Sign Me Up: A Marketer’s Guide To Email Newsletters that Build Relationships and Boost Sales. In this post, Miller discusses the latest trends in email marketing, top strategies for subscriber experience and email deliverability tips and techniques for marketers and B2B organizations.

Your knowledge of email marketing is very impressive.  Can you tell me what first attracted you to this industry?

I’m all about helping customers.  Email is great for that – use it to solve a problem, ignite new ideas, fulfill a promise, share interests, release information, make it easy to buy and build a relationship.  Email is such a powerful tool for online marketers – it still earns the highest ROI in the digital toolkit.  There are strong connections and synergies to other data-driven marketing disciplines, like search, social, e-commerce, eCRM and thought leadership.  That makes email marketing a pretty exciting space.

A misconception I’ve heard is that social media is replacing email marketing.  What do you tell marketers when you hear this?

Please.  It seems that every few months we hear of something else that is going to be the death of email marketing.  First it was spam, then RSS, then blogs, then mobile, then social networks… now youth.  None of them have done anything but make the channel stronger.  Business still gets done in the inbox.  Consumers check their inbox first for alerts, offers and information.

That isn’t to say that email marketers can rest on their laurels. We have to continue to innovate and improve the experience for subscribers.  There is increased pressure on the channel to perform, but just sending more and more messages won’t build long term revenue opportunity.  (It might help in the short term, which is why too many marketers fall into that trap.)

There are two big trends in email marketing, and the good news is that the solution to both is the same for marketers.  First, the inbox is fragmenting, becoming more device-driven and more crowded.   Marketers must create better subscriber experiences to break through.  This means email marketers must rely on smart segmentation, intelligent content strategy and the discipline to match message cadence to the needs of different subscribers.

Second, it’s getting harder to reach the inbox.  Mailbox providers like Yahoo!, Gmail and corporate system administrators are using reputation data  (pulled from the actual practices of individual senders) to identify what is welcome, good and should reach the inbox, and what is spammy, unwelcome and should go to junk or be blocked altogether.  That creates both friction as well as opportunity.  Marketers must keep their files very clean, mailing only to those subscribers who are active and engaged.  And, to be welcome, they must create better subscribers experiences.

Consider these strategies for creating a better subscriber experience:

  1. Customize content that is regularly consumed on mobile devices. Optimize your mobile email marketing by trimming out images and unnecessary links. Streamline the content.  Keep it brief. Consider sending shorter bits of info more frequently than one longer message.  Ask subscribers to select the kinds of alerts and information they read on mobile devices.
  2. Treat customers and prospects differently. They have different relationships with your brand.
  3. Send fewer generic messages and product announcements in favor of custom content based messages on customer status, product ownership and recent activity. For B2B, acknowledge which products the customer already owns, and celebrate things like anniversaries and renewals.  In B2C, sitewide sales may be of widespread interest, but only if they are perceived as being somewhat unusual and unique.  Customize the sale for key segments, even if that means just changing the subject line or which content is at the top.

What are three tips that any marketer can use to increase their email deliverability?

  1. Know your true inbox placement rate (it’s NOT your bounce rate, which is often reported as “Delivered”) and sender reputation.  You can’t manage what you don’t understand.  Check for free at www.senderscore.org or www.dnsstuff.com, ask your ESP or on-premise provider for help or get direct reports from a deliverability service.
  2. Lower complaints (clicks on the ‘Report Spam’ button) by improving the value to subscribers. Complaints remain the biggest factor for inbox placement. Other big factors are infrastructure (DNS records, volume/throttling, bounce handing) and list hygiene.   Remove the “dead wood” from your file.  Don’t carry all those records who have not responded (opens, clicks or conversions) in the past year.
  3. Be a good email industry citizen.  Get permission.  Respect subscribers and send only what they wish to receive.  Authenticate with both DKIM and SenderID/SPF records.  Sign up for feedback loops from the major ISPs and remove complainers from your file immediately.  Get as much third party certification as you qualify for. The benefits are in stronger inbox placement, but also in the big boost in response from having images and links on by default at major mailbox providers.

Are there any email tips you can provide specific for B2B organizations?

Since they have a relationship with your company, your existing customers should be the easiest group to entice onto your email list. Yet, many B2B marketers have email addresses for a very small portion of their offline customer base. Why do customers — even satisfied customers – hesitate to give you permission to email them?

The answer is that we marketers have let them down. Business and technology professionals have  a very low tolerance for irrelevant or uninteresting email. Close to half of business users now define spam as “any email from a company they do business with, but that is sent too frequently.”  (Source: MarketingSherpa 2009).  Our email programs have to be relevant — not just in the abstract, but in the specific.

Consider this approach:

First, identify the best customer segments for email. Not all customers will benefit, nor do you have a compelling, ongoing electronic message for every type of customer. Focus your email efforts where you can do the most good – segments that have high up sell potential or who have irregular contact with your account managers.

Find out what your customers really need from you. Hint: It’s probably not product information. Aim to help them!

Make it really easy to sign up. Use a combination of vehicles to reach them – direct mail, trade shows, invoices/statement stuffers, your website, sales calls, customer support and partnerships. The number one reason why customers are not on your email list? No one ever asked them! Be sure to sure to get permission.

Always focus on the subscriber, but make the first three to five emails really count. Optimize the flow of these early emails to solidify the relationship. Always ask for feedback. Use that feedback to stay relevant and offer new email-based services.

Finally, measure this closely as you test out the best set of offers, calls to action and content strategies. Testing is an ongoing best practice – part of staying relevant is keeping your program fresh.

What mistakes have you made (or have seen made by others) in email marketing? 

I’ve made too many to list in one post!  I think the number one mistake is forgetting about the subscriber’s interests.  It is so not about us marketers.  It’s not about sending out “just one more blast” this week in order to make the number.  Do that too often and you will soon find all of your messages blocked due to high spam complaints.   It’s about building a long term relationship and proving out the long term value of the channel.  All marketers must be sure that we are measured and rewarded for creating amazing subscriber experiences that drive response and value.  It’s not about list size or how many people bother to unsubscribe. It’s about response, sharing and continued activity.  Advocate for subscribers internally, and tie your business goals to their happiness and success.  They will reward you with response, revenue and long-term subscription.

How do you measure the success of your email programs? Should this be the same for every marketer?

Probably every marketer has one of these as their primary KPI – earn more revenue, generate more page views, or provide more sales leads.  Email marketing has to contribute to those business goals.   However, what you measure along the way to reach those goals should be somewhat unique, because business drivers are unique to each company and competitive set.   Typically, the best set of email marketing metrics include:  inbox placement, complaint rate, sender reputation score, opens, clicks, conversions, list growth, subscriptions as a ratio of website visitors/customers and social sharing.

I also like metrics such as first issue unsubscribe rate (or complaint rate).  Did you send what was expected? From a brand that is recognized?  Use this as a measure of cohesion between your program and your permission request.

Measure the product purchased or research downloaded from an email offer. Was it the same as the offer in the email message? If not, then perhaps your messages are only serving as reminders. That might be fine, but it’s not going to give you predictability over the channel, or start to earn long term relationships with subscribers.  They are just coming to buy/download/read what they already wanted.

What other marketing topics beside email are on your mind right now?

I’m thinking about how even a small investment in data integration and automation can make a huge difference in subscriber value.  If we can customize and automate some of the relevancy, then we will be able to do more with fewer resources.   This could be a triggered campaign after a purchase or during renewal season. It could be a win-back campaign for those who have not responded in the past 90 days.  It could be identification of social influencers.  It could be subject lines segmented by job title or past purchase.

I’d love to hear what readers are thinking about!  I hope they will share with me via @StephanieSAM or Stephanie[dot]miller[at]returnpath.net.