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It’s been a while since we wrote a blog post. It’s not that we stopped believing content marketing by way of blogging is an awesome way to get attention. Instead, we (and I mean I, specifically) ran into a wall. Two walls in fact. First, we got busy, and time was short. No excuse, I know. Second, I felt like I didn’t have anything really ground-breaking or interesting to say. Marketing is a very well-developed discipline at this point, and there aren’t any secret tricks or pithy 600-word posts that can dilute it to make it any easier than it already is. I was stuck between either becoming hyper-specific and technical, which would scare off most of the people I wanted to reach, or talking in such vague and useless terms that I ended up doing more harm than good, spreading misinformation and giving pointless advice for the sake of pointless advice. Which brings us here – today, we come out of blogging retirement to avenge a terrible injustice and to teach a lesson in irony. But I get ahead of myself.

One of the many marketing digest emails I subscribe to had a link today, a link about email marketing. I’ve done a LOT of email marketing over the years, for some very big brands and some very small brands. From transactional emails to lifecycle targeting to direct sales to re-engagement. In fact, one of our first clients was an email marketing software platform. So I have a pretty good idea of that of which I speak. This article was titled 10 Counterintuitive Lessons We Learned About Email Marketing, and I won’t include a hyperlink because I’ll be long dead and gone before I give them even a “nofollow” backlink. If you want to read it, you can type http://blog.getvero.com/counterintuitive-advice/ into your browser (or C&P, I guess).

On the surface of it, it’s just another pointless, rehashed marketing “tip” listicle offering little in the way of anything new, original, or helpful. That’s pretty crappy, but surely not worth my wrath, right? Well, it wouldn’t be, except for the fact that a) It’s almost entirely wrong, and entirely oversimplified, b) it doesn’t even try to pretend that it’s anything other than an extended infomercial for Vero’s utterly generic email service, and c) it does a because of b – that is, it misinforms for the sole sake of selling a product. Where I come from (Soviet Russia), we called that lying. In Soviet Russia, lies tell you. Also in Soviet Russia, I go down this absolutely terrible list of “email marketing advice” point by point and try my best to keep you from making terrible, terrible mistakes. So shall we?

1. Email isn’t about selling.

Well that’s just plain untrue. Because if it’s not about selling, we’ve all been doing it horribly wrong this whole time! Everything is about selling, except selling, which is about sex. Wait, no, that’s not how that goes. Let’s move on to the body of this ridiculous post by looking at their opening analogy: “Do you watch TV for the commercials? Probably not. Do you check email for marketing newsletters? Probably not.” That would be clever, if email was anything like TV. Like even remotely close. It’s about as relevant as saying “Do you rob convenience stores for the free mini donuts? Probably not. Do you check email for marketing newsletters? Probably not.”

But more to the point, it’s just incorrect. People DO check email SPECIFICALLY for offers, deals, and promotions. What they DON’T generally want is stupid “Hi, this is a fake email from Bob, CEO of this app you signed up for on a whim. Let me send you 15,000 emails about this awesome app that we built. Never mind that the entire app consists of three self-explanatory buttons. Also, we’re going to spam you with unrelated garbage. And to top it all off, we’ll pretend like this is a personal email because we think you’re too stupid to get it!.” That whole thing was fun as a gimmick about 4 or 5 years ago, but it’s done now. People know that you’re not really sending them a personal email, and it’s actually quite an unpleasant experience to be dealing with a company that actually thinks you’re so stupid that you belive their CEO is sitting at his desk 24/7 writing personal emails to every schmuck that signs up for their crappy app.

Here are some stats that AREN’T complete bullshit (from a blog post by Salesforce)[ed. note: while the post itself is a little old, much of the information is still accurate, and has been updated]:

  1. 44% of email recipients made at least one purchase last year based on a promotional email. (Convinceandconvert.com)
  2. 7 in 10 people say they made use of a coupon or discount from a marketing email in the prior week. (2012 Blue Kangaroo Study)
  3. Email ad revenue reached $156 million in 2012. (Interactive Advertising Bureau)
  4. For every $1 spent, $44.25 is the average return on email marketing investment. (Experian)
  5. 82% of consumers open emails from companies. (Litmus)

Yeah. That’s TOTALLY not about selling. Obviously, these numbers CLEARLY bear out that consumers just HATE buying things from email offers and promotions. Why don’t you have a conversation with them instead. Maybe talk about your feelings and give them some useless opinions about things they don’t care about. That will work SO much better.

Final point on this point: it’s interesting they use an example of a Costco email for the “bad” email. I’ve actually purchased plenty of things SPECIFICALLY because they showed up in a Costco email. Hell, I’ve made the 40 minute drive to my local Costco because of an email they sent. And I’m a hardened, cynical marketer. Email is about selling. Plain and simple. The REAL question is whether you sell today or tomorrow. THAT’S where the distinction comes in. Let’s move on.

2. Email isn’t that great at driving traffic.

REALLY???? YOU’RE SERIOUS??? Are you really telling me that a source of traffic that relies on a customer already having been to your website and given you their email address is not as good at attracting fresh traffic as SEO? No way, dude! I never would have figured that you would have less traffic from the small percentage of your users that have already come to your site and converted once than from the biggest gottdamn search engine in the world. Truly breathtaking genius at work here. This is not only completely counterintuitive, it is also breathtaking in its originality.

3. Promotional email isn’t a priority.

Let’s get something straight, because I’m not sure I made this point clearly enough in the first section: ALL email is “promotional” email. Your bottom line goal with any marketing initiative should be, not to put too fine a point on it, the bottom line. Period. The end. Closed for discussion. At the end of all the pretty marketing talk, you are engaged in all business activity to make money.

To be fair, I’m a big proponent of lifecycle marketing. Hitting people with the right message at the right time to get them closer to giving you their money is the holy grail of marketing. Unfortunately, this point doesn’t touch on that at all. Instead, it looks at squishy metrics – click-through rate and opens. What do I mean by “squishy metrics”? Well, at the end of the day, these metrics are almost completely useless from a business OR marketing standpoint. Let me put this another way: If you could send an email that had a click through and open rate of 100% but generated $10 in revenue, or an email that had a click-through and open rate of .01% but generated $100,000 in revenue, which would you pick? See? Squishy metrics. They look pretty, and have some use in very specific top-level applications, but ultimately mean very little.

The problem with lifecycle marketing is twofold. First, many companies simply aren’t set up to track customers over their entire lifecycle. Certainly not the kinds of companies that get marketing advice from blog posts. In order for lifecycle marketing to be effective, you need to track things like customer lifetime value, the exact cost-per-touchpoint, cyclical cash flow, and other fun stuff that the average company is NOT tracking, and that would cost a lot of time and effort to track. You should be tracking them. But more importantly, you should be making money. Which brings us to the second problem with lifecycle marketing – it’s hard, and it takes time, and companies that are just starting out with email need to focus on developing revenue FIRST and THEN getting fancy. Promotional emails work. Look at point number one, and the stats therein. Promotional emails can bring in the revenue you need, either as a business owner who needs to expand marketing staff, or as a marketer who needs to provide solid proof that email is a viable channel before investing in shmancy tools and monthly service contracts. Get your basics down. That is your number one goal as a marketer. Take a channel and dump all the sweat and money and attempts you can into it until returns start dropping. Only THEN should you even consider expanding outwards.

And stop using squishy, pointless metrics. Shame on you.

4. Replies are a huge win.

No. Replies suck. Replies are probably the worst thing you can get ever. Because if your customers are replying to your emails, it’s because they have questions or complaints. And if your customers have questions or complaints, it’s because you failed to address those problems the first time you spoke to your customer. Shame on you.

In all seriousness, though, a reply to one of your emails is a sign that something has gone wrong. Not only that, it ties up your team and turns your marketers into an overpaid call center. Do you want people making $60k per year wasting their time answering inane customer service questions because you did a poor job in your front-line communications? No. Luckily, this isn’t really an issue for most tech companies, since they usually throw this work onto unpaid interns, but that’s a rant for another day.

Engaging and listening to your customers is incredibly important. It can point out flaws in your product, marketing, and presentation. It can lead to improved communications and a better understanding of how to preempt common questions and to fix the causes of common complaints. But giving every customer the opportunity and encouragement to respond to every one of your marketing emails is a great way to quickly become inundated in minutia. More than that, if your marketing team can’t respond to customer responses quickly, your customers will become far more irate than if you had never given them that option in the first place. By giving customers a chance to respond to every email, you are making an implicit promise that you will get back to them quickly and with a full answer to all of their concerns. If you can live up to that promise, more power to you. But if you’re getting marketing advice from a blog, chances are you don’t have the resources to staff a full virtual call-center.

5. You don’t need to spend a fortune.

Ironic that this is a point, given that the entire point of this post is to get you to shell out $99 a month for Veero’s marketing automation platform. That’s not a fortune, but ask yourself – can you spend that $99 a month on more immediate and effective marketing need? If you have VC funding coming out the ass, by all means, go for it. If you aren’t Uber, on the other hand, there are plenty of much cheaper options that can give you returns that are just as good. This is not a bad point, but it’s also important to understand that this is neither counterintuitive, nor really honest. When you’re just starting out, spending $1200 per year on a marketing automation platform isn’t the best use of limited resources.

6. Subject lines don’t drive opens.

  1. 64% of people say they open an email because of the subject line. (Chadwick Martin Bailey)
  2. Personalized subject lines are 22.2% more likely to be opened. (Adestra July 2012 Report)
  3. Subject lines fewer than 10 characters long had an open rate of 58%. (Adestra July 2012 Report)
  4. 33% of email recipients open email based on subject line alone. (Convinceandconvert.com)

I’m not sure I need to go on. Yes, building trust is important. Yes, who you are is a vital factor in whether your email gets opened. Yes, Alexis Madrigal can send out an email titled “You are now eating my shit sandwich” and people will open it. Well, you’re not Alexis Madrigal. And you know how you build trust? By giving your subscribers timely, relevant, useful emails. And you know how subscribers know that your emails are timely, relevant, and useful? By opening and reading your emails. And if you don’t have any trust yet, you get people to read your emails with a great subject line. And even AFTER you have trust, you STILL get people to open your emails with a great subject line. Because 90% of business email is NOT links to blogs and marketing tips. Most companies sell things, and most of their customers don’t need every single thing they sell all of the time. So they pick and choose which emails they open based on whether they think it will be of use to them or not. I get emails from Banana Republic every day. I don’t open all of them. In fact, the vast majority of them get insta-trashed. But if I see something I need or want in the headline, you bet your ass it’s getting opened.

So in a sense, they’re right (just not in the sense they were talking about). Trust doesn’t drive opens. Subject lines don’t drive opens. Intricate marketing automation plans don’t drive opens. NEEDS drive opens. Communicate the need you are addressing in the subject line and you get an open. Make sure that the email body actually addresses the need, and you get trust. Earn enough trust and you can trade it in for a high five from your imaginary friend.

7. Design is less important than you think.

Rich text IS design. Just because you don’t use HTML doesn’t mean you haven’t made a conscious design decision. But that’s nit-picking. Let’s really address what’s wrong with this point. It’s this little gem right here:

Most of our best performing email campaigns are rich text. It’s the perfect middle ground between plain text and HTML.

This is the height of the kind of arrogance that is quickly sweeping the tech bubble community. The idea that because x worked for me, it works for everyone, and I’m a super genius for figuring out this awesome secret. The thing is, while rich text (and even plain-text) emails work for some places, they don’t work for others. I recently designed an email automation set-up for an electronics repair shop. The onboarding, update, and follow-up emails are more or less rich text emails. It works, because the information conveyed is simple and direct, and graphics would take away from that and just add clutter. I also helped with emails for Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse. Those emails included flashy pictures, snazzy layouts, and all kinds of intricate formatting. Because that’s what works for them. The idea that a singular design choice is superior for all applications in all situations for all customers is absolutely ludicrous.

Then there’s the gem of the quote. I’ll save you the wall of text, but it essentially boils down to “CONTENT IS TEH AWESOME AND DESIGN ROBS PEOPLE OF YOUR AWESOME CONTENT!” Which is just pretentious nu-minimalism tech scene garbage that underlies a complete lack of understanding of design AND content. The thing is, design and content are inseparably linked. The design is part and parcel of the content, and the content includes the design. They are separate, but also one. Each shapes the other, and trying to shoehorn the wrong content into the wrong design because you’ve decided that your dedication to nu-minimalism is more important than presenting content in a way that makes sense is not only a disservice to your customers, it is the height of arrogance.

As a marketer, your job is to give your customers what they want and what they need. If you are forcing your own aesthetic choices on everything you give them, whether they like it or not, you are a bad marketer. You’re also not presenting your content in an effective manner. So, there’s your first lesson in irony, Nathan Barry. Email design needs to be shaped by the content, expectations, and needs of the people reading it. For the kinds of people that read marketing blogs, rich text might work. For the spring catalog of a children’s clothing designer, you need something completely different.

8. Don’t send emails on holidays or weekends.

This is technically true. Weekends have the lowest open rates and CTRs. That hasn’t always been true, and it’s not always going to remain true. One of our clients gets phenomenal results sending emails on Sundays, because they know that’s when people want to shop for their products. Same with holidays – typically, results are less positive, but not uniformly for everyone. Which is my problem with this point. These kinds of pointless truisms and judgmental admonishments (“It’s not timely, it’s tacky.” and “No one wants your email when they are trying to get away from screens for 48 hours to spend time with their family.”) have absolutely no place in a data-driven marketing environment. Which is odd, because Vero claims to be a data-based marketing solution.

The bottom line is that your marketing situation is very different from pretty much everyone else’s marketing situation. You need to figure out when YOUR customers are looking for YOUR products, and send them email then. You do this by trying things out and seeing what works, preferably in a controlled manner, but possibly in a wild barrage of experimentation and real-life results. Don’t presume that your customers “want to take the weekends off away from the screen.” When you presume, you make a pres out of u and me – or something. It’s also incredibly arrogant and contemptuous of the people that may want to give you money in exchange for stuff. Let your customers tell you when they want to receive your emails by monitoring when they actually engage with your company across all channels. Find out when they visit your site. Find out when they open your emails and click on the links within. Find out when they like your social posts and share them with friends. Don’t assume you know your customer, instead, try shutting up and listening to them instead.

9. The bigger the list, the worse the emails.

Yeah. Segmentation has been a thing since, like, 1999. This is neither counterintuitive, nor original, nor remotely interesting. It’s actually just marketing copy that is ripped directly from Vero’s sales materials. They don’t even try to disguise it. Weren’t they just saying something about people being tacky a few paragraphs ago?

10. You can email people every day …

My biggest issue with this point is that the data presented is entirely out of context. They saw a variable, quantity, that moved in tandem with another variable, CTR, and assumed that the first was causing the second. Which is a stupid assumption to make without actually running a test. Without trying very hard at all, I can come up with several confounding variables that could demonstrate that kind of relationship. The most obvious one is time and resources allocated to email. A company that sends out two emails every week is putting a lot more resources towards email in general than a company that only does one. So, therefore, can it not simply be that companies who are willing to invest in emails simply create better emails in general, and they would have higher opens and CTRs even if they only sent one email a week? Very likely, but there was no testing done, so we can’t say. I CAN say from experience working with clients that some companies can get away with sending an email every day and get great returns, while others get tons of spams and unsubscribes if they try to send out a monthly email.

Bottom line is that frequency has almost nothing to do with opens, CTRs, unsubscribes, or spams. The drivers of all of those metrics have always been, and always will be, relevancy, timeliness, and usefulness. Frequency is a component of relevancy and timeliness, but it is only one component out of many. Other vital components include

  • Expectations: How often did you tell people you were going to email them?
  • Consistency: Do you send emails at the same time every period?
  • Consent: Did the subscriber actually opt in to receiving your emails on your schedule?

But here’s the kicker – relevancy and timeliness are important, but they pale when compared to usefulness. If your email content is highly useful to your subscribers, they will overlook almost any email marketing sin. If, on the other hand, your email content is of little use to anyone, it doesn’t matter how relevant or timely it is, how often you send it, how well you set expectations or how consistent it is – it will get spammed, and eventually your subscribers will unsubscribe.

Conclusions

I’m not sure what it was exactly that made me react so vehemently to this particular article. It’s hardly unique among marketing blogs in its problems. I can point you to countless articles from well-regarded (or at least well-funded) companies whose advice is just as wrong or misleading as this. I can show you hundreds of company blogs that don’t even try to pretend like they’re there to do anything but sell. Hell, I can close my eyes, pick out a random marketing company blog, and find at least a few errors and omissions that are significantly worse than what’s present here.

I think mostly it’s the arrogance of it all. And the delicious irony of starting a post with “There are about six million articles on the Internet that offer email marketing tips. Most aren’t very good.” and then writing a post full of not very good email marketing tips. The derision that it shows towards testing and experimentation is nothing short of absurd. Email marketing is a complicated field based on a few very simple axioms – trying to reduce it to 10 things you absolutely have to do (while completely bungling many and ignoring the vast array of use-cases that differ drastically from their chosen examples) is not only not really helpful, it can actually hurt prospective customers. Which is sad, because Vero is not a bad product when you actually need email automation software. In fact, I was considering it for use in a client project shortly. Instead, I’m going to go with Mandrill from MailChimp, because they don’t try to lie to me in their blog in order to make their product seem more attractive. I mean, hell, even the title is a lie. Most of these aren’t even remotely counterintuitive.

And that’s the real lesson here: it doesn’t matter what channel you are using to reach out to customers, as soon as you make your content about you instead of about the consumers, you have forfeited their trust. You have failed at content marketing. Everything. Every piece of content. Every email, blog post, social media post, tweet, Yo, etc. you send HAS TO BE ABOUT WHAT YOUR CUSTOMER NEEDS. Period. The end. Good night.

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