The Big Picture: Where you should really start when planning e-mail strategy

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The efficacy of e-mail advertising is one of the most polarizing debates in modern marketing. Does it work? If so, is the return on investment worth the time, money and effort spent? The only respite in the argument seems to be the focus that has shifted to the same debate in social media.

So much hype (both positive and negative) surrounds e-mail that most marketers are left with preconceived notions, contempt prior to investigation or just overall confusion. E-mail, like most other advertising media, is as effective as you make it.

So how do you make e-mail effective? To answer this we have to start at the beginning. Rewind to the days before intelligent mail barcodes, personalization, the CAN-SPAM Act, buzz words and even the Internet itself. The truth is, most marketers are so caught up in technique that we've forgotten to honor the basic premise of what makes any aspect of advertising successful — a sound marketing strategy.

This may sound simplistic and even offensive to some, but when thinking about e-mail marketing, what drives you? Is it coming up with a "cool viral technique" to get around the “mental defenses,” or is your focus on propelling your brand? I can point fingers because it's much more exciting for me to do something cool than it is to draft a brand-centric plan. It's easier. It excites the client more. In the end, however, the result of a cutting-edge campaign is usually lacking.

Strategy doesn't have to be complicated. The directive we follow consists of six points and normally fits on one side of a sheet of paper. My company creates this document and uses it as a road map when creating advertising for any medium. This is especially important for creating e-mails, and keeps the focus on delivering an effective message to the recipient.

First, we define the intent of the campaign in measurable increments. The only way to track success is to describe your goals in a quantifiable way. For example, how many widgets do you want to sell as a result of this effort?

Next is the key customer benefit. There is normally one salient reason that influences people to choose to do business with a certain entity. What is the one thing your company (or your client) stands for that is unequalled by peers and competition? 

Every claim must be substantiated, so after defining a benefit we give the reason why it can be delivered. This supporting statement provides meat for the marketing message and justifies the act of the communication itself.

Perhaps the most difficult aspects of strategy to describe are the tone and personality of messaging. Both are integral in representing your brand across the gulf of the Internet. Understanding the personality of your brand is best described by comparing your favorite sit-down restaurant to a more kid-friendly fast-food joint. Kid's meals, import toys and playgrounds are glaring indicators of most fast-food brands' personalities. Here are some words that can describe your brand's personality: serious, playful, direct. Whatever words you use, understand that this is key in determining the tone of your communications. More than any other media, tone has surfaced as a sticking point in e-mail communication. You must embody everything with your company and take great care to use a tone that is representative of your business. Otherwise, customers will sense a bait and switch and tune out future communications.

The cornerstone of the entire strategy is your target audience. If you don't understand who you're communicating to both demographically (age, sex, income, etc.) and psychographically (wants, needs, desires), then your efforts will fail before you begin. A wealth management consultant my company served was convinced he knew his target audience: dentists. Dentists are rather easy to define by age range, income, net worth and the like. The client had failed to determine what kind of people the dentists were. After research, we found that the type of dentist best served by the philosophies and personality of our client wanted investments that paid off quickly so they could use their wealth before retirement. All communication with the target audience reflected this psychographic bias.

My company employs the newest technology in e-mail every day, but the difference in the success of my clients can be traced to the six simple items listed above. Do you have a well-defined marketing strategy? Does your e-mail campaign reflect this strategy?

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