Finding the right people, processes, and products to decipher the ideal email marketing strategy is like trying to crack a cryptic code. There’s endless trial and error, but when marketers hit on the right combination, the results are rewarding.
To shed some light on the talent, strategies, and tools marketers are leveraging today, email testing and analytics platform provider Litmus surveyed 900 email marketing professionals for its “2016 State of Email Production” report. Here are a few key takeaways based on its findings.
Email marketers are expected to be multitalented, but specialization is still valued. Modern marketers need to be jacks-of-all-trades. Coding and development (70.4%), strategy (62.4%), designing (61.3%), and analytics (61.2%) are all functions respondents say they currently perform. And some marketers have to complete these tasks on their own. Nearly 42% of respondents say their email marketing team consists of one to two people, compared to about 27% who say they have three to four team members.
Team size varies in some unexpected ways. About 48% of respondents from companies with fewer than 500 employees say their email teams have one or two people; surprisingly, this number drops to about 31% for respondents from larger corporations. The reason, says Litmus Research Director Chad White, is that company size only correlates to team size at the far ends of the company-size scale—i.e. really small companies often have really small email marketing teams and really big companies often have really big teams. Yet, in the middle, there’s little correlation. White says the size of an organization’s team usually reflects how much it prioritizes the channel.
“Team size is an indicator of how much value [and] emphasis a company is putting on their email marketing channel and how valuable that channel is to them,” he says.
Companies with smaller teams also tend to have more multitalented people, White says, while larger teams tend to have more specialists. And while it’s important for all email marketers to have a general knowledge of most email marketing capabilities, developing a particular expertise can pay off. Hinting at findings from Litmus’s yet-to-be-released U.S. email salaries report, White says the more specialized email marketers are, the more they get paid.
“There’s definitely [an] advantage to having a deeper focus on a particular skill or two,” White says, “especially if you can work within a larger email marketing team.”
Agencies and freelancers are rarely used. Like team size, working with agency and freelance partners can also be a benchmark of the value a company places on email marketing. “Using agencies and freelancers is also a marker of a greater emphasis and even greater sophistication,” White says, adding the caveat that because agencies can be expensive, not many marketers are outsourcing their email work today. In fact, 72.3% of respondents say they don’t hire freelancers to assist with email marketing, and 64.2% say they don’t leverage agency services. Companies with 500 or more employees,however, are twice as likely to use these partners.
When it comes to determining whether email marketers should bring on outside help, White says it depends on a number of factors, including cost efficiencies and the skill level of local talent pools.
“I think it really varies,” he says. “I wouldn’t say that there’s any hard and fast rule there.”
Email marketing processes will be unique to every organization. Email planning is a bit of an oxymoron, White says, and often more of an ad hoc tactic. “It seems like it’s the need of the moment rather than a lot of planning out into the future,” he says.
Litmus’s data supports this notion. According to the report, only about half (49.5%) of respondents say they maintain a content calendar all year. Similarly, 18% keep one during key selling seasons and only 10.7% of respondents plan their holiday or peak season email campaigns six months in advance or more. Nearly a third of those polled (32.4%) say their sends are completely ad hoc.
White says these ad hoc senders are more likely to be smaller companies, B2B organizations, or nonprofits than major B2C brands. And depending on the size of their organization, their send volume, and how important email is to them, an ad hoc strategy may be good enough, he notes. However, he encourages the purely spur-of-the-moment folks to consider mapping out their email sends a little more in advance.
“They’ve probably missed some opportunities by not thinking out a little bit into the future and trying to correlate sends with other things going on in their industry,” he says.
For marketers new to the planning process, White advises them to think internally about what kind of messages they want to send, while also thinking externally about what kind of industry events and holidays their subscribers might respond to.
“It’s…marrying those two things together,” he explains.
Double-checking campaigns is a must. Marketers are always rushing to get their campaigns out the door; still, there’s value in giving their emails a second look. White encourages marketers to leverage email preview methods—and many are. About 55% of respondents say they use email preview software and 19% send tests to other employees’ inboxes.
Having an approval process in place can also help. Thirty eight percent of U.S. respondents need the approval of four people or more before clicking send, and nearly 32% need to get the green light from a VP or higher. Sometimes these approvals come down to the wire. According to the report, 42.2% of respondents say they get the final approval the same day an email goes out.
White also urges marketers to document any quality assurance issues, instead of relying solely on verbal feedback—something 42.1% of respondents do via messaging platforms like Slack. Checklists can come in handy, too. Seventy-four respondents have extensive or short lists.
Having these processes in place can prevent email marketers from making common mistakes. Consider: Nearly 23% of respondents have had to halt one email send in the past 12 months due to an error discovered in an email, and almost 27% have had to send an apology email in the past year due to a mistake.
Interestingly, White says that email marketers who spend more time focusing on quality assurance actually halt more emails and send more apology messages than those who spend little time on it. Although it may seem counterintuitive, White says, it’s because these double-checkers have better visibility into what’s going wrong, versus those with less sophisticated processes.
As he puts it, “It’s hard to correct a mistake if you don’t know you made one.”
Overwriting techniques can be the source of errors. Swapping out preexisting content to create new emails is a common practice. About one third (32.4%) of the survey respondents say they use email templates to replace text and image coding, versus 14.1% who say they create their emails from scratch.
White cautions that overwriting previous emails can be a “recipe for a mistake.” Even though recoding emails may not be appealing, he says, it prevents marketers from leaving in any residuals—like old calls-to-actions or links from previous campaigns.
“Sometimes you don’t get it all,” he says.
Free isn’t always better. There are a number of free or inexpensive tools available to marketers today, but they’re not always the right tools. For instance, 83% of email marketers polled use Google or Microsoft Suite tools for their content planning, but these tools weren’t designed for content planning, White says. And even though these tools are free, easy-to-use, and readily available, there are other tools that are worth the investment and can make email marketers’ activities more efficient, White asserts.
Selecting the right tools start with strategy, then platform. Choosing the right platform provider can be difficult, especially considering the thousands of vendors that marketers have to weed through today. Consider: The 2016 Marketing Technology Landscape Supergraphic, an industry visual created by ion interactive cofounder and CTO Scott Brinker, charted 3,874 solution providers—doubling the 1,876 companies featured last year.
When it comes to email platforms, marketers are split between using one and several providers. According to Litmus’s data, 51.5% use one solution, while 48.5% are using two to four. This varies in part based on the types of email marketers send. For instance, more than two thirds of respondents use a homegrown platform (often for transactional messages, the report suggests) in addition to a vendor platform (for marketing messages).
There’s also the debate between full-suite and best-of-breed solutions. White says using a marketing suite can help marketers gain a 360-view of the customer; however, not all marketers are leaning in this direction when it comes to their technology stack. According to the report, the top five most popular platforms include Salesforce (25.6%), MailChimp (22.4%), IBM (11.9%), Oracle (11.6%), and homegrown (10.9%).
So, how can marketers choose the right platform? White says there are three things they should consider: their email volume, their vertical, and the kinds of emails they send (i.e. transactional versus promotional). But, ultimately, it’s really about which platform will help them achieve their goals.
“It’s really a matter of really looking at your own business needs,” he says, “and trying to find an ESP that aligns with that.”