Why are we thinking like it’s 1999, when we should be partying?

If you are reading this and you work in email marketing, it is likely you are doing a good job already — well done to you! Sorry, I don’t have any statistical proof of that: I’m going with my gut. By reading industry blog posts and articles, you may not be directly making anyone any money (direct value), but you are widening your own knowledge (indirect value). Does that seem fair?  This idea of directly attributed value (e.g. ROI) and indirect, often overlooked, value (e.g. reputation) is core to this post.

Email marketing is heavily quantifiable and generates a lot of stats, which is great, it leads us to lots of metrics, also great, but unfortunately along with that — a lot of prescriptive statements. Which are very interesting by themselves, but can quickly become toxic.

People with mouths can say, “do this exact thing and get a measurable improvement“. This can be used to sell anything, a concept, an idea, a tool.

Marketers, with their sleeves rolled up, have rule sheets with these statements on them and KPI’s to hit. One email does well: it got lots of opens or clicks or whatever, another email doesn’t. Marketers are human, and humans want answers and explanations.

There’s been some buzz in the studio recently about how to quantify and attribute value to such a thing as: “buzz”. This topic proved volatile — but out of its ashes came quite a clean argument against the over-reliance upon numbers and metrics in email marketing.

Numbers, stats, metrics are important, we know. They really help forge the fundamental blocks of decision-making and point us in the right direction. However, I have seen a lot of self-flagellation as marketers seek validity in all that they do. This is blinkered, “templated thinking” which essentially amounts to having no confidence to go against the numbers.

“Templated thinking” means using arbitrary rules to make a decision and therefore take action, rather like the concept of ‘best practice’.  This is similar to a “rule of thumb” — a basic unbreakable mantra. Don’t worry this isn’t turning into a ‘best practice bashing’… even that has its place.

I feel that Walter Sobchak would be a fan of best practice: as he says “there are rules!” I get that, but when numbers are introduced they often act like unbendable, unbreakable rules in an area ultimately driven by human psychology and human decisions. This is can be dangerous. Let’s talk about why we don’t need to be handcuffed by the numbers.

A lot of email is sent globally, every day and it makes a lot of money: it typically & consistently has the highest ROI of all the marketing media mix channels. We can only know this because of reporting and statistics: numbers. Fine. It’s when we get swept up in the nitty gritty of the decisions within email itself such as: How many emails should I send on a Tuesday? What exact time is best? Which colour CTA should I be using? Should I mobile optimise my emails? These are interesting questions on their own, yet the cumulative effect can cause problems like being negative, misdirected, short-sighted and sub-optimal.

How many opens? How many clicks? What exact colour CTA?

The obsession for this methodology is totally understandable. It’s in our nature to use rules and for whatever metric is being pursued, as support for a proposal or an argument — why? Because it’s solid and indisputable. It’s a number. It is evidence. People don’t like to argue against numbers, despite the fact that they can be shaped to support almost any argument in context.

A quick “let’s pretend” scenario

Imagine a man comes into Email Town and says: “Hello, I have monitored 1,000,000 emails and red CTA’s get a statistically significant (at the p >0.5 level & all the math(s) is above board) amount more clicks than any other colour and I have proof.

As an email marketer it is likely that your job has KPI’s and number 1 is to increase the ROI of your campaigns.

Now what do you do?

Do you now make all of your CTAs red? It looks like you should. So should you? Yes? No? It’s difficult isn’t it?

You could quite safely assume that more clicks = more revenue = better ROI therefore = decision made. However – and this is key – it is important not to make aesthetic decisions or indeed any decisions based upon numbers alone.

Here’s one good reason why: email is not a discrete event, meaning it is best viewed as an ongoing extension of your brand. It’s success is ultimately down to human decision makers. Humans, with their brains and psychology, are notoriously a bit unpredictable. The value of building a trusted relationship is greater than high click thru for a campaign, and the challenge is to be able to prove this without using metrics.

It’s a neat irony how hard it is to prove all the value that can’t be measured directly, and yet want marketers to make decisions based upon long-term thinking and not just crib sheets. I wonder if the guys that make billboards worry half as much as us email folk? How many people will look at it? How many direct conversions will we get?

This question was also raised by a number of people a while ago that mobile optimisation was knee-jerk, faddy and mathematically maybe not worth it, yet. Using the “people don’t buy on mobile” argument or “your audience doesn’t have a big enough % of mobile users” or even “it’s too difficult to do”. However, a flipside argument is to recognise that email campaigns viewed holistically are so much greater than the sum of their parts, so let’s get on with it. User Experience (like actually being able to read an email on a mobile phone) is one of those very important indirect values we are hearing so much more about in previously unhip areas like email marketing.

The mobile first approach to email is surely standard thinking now in 2015 anyway, (exception is the Gmail app people, but honestly – who knows what’s going on with them?) but my advice to anyone out there still reading this is: look at what’s around the corner and embrace it, understand it, don’t always sweat the numbers. You will go further.

TL;DR: Email marketing is important. Investigate the stats, don’t ignore them, understand and contextualise them. Question the rules.