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.

  • Jaina

    Great read. As email marketers this is exactly what we need to remind ourselves time and time again. Collect the numbers but don’t sweat them. However, it’s when you have stakeholders at, erm, stake. Part of your job is being answerable to them, and for them when money is on the line, they need absolute numbers that will increase their numbers. That’s the ongoing fight here for email marketers – educating the stakeholders on the importance of email marketing and the stats.

  • russell

    Thanks for the great article. I only wish this statement was true.
    “The mobile first approach to email is surely standard thinking now in 2015.”

  • Mike Ragan

    Cheers Jaina, thanks for the feedback. Absolutely agree – trying to prove that an email is valuable internally without a full gamut of supporting stats – is a very hard job. The guys who have got that down, are the guys who will win the long game, in my opinion. I have a few examples – but I might leave them for another blog post! :)

  • Mike Ragan

    Hi Russell – Cheers for the comment! I wish it too! I missed off the question mark. I hope one day we all think mobile first…

  • http://www.tunglash.com Lloyd Birch

    Numbers can be flakey when it comes to email, especially when you have a lovely fluid email and somebody likes what you’re offering, they then go over to their laptop and google the company and buy what you prompted in the email and everyone shouts “look how good my google campaign did” when realistically if you didn’t have a lovely fluid email a user could actually read they wouldn’t be there in the first place.

  • http://tunglash.com LB

    Numbers can be flakey when it comes to email, especially when you have a lovely fluid email and somebody likes what you’re offering, they then go over to their laptop and google the company and buy what you prompted in the email and everyone shouts “look how good my google campaign did” when realistically if you didn’t have a lovely fluid email a user could actually read they wouldn’t be there in the first place.

  • http://tunglash.com LB


  • Mike Ragan

    Hi Lloyd – cheers for the comment :) Too right… time after time the email must do so much of the work in starting relationships and maintaining/nurturing them… then when someone is ready to convert they go right ahead and do it! That’s the main reason I don’t sweat the metrics (no matter how great/addictive/useful I know they CAN be). Context is key.

  • Jaina

    Ooo, look forward to seeing that blog post.

    Think in marketing, generally, (though this is probably applicable about life if you want to get really DEEP) it’s about the quick wins. There’s rarely any thought about the long game. “We need to perform now now now”. Building relationships gets you further. In the long run. Be it life. Or email marketing.

  • http://tunglash.com LB

    I’d love to know how much revenue was created as an indirect result of the emails I send out, compared to the direct results. Unfortunately at such a large company it’s very difficult, even with a team of data analysts. I’m sure someone somewhere will have done some research into this, I expect it would make great reading!

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  • MajinYogiBear

    Great read! I agree! Althought stats and revenue can really give management, and other teams pulling the campaign together, an idea of what works and what doesn’t. At the same time these are also stakeholders that may not fully understand the influence, restrictions and what they can and can’t do of email. Though I think we all need to think about creativity and forward thinking! Numbers, and too much analysis that can actually stop inventive thinking going forward, which sometimes marketers (coders especially) don’t take on because they have to sweat the numbers, the idea is just not worth the effort especially when you know that you will be pulled up on the numbers for it.

    Sometimes it’s about creating the “trend” which is probably based on competitors activites or other companies entirely for inspiration. You think the first person to code mobile repsonsive templates considered numbers? Probably not, but now everyone is doing this and it’s not down to numbers but that fact it actually makes it easier to read on devices and it’s awesome! Numbers then follow…and then testing after that:)

    The are probably a lot of metrics and scenarios that still can’t be counted for, and that influence behaviour of customers for the brand/ company – “everyone is talking about it on twitter” or “have you seen it on reddit” etc chances are management will then want to quantify this and start testing – going around in circles -_-

    Sky’s the limit….but let’s just measure how high the sky is so we can… arghh…

  • http://labs.actionrocket.co/ Mike Ragan

    Cheers Yogi! I know you understand. Big picture/blue sky thinking – it almost sounds like a spiritual thing: “after enlightenment comes empowerment”… a bit “email marketing church club”, but the attitudes in email are pretty insidious at times. It’s really hard to break it down because sometimes it’s helpful to us – (consider a problem and the solution is put forward “thats just the way it is in email”). Continue to fight the good fight, Brother Yogi :)