Phelan: Digital Marketing: It's Not Just About Email


Having recently re-entered the job market (and thanks to Bill for the complimentary announcement here), I found myself looking back on the most recent phase of my career and realizing how much it has broadened my perspective on what mar-tech and ad-tech mean.

You might know me as the pretty face who stands on a stage at a marketing conference near you and preaches about email and how to do it better. For years, I focused almost exclusively on email strategies and what it can do for companies, whether it's understanding the email address as the unique identifier of the consumer across channels or the impact and use of data. Everything centered on email and this industry. Its history, legacy and winning strategies.

But, what I learned as the head of U.S. marketing for a UK-based technology company has made my knowledge and practice of email that much more vibrant.

I'm still a good strategist and kept up on the trends in the email marketing space while in that role. I still know email inside and out. But, I know tons more today than I did three years ago, and I'm thankful for that.

My goal here is to encourage you to take a step back and sideways, not just to know the practice of email but also to look beyond the daily practice, beyond data and social media. Knowing this can make your program better whether you work in omnichannel, programmatic or some other area.

What's the next step?

Here's a thought that could either be scary or simply part of your career path: 90% of you are not going to be in email forever. Given that email isn't all that and a bag of chips – that it's part of something bigger – you need to be aware of several things that can enable you to enhance your view of reality pertaining to the connective tissue that email is, but also for when your time to move on comes along:

  1. Know your sales process.

We all talk about wanting higher conversions and how our main KPI is sales. If you're in B2B marketing, you talk about marketing qualified leads (MQLs) and sales qualified leads (SQLs), but it all comes down to sales.

But, how often have you clicked on your own website and gone through the customer experience? When was the last time you reviewed the conversion process and flow? Have you ever sat down with your sales team or biz-dev reps to look at the process that a lead goes through once it comes into your purview?

It's easy to forget that email is not a convertible medium. Yes, we have technology that can put a convertible cart in the email messages, but for the largest part of the industry (and likely almost all B2B), the website is where you will convert visitors into buyers or leads.

Immerse yourself in the process. Note all the failure points. Establish a good relationship between your email team and the people who makes the sales happen. If it's your web team, seek an active part in their discussions. If you're a B2B marketer, get involved in the lead-generation and qualification efforts, and have regular check-ins with the sales teams.

You are the main proponent for email in your organization. You should know your process backwards and forwards. Write down all of the steps someone must take to buy. Know the failure points, and fix them.

  1. Know the grand strategy.

Do you know the overall strategy for your brand? I had to take a well-known European brand and reformulate it for the U.S. market. That's easier said than done.

I needed to research the brand and what was going on in the marketplace, what buyers in this market expect, what the history was, demographics of prospects and subscribers and the best sources for leads.

Do you do this same level of information-gathering?

You need to know your brand's grand strategy so you can use it to develop your own. I always talk "strategy before tactics." This is something every email marketer should know.

Beyond strategy, what's your belief about emails? Do you acquire subscribers with a loose interpretation of permission, like using checked permission boxes? The losing strategy is to be a button-pusher, the one whose greatest accomplishment is clicking the "submit" button on a broadcast email.

Why does someone buy from you? You must be able to answer that question so you can develop reasons why your brand or your email program fits that need. How do you communicate that need?

Do you know the circumstances in which you do not participate in a market? Knowing your customer is key, but so is knowing who isn't. Developing the “what we are” and “what we’re not” is critical to a laser focus on sales.

These answers are vital to creating a sustainable grand strategy. It's not enough to have it in your head. You need to document it in writing and then review it over and over to keep it up to date.

Also, you do this in partnership with your executives. It takes research and time. I needed months to create my list, to look at our processes and develop strategy. But, when I was done, I was able to execute on it because I knew the right direction to go.

  1. Know the technology available to you.

For years, I believed in the power of the email address. But, as my friend David Baker says, sometimes email just doesn't work. Do you know what to do when email doesn't work?

Whether it's mar-tech or ad-tech, do you understand how the technology works, or is it just another buzzword, like "AI" or "machine learning?" You need to know how to get knowledge about your users or customers and then use that data across the board to inform other channels.

If I were to talk about account-based marketing, would you know what I meant? I can tell you it's in full force across B2B marketing. Having worked to develop strategies using ABM, I can tell you it will change the way you think about marketing and testing.

The word of the day become "intent," instead of "conversion." How do I find intent? How do I use data to recognize and drive intent? Email ties into this adjacent technology, but you must expand your horizons to understand how to use it.

One thing has not changed in my worldview: Email connects a whole lot of things. It's the center of the digital marketing universe because it gives you extension into the inbox. You don't have to be reactive in discovering intent. You can, instead, be proactive.

Email marketing is now broadening its focus beyond how the email service provider works. Email marketers must be concerned about the propagation and use of data. They must move faster, expand horizons, and understand better how to make things fit together.

Wrapping it up

As I said at the beginning, 90% of you won't stay in email forever. You're going to be challenged. You might already have moved out of email or acquired more responsibilities. The decision might have been yours; maybe someone else decided it for you.

Start now to be ready for the challenge. Learn as much as you can, and use it to your own advantage, now in your job and later in your own career development. The key for all marketing professionals is to know the entire field, not just how to deploy the best email campaign.