How to succeed in email no matter where you are


One theme I've developed after 25 years in email is that it's important to give back to the industry, to contribute to our overall success by helping other people.

Like you, I find myself talking with and advising marketers at conferences and on webinars, and when writing articles like these, working with clients, during an OI Live event, or just sitting around with my fellow marketers in a social setting.

While I hope the guidance I offer helps people solve problems or find success, I enjoy these conversations because they keep me tuned in to what's on marketers' minds. What I learn in these conversations also helps me be a better mentor and adviser.

The 1:1 personalization conundrum

These conversations also can be reality checks that remind me we are not all aligned on the same North Star.

Take personalization. For many thought leaders that North Star has been the need to achieve 1:1 personalization in our email marketing messages. The goal has been to get everyone to that point where you can build an email at the point of send that is specific to the person receiving that email.

We assume that will make email as smart as the rest of the internet. So we have been pushing people, saying "You have to get to 1:1 if you want to succeed as an email marketer. Nothing less than that will do."

If we're realistic, we will also acknowledge that achieving 1:1 personalization is a journey. Nobody hits it overnight.

But over the last few months, I've come to realize that it's okay not to be at the absolute 1:1 level.

Now, that comes with a caveat. It's okay not to send 1:1 email if that's all you can accomplish with the resources you have.

The reality of our channel is that many of us are still underfunded, understaffed, and overworked. Another reality is that we still drive the highest ROI of any marketing channel. That dichotomy has never made sense, but it's still there.

But I've discovered another reality when talking to marketers who are still deep in the trenches of day-to-day email marketing. There, the reality is that the level of personalization that they're at in that moment is probably where they're going to stay. So instead of pushing the 1:1 personalization agenda all the time, we need to meet marketers and companies where they are and help them succeed with the resources, including data, that they do have.

Sometimes in our commitment to 1:1 personalization we can inadvertently convey the idea that anyone who isn't doing it isn't achieving their full potential. You know, like parents who let their kids know they aren't meeting expectations.

Every marketer I've talked to on this issue has had years of experience. They're brilliant marketers regardless of performance, sophistication, automations, or data. But they fight the battles they know they can win. 

Which bucket are you in?

Most email marketers fit into one of four personalization buckets:

1. Batch and blast

For as much as I hate the word "blast," sending "one to everyone" email might be the only kind of messaging these marketers can manage. They might lack customer data or have no access to the data the company does collect. These marketers often do their best with the data, team size, leadership, or technology they have.

2. Just enough data

These marketers have access to some data from a master set, but it's not enough to do advanced marketing, whether it's 1:1, real-time messaging, or detailed triggered messages. You can piece more information together to make more accurate assumptions. One marketer from an enterprise brand told me they have "okay" consumer data, which they use to make many assumptions on their segmentation decisions.

3. Too much data

Another marketer reeled off all the data she could access every day. It was impressive! She can segment based on demographics and psychographics, user preferences and interests, and much more. I was jealous of her data access, but it comes with a dark side: You can't always use it because it's irrelevant, hard to structure, or just too much for your program to handle.

4.  True 1:1 personalization

These marketers can assemble a custom message at the time of sending. These are Fortune 50 or Fortune 100 companies with a large, unified set of in-house data and tech stack. They also have the support of a corporate drive to be as relevant as possible across all channels.

Incremental innovation: 3 keys to success

So if you find yourself in Bucket 1, 2, or 3, what do you do to make the most of the email resources you have and elevate your marketing? My advice has worked for me in many work scenarios:

When total transformation is impractical, a continuous series of incremental gains can have a huge impact. Also, develop strategies to use the resources you do have and consider these three tactics to capitalize on your gains:

1. Be as smart and informed as you can.

Know the ins and outs of every part of your email program. Know your numbers, your segmentation plans, what can move your needles, how to create great content, how to use AI, and the wider picture of your customers. This knowledge will help you understand where you can push things and what you will just have to endure.

2. Making testing part of your workflow.

High-achieving marketers test everything they can, and not just subject lines. Develop a testing plan, including what you want to learn about your customers, and execute on it.

3. Ask for more.

As the saying goes, the squeaky wheel gets the grease. Here's another saying: If you don't ask, you don't get.

When you follow the first two tactics above, you can build a case for Tactic No. 3. If you don't have the data you need, ask for it. Ask for channel performance data so you can coordinate among your marketing channels for a unified messaging strategy. Look at your data sources and suggest new ones or new ways of collecting it. Use a use case for how you'll use it.

This is "managing up," and it will help you get where you need to be. No matter how small the step, it will be better than where you were yesterday.

So now let's take a minute and address another reality check. Say you have those goals but admit you can't get all the way there. What do you do? That's a question for email thought leaders and the industry to answer.

This is something we don't talk about enough, but it's a topic we should take up in venues like the Only Influencers discussion list, on the OI Live weekly conversations, or at Email Innovations World (save 15% on registration with code ‘ONLYINFLUENCERS’).

[Note from the editor: the OI discussion list and live weekly Zoom discussions are open to OI paid members ($200/year). Register here or contact our General Manager, Jeanne Jennings, to learn more.]

Wrapping up

No matter which bucket you're in, be proud of the work you're doing there. There is nothing wrong with having to do batch-and-blast or basic personalization if you are doing your best every time. The only time you should be discontented is if you choose to do the minimum possible, to envy what others have achieved without trying to change your program.

For many marketers, these are phases in development that success-minded marketers are trying to move forward from. It's up to us veterans in the industry to help them grow and to mentor them to bring them along. I didn't gain the position I'm at right now on my own. I was supported by people like Kath Pay, Loren McDonald, Andrew Bonar and many others.

My challenge to other email thought leaders: Recognize the complexity and limitations the marketers you advise are facing. Celebrate the achievements and give your time to help lift more boats.


marc najera JWAAgQSbq44 unsplash 600Photo by Marc Najera on Unsplash