Phelan: How Strong is the State of Our Union?


A few days ago, I posted a link on my Facebook page to a blog post I'd written about an American Airlines year-end recap email. I praised AA for going above and beyond the call of email duty because it used my own data to hyper-personalize the message.

Then, a friend commented on that post, saying, "Does it ever bother you that we've been preaching the same things for the last 10 years?"

It's true that thought leaders like Loren McDonald, Justine Jordan, Dennis Dayman, John Caldwell, Jeanne Jennings and Kath Pay have been talking about improving email, not just for the last decade but for 15 years and more.

We've been showing email marketers how to make email better, how to use data to make it more relevant and personalized, and why it matters to build subscriber engagement. But to what effect? It made me wonder.

Is the state of our union strong?

I want to say a definitive "Yes!" Because we're all trying to make this email thing work even though study after study shows most email marketers still rely on batch-and-blast, undifferentiated email.

My hope for 2018 is that this is the year we finally see the growth or evolution of email so that it finally aligns with customer expectations, that we see relevance in communications across the board.

But, I also wonder what it will take to make this happen in 2018. I'm optimistic because I see email marketers want the ability to do better in their email programs, to drive greater value for their companies and to serve their customers better.

I've rarely met an email marketer who says, "Batch and blast is the only way to go. Screw personalization. I'm going to blast the heck out of my list."

Instead, the marketers I talk to want to do email right but can't for one reason or another.

1 reason why email innovation stalls

A critical failure happens right when marketers start doing things right. They've made changes or updated procedures, but just when their efforts begin to bear fruit, they're promoted or pushed into another role at their companies. Or, they take their success to a more welcoming company.

The result? Their successors don't share their enthusiasm for email, or they're so overwhelmed in their new roles that they lose the momentum. All that institutional learning is lost.

How to keep email moving forward

Here's what I think we email marketers need to do to keep email moving forward so that we're not talking about the same issues 15 years from now.

  1. Stop saying "[X] is dead."

I've spent years defending email from ignorant people with no sense of history, who like to proclaim that email is dead but also listening to email marketers do their own share of crowing about the death of one marketing channel or another.

Let's get one thing straight:

Nothing dies in the digital age.

It might evolve into something better or shrink in significance as another channel grows. But it won't die.

Take direct mail. Email didn't kill it. Catalogs and circulars still fill up my mailbox every day. But, every occasionally, I find something good – some evidence that the catalog crowd is taking a page from the data-driven marketing playbook.

We have plenty to learn from every marketing medium out there, from direct mail to email, billboards to skywriting.

The ignorant marketer who claims a channel is dead is really saying, "I don't understand this channel and don't want to learn anything from it." Don't be that person.

  1. Document, document, document.

Can we please do more of this? In a world where people change jobs every 18 to 24 months, we lose a tremendous amount of institutional knowledge if they don't pass it along.

To move your program forward, you must discover where it has been.

If marketers start documenting more – and I mean not just in an overwhelming .doc file or PowerPoint but on paper in a binder – we'll be able to save and share everything we've learned in a way that makes it easy for our successors to absorb it.

It won't get lost in new-employee orientation or the steep learning curve of the new job. Our successors will value this knowledge and see it as a priority, not just something their predecessors did.

  1. Remember that change is incremental.

Few companies have unlimited funds to spend on agencies to run their email programs for them, to come up campaign ideas, great creative content and testing.

While we do have great agencies to work with, and I encourage you to investigate working with an agency to help you achieve more than you could on your own, the inconvenient truth is that most of us operate in a vacuum.

We're trying to balance the demands of every channel we own with the need to get campaigns out the door. We've all been there. It's exhausting. In this kind of world, incremental innovation is the best way to make progress.

You can achieve an exceptional leap of innovation with incremental steps.

Say to yourself, " I'm going to build 500 email triggers over the next five years. The most important part of this plan is the 30 triggers I'm going to build this year."

We need to map out where we are today and where we want to be in the next three months. We need to sit down with a clean piece of paper (or stand up with a clean whiteboard and a marker) and write down every step we need to take to get there.

Every day gives you a new start, a chance to make one small difference that will add up to major change over time.

Let's change the prediction pattern

By now I've seen a lot of predictions. I've written my own. And I'm in prediction fatigue because I've seen people repeat the same predictions year after year.

Most thought leaders I know want us to get smarter about email to have the channel survive in a digital landscape that's ever more advanced and relevant.

I'm no longer content to keep email a channel that relies on batch-and-blast to deliver rewards at random. This year – 2018 – must be the year we finally change our ways, kick ourselves in our collective keester, and get going.

What's your first step?

Title: Phelan: How Strong is the State of Our Union?
About: Email Innovation
Audience: Email Marketers
Copyright 2018, Only Influencers, LLC