Planning for the next ‘normal’ of 2021

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The COVID-19 pandemic might be receding slowly, but it’s leaving enough unanswered questions and uncertainty in its wake to make marketers wonder whether we’re ready to go back to long-term planning.

Most of us threw out our planning calendars in 2020 and went campaign by campaign, watching the news and our customers’ behavior to decide what our next steps should be.

From my perspective at FreshAddress, we saw many of our customers successfully adapt their marketing programs quickly to changing conditions as 2020 wore on. But we also saw marketers throw caution - and good hygiene practices - into the wind and reach deep into their databases to communicate with as many customers as they could.

So we weren’t too surprised to see that just in the first quarter of 2020 alone, invalid addresses rose 37.8%. We also noted a corresponding increase in inbox filtering and other problems keeping emails away from customers who had requested them.

Now that we’re a few months into 2021, it has become clear to me that we still need to factor in unexpected changes - for better or for worse - as we plan out campaigns.

We need to create a new planning framework, one that helps us figure out what we might be able to count on and what’s still unknown that could effect our campaign planning.

Coming up with a new planning framework

The Johari Window is one of the best-known frameworks for assessing personal awareness. You probably even used it without realizing it if you did any work in team-building or employer-employee communication

A simplified model can help you do the essential background work for strategic and campaign planning because it can reveal hidden opportunities than you can build into your yearly planning. It's similar to SWOT analysis (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats) but it focuses on your metrics to help you find the answers.

How the model works

It assesses knowledge in these four areas: 

  1. What you know you know
  2. What you don't know you know
  3. What you know you don't know
  4. What you don’t know you don't know

Sound familiar?

The rest of my post will help you use this model to do the pre-work that will guide you to your actual campaign planning.

One suggestion: If you and your team have the bandwidth, schedule this as a group exercise. It would be great to do this in person - Zoom fatigue is real! - but a conferencing system that allows you to create virtual breakout rooms can help you recreate the feel of a traditional on- or off-site strategic planning session.

The four stages of assessment

1. What you know you know

Why it's important: This is the easy part. It’s where you use all those numbers you track every time you send a campaign or measure the health of your email program. You'll also use these results in other assessments in this model.

How to use it: The metrics listed below are just a sample; choose the ones that mean the most to you or add in others that aren’t listed here. Also, benchmark against general industry stats and message types.

Metrics:

  • Number of subscribers on Jan. 1, 2020, and Jan. 1, 2021
  • Open rate
  • Click rate
  • Daily number of opt-ins
  • Unsubscribe rate
  • Bounce rate
  • Spam complaints
  • Click-to-open rate
  • Read rate (if your ESP provides it)
  • Open times
  • Inbox providers
  • Opens on desktop
  • Opens on mobile
  • How many subscribers signed up on
  •  each of your acquisition channels
  • Revenue per email/campaign/subscriber
  • Number of conversions

2. What you don't know you know

Why it's important: To borrow baby doctor Benjamin Spock's famous words, you know more than you think you do. You know plenty about your subscribers and what works. You just need to find out what it all means. In this step, you'll analyze the absolute numbers you pulled together in Step 1 for those meanings.

Look at basic trends or compare percentages. You have 500,000 email subscribers, and 10% of them opened your last email message. Is that number going up or down? How does it compare to a year ago? Are you steadily gaining or losing subscribers, or are they spiking throughout the year?

How to use it: The answers to these questions will help you tease out more meaning from your numbers in Step 1. You might have to dig deeper into your database or scrutinize spreadsheets to find the answers, but they're in there somewhere.

Questions:

  1. Did we end 2020 with a net gain or loss of subscribers?
  2. Which campaigns generated the highest opens and/or clicks, and which ones tanked?
  3. What's our unsubscribe rate compared with 2020 and 2019?
  4. Which acquisition channels deliver the highest percentage of new subscribers?
  5. What percentage of our new opt-in addresses turn out to be invalid when we send to them?
  6. Which acquisition sources delivered the most addresses?
  7. How did our daily number of opt-ins vary over the year?

This is just a sample of the questions that can help you find meanings from the metrics you should know already. You likely have your own questions. 

3. What you know you don't know

Why it's important: Look at your numbers and write down all the questions they inspire. You'll probably have to crunch numbers to get answers, but that's usually how you force meaning out into the open.

How to use it: You might need to combine metrics to get your answers or break your database down by variables like acquisition source, customer persona, lifecycle stage, or email campaign. This deeper analysis will give you a more accurate picture of your email performance than just plotting open rates on a chart.

It's also where your 2020 results can show where you need to update your 2021 planning to reflect changes in subscriber or customer behavior and preferences. You might even find out that they remain relatively unchanged.  

Questions:

  1. Are our segments or personas still relevant?
  2. How did our content performance change over the year?
  3. How did Holiday 2020 behavior and results compare with 2019?
  4. Which acquisition sources deliver the highest- and lowest-quality subscribers?
  5. Are more addresses going inactive this year?

Again, these questions are just suggestions. You'll come up with others as you review the metrics you knew from Step 1 and the findings from your Step 2 questions.

4.What you don't know you don't know

Why it's important: This will be the most difficult area to figure out because you're investigating the unknowable. Look at external factors that could affect your business in general or your email program specifically.

Combine what you learned in the three previous steps with news or thought leadership from outside your company to anticipate unknowns that could affect your company in general or your email program in particular.

How to use it: Let the awareness and context you gained from a deeper dive into your numbers guide your thinking. You should discover your unknowns as you work through the process.

Everybody’s asking the question: When will life go back to normal? No one really knows. One forecast calls for “an uncertain spring, an amazing summer, a cautious fall and winter.” How could that affect your business plans and, by extension, your marketing campaigns?

Those are some of the issues behind our list of “unknowns” questions.

Questions:

  1. Will we go back to the way things were once vaccinations become more widespread and once state and local governments lift mask mandates?
  2. Which consumer behaviors or expectations have changed permanently and will still be true after the pandemic is over?
  3. What factors beyond my control can degrade the quality of my email list?
  4. What is the best-case scenario?
  5. What's the worst that could happen, and how do I plan against it?

The 2020 holiday shopping season should provide some insight into consumer behavior changes that you can leverage for 2021 planning. Shortening your planning time frames from a year out to a half year or even just a quarter can help you change course if an unknown becomes a reality.

Next steps

Work on this exercise, on your own or with your team before you start planning for 2021. You might find that your subscribers and their habits, outlooks or experiences have not changed materially. On the other hand, your digging might reveal major shifts you now need to accommodate.

It can also alert you to vulnerabilities in your database you were not aware of before, such as an increase in the number of invalid, inactive or problematic addresses on your list.

Not every problem will have a concrete solution like list hygiene, real-time address validation or continued protection that keeps bad addresses off your list. But you should be able to see farther down the road as the year goes on and the unknowns become known.

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