Don’t Let Holiday Hysteria Harm Your Email Program in 2014

It’s the email marketing equivalent of a crash diet. Every year, we work with clients who are experiencing the repercussions of mistakes made during the all-important holiday shopping season. They’re coming to terms with the telltale signs and accepting that the damage has been done: rising complaints, decreasing inbox placement and declining engagement. After the email blasting binge comes the inevitable purge and a panicked attempt to offset the irrational, hedonistic, instant gratification-seeking practices used during the holiday season. Or, what we in the business of optimizing email program performance call “January.”

This year, I’m going to attempt to embody the Ghost of Christmas Past in the hopes that I can prevent your 2014 email metrics going the way of Santa Claus down a long, dark chimney. Or at least, make you stop and think before you start on the path to sacrificing long-term health for a short-term sugar plum rush. My spectral advice, based on working with numerous clients who have suffered through declining revenue and ROI in the New Year and beyond, is simple: don’t let the holidays be an excuse for going on a bad-practice-bender. Ultimately, there are three consequences: increased complaints, decreased engagement and diminished list quality.

I can see the devil on your shoulder wearing a Santa hat saying, “Oh, is that all?” The answer is, yes, actually, that’s everything. A healthy email program has a strategy in place to avoid all three of these potential outcomes because they are foundational benchmarks of email marketing success. It’s also no coincidence that complaints, engagement and list quality are the primary drivers of inbox placement. Before you decide to be naughty instead of nice and implement questionable tactics, ask yourself if doing so will negatively impact any of those three things. If the answer is yes, don’t do it. If you have “no choice” because your boss is telling you to do it anyway, make sure you have the data and analysis you need at your disposal to make a compelling case for why you shouldn’t be taking such ill-advised risks next year (or ever again). At the very least, show them this!

I’m going to go out on a spindly green pine tree branch and assume that you are often faced with a decision to execute on varying degrees of bad practices because doing so will help you make your quarterly numbers, appease your boss and executives, or you lack the data that will allow you to connect the dots between today’s questionable actions and tomorrow’s consequences when it comes to reputation, inbox placement and the long-term health of your email program. To help in your holiday decision-making, I’d like to provide a short list of the worst offenders: the bad practices that will sink your metrics faster than a stocking stuffed with coal.

In very particular order, they are:

  1. Increase frequency without setting expectations. The primary reason subscribers opt-out of email programs is because they receive too much email. A frequency that is disproportionately related to your subscribers’ tolerance levels is also the primary driver of complaints and negative SRD feedback. No other practice has as much impact on devaluing your email program and ultimately your brand in subscribers’ inboxes. Before you increase frequency, set expectations and showcase the benefits to subscribers of doing so. Allow them to opt down instead of out and permission them in for additional campaigns. I realize this is probably the poor practice that tempts you the most, but unless you want to put your email program on the equivalent of a juice fast in January, stay strong.
  2. Populate your list with bad data. There are many ways of acquiring poor quality data and we often see marketers increasing their tendencies to act on some or all of them around the holidays. Working with disreputable partners to purchase data that hasn’t been properly permissioned, vetted or cleaned is one. Not using tools to verify or scrub the data you’re capturing organically is another. Relying on list growth through importing users’ address books or incentivizing them to invite friends to join or sign-up is yet another. The end result of all of these misguided efforts to grow list size (at the expense of quality) is a proliferation of unknown users, spam traps and inactive subscribers who will prevent you from reaching the inbox and not be worth the money you spent to acquire them.  In fact, they will wind up costing you money.
  3. Ignore the value of your own data. You have powerful nuggets of customized information at your disposal to create email campaigns that are targeted, relevant and engaging. Use them! Your customers’ and subscribers’ behavioural data can be the basis for building a segmentation strategy, devising business rules around what and when to mail, driving the promotion of offers (and content) and determining what your creative templates look like. If possible, integrate data across multiple channels (online, point of sale, social, etc.) into your email program strategy to create a consistent, compelling and cohesive brand experience. Failing to use data in a meaningful way is probably the most common mistake we see marketers make, however doing so will set your messaging apart from your competition and make you stand out in the inbox.

The holidays are often a time of excess, but the aftermath of implementing bad practices and the effort it takes to undo them can create huge headaches into the New Year. Instead of spending time on strategy or optimization, you’ll be fighting fires and playing catch-up while your competitors get ahead. Avoid the temptations of empty email calories that do more harm than good and stick to a healthy plan that will ensure you’re set up for success into 2014 and beyond.

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