Father of Spam, Mother of Invention: How Much Has Email Changed in 37 Years?

When Gary Thuerk sent the first bulk electronic mail promotion to about 400 people nearly 37 years ago to this day, it caused a firestorm of controversy, and to this date he is referred to as the “Father of Spam.” The message was unsolicited, and sent in bulk to a group of researchers and admins. In Thuerk’s defense, there was little opportunity to receive permission digitally back then. The world wide web didn’t exist, so landing pages, collection forms, and check boxes wouldn’t be available to permission-based digital marketers for another 20 years. Thuerk did follow some common marketing best practices like only sending the message to those who found it relevant, placing his product prominently, and offering a call-to-action for those that read it. He not only sold $13 million worth of equipment, but he proved the effectiveness of email as a marketing channel, and showed that email can provide an extremely high ROI.

Today, email marketing has gotten better at things like being permission-based. Perhaps a victim of its own success, email marketing has changed very little over the past 37 years: acquire email addresses, send them an email promotion, and see high ROI. Why change? Organizations need to adopt a better data-driven testing and optimization mindset, and this data-driven approach to email marketing can not only help marketers improve their already stellar ROI, but reduce costs and optimize their brands.

1. Set clearly defined goals and objectives
The goal tells you what you expect to achieve from an email marketing campaign – from brand awareness to selling more products – and the objective is specific and measurable. The biggest mistake email marketers make is focusing on the goal without an objective. Without asking the question “by how much,” email marketers don’t have a guidepost to know if additional campaigns and testing are needed, and as a result, they quickly move on to the next campaign. Having clearly defined goals and objectives will also help teams avoid the “kitchen sink” syndrome where multiple, oftentimes unrelated, calls to action are placed in an email.

2. Optimize for visibility
You’ve set your goal and objective for a campaign, but failed to take into account things like inbox placement, which can influence the success or failure of your campaign. On average, one-in-six promotional emails sent will land in the spam folder or be blocked. Strive for high inbox placement rates to accurately measure campaign objectives. If a significant amount of email is being filtered to spam and out of sight of your audience, you won’t be able to reach your objectives, or uncover any valuable insights. Now imagine telling your CMO that all the work your email marketing team has been doing over the months was never seen by your subscribers. There’s a cost associated with your team’s work, and if your results would have been the same if you did absolutely nothing at all, your CMO will want an explanation.

3. Focus on Your Brand and Subject Lines
Consumers see two things when checking their inbox: a sea of brand names and subject lines. For most businesses, setting the display name of your sending address works perfectly if your brand is well-known. Consider testing this element, however, to observe the impact in opens. Subject lines should also be tested. Where most email marketers fall short with testing subject lines is testing too infrequently, and relying on their gut for subject lines to use. Today’s email marketer should focus on what type of subject line headlines drive more opens and actions. Subject lines using keywords with a sense of urgency perform best, for example “still time” influenced read rates by 16% in a recent study. Today’s email marketer should also be focused on using competitive intelligence, and looking at what subject line types are working for others in their industry, as well as their direct competitors.

4. Maximize email frequency and cadence
Email subscribers get turned off fast from receiving too much email, and unsubscribe as a result. There’s a cost associated with acquiring these email addresses lost, not to mention future revenue you’re missing out on. However, email marketers are probably too conservative with email frequency for a large group of their subscribers. Test frequency and cadence of emails based on segments and optimize based on negative sentiments (unsubscribes, spam complaints) and positive ones (total opens and conversions).

5. Find the perfect time to send
Email marketers need to move beyond the mindset of looking for the day of week they get the most opens. In today’s hyperconnected world, subscribers’ time in the inbox varies from triage to shopping. By optimizing the send-time by subscriber, email marketers can see better inbox placement rates, higher opens, and more conversions.

6. Now test everything. Always
People are not static, and your email marketing program shouldn’t be either. What works today most likely won’t work tomorrow. Continually test and measure your results against not only your own benchmarks, but your competitors.

37 years is too long to remain unchanged. Let’s raise the bar for email marketing.

This article originally appeared as a byline by Scott Roth in ClickZ.

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