Friday, July 31, 2009

Testing, testing....

I came across a stat that 54% of email marketers do a/b testing. Which means that roughly half of email marketers don't do testing...the question is - why?

Email is perhaps the single best platform for marketing testing ever invented. You can design a test, then see the results in minutes or days, versus the weeks and months necessary to evaluate a traditional direct mail test. It also costs almost nothing to test, versus the hundreds of thousands of dollars necessary to test using over the air media. If you code the test up right, you can evaluate the results not only in an instant, but over a course of campaigns.

So why is it that so many marketers don't take advantage of such a powerful tool? There's probably as many reasons as there are marketers, but here's a few I've seen.

(1) People running email marketing programs are not direct marketers - Moving from traditional "offline" direct marketing to email marketing was like being a kid in a candy store - the possibility for testing were endless. That's a mentality that many email people don't have, as they tend to be technologists first, marketers second. Luckily, the technologists are easy to spot - they talk way too much about deliverability, honeypots and browser compatibility.

(2) Tests are too far afield from today - Rather than look at incremental changes that can boost the effectiveness of an existing campaign, people will design tests that are completely different from the existing "champion". It's not a bad idea to do this, but if you do you'll run into the brand police - they're even less schooled in direct marketing than the technologists. You can run a boatload of tests on things like subject line (yes, you can see incremental value from testing subject lines), number and position of buttons, background color, image size, and integration with landing page creative. Once you have those buttoned up (and can prove a methodology for testing), you can move onto more far-flung efforts.

(3) Know it all executives - Sometime when you design a test, a person higher up in management will say either (a) "I don't like it" or (b) "I know our customers - they won't like it" (which is the same thing as (a), just couched in a way that doesn't seem quite so egotistical.) This is a tough hurdle, as you're basically telling someone they should come down off their knowledge-filled ego cloud and live in the land of proof. The fact is, it should not matter what you think - it matters what you can prove. The fun part of testing is when you challenge your own assumptions, then let the data tell you what actually worked. For example, I once used a segmentation pattern based upon consumer behavior. Our field group insisted that "we know the consumers in XYZ market better than some smarty-pants jerk in corporate (or words to that effect.) So we said fine, we'll test it. The fact was, our behavior-based segmentation significantly out-performed the "field tested" knowledge. While it didn't close the case (there's always someone who knows better...) it made for a very effective shield.

(4) Tests are designed badly - Complicated tests are complicated to interpret. They're also complicated to execute. Keep your tests understandable and learn to walk before you run. Also, you have to be clear about what you're trying to affect. For example, focusing on sales of creative A versus creative B can be a testing death trap - your job as an email marketer is not to sell, but to bring people to a place where a sale can happen. Back your test up to look at things like click-through and you'll have a much higher degree of significance to your tests. Not that CTs are the bees knees of measurement - the point is that you need to realize what you can and can't effect via email. The sale happens on the web site. The interest happens in the email.

(5) Tests are too big - I recently talked to someone who designed a test, then send 1/3 to the existing piece, then 1/3 to each of the two test cells. So 2/3 of the test was to something other than the champion. This is a recipe for disaster - early stage tests should encompass no more than 10-20% of your email effort, unless the test cells are very small incremental changes from the champion. If you're designing a "big" test cell in order to gain statistical significance, then raise your aim to a measurement that can be significant with a smaller group (like CTs!)

(6) When a test is successful, you push the "GO" button too fast - One of the least appreciated facets of email marketing is the macroeconomic impact of time. That is, while a test is successful, will it be successful next week? Lots of things can happen in a week that push the results in one direction or another. If a test is "successful", the next step should be to continue the test for several more weeks, then look at the tend of behavior over time. I ran a test where - for three weeks - the challenger beat the champion by 11%. By week 6, the results were even - there was no value in implementing the challenger. I don't know why, but the test was good for a little while, then basically fell flat. Time matters.

(7) Email software doesn't make it easy to measure tests - Pretty much every email program I've seen allows for split tests. Some are easier than others to build and execute. The real problem comes with measuring those results, then comparing them to the champion. It can be a colossal pain to pull the analysis together in any sort of meaningful fashion. If the marketer is not full invested in testing, this "lack of feature" will be used as an excuse way more often than it should while it's a reason, it's not a very good one. Unless we're talking about true multi-variate email testing...then it's a good excuse, as most email vendors make it impossible to execute true multivariate testing (but more about that in a future post...)

All in all, if you're an email marketer who isn't actively testing - or recently completed a series of email tests - you're wasting an opportunity to significantly improve your emarketing results.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

First General Motors, Now The Post Office...

Looks like things are a little more bleak at the Post Office than we imagined...

Did you know that volume is expected to decrease from 208 billion pieces to only 175 billion? Wow!

Click HERE to read all about it.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Email Deliverability

I had a conversation with a friend of mine about the state of email deliverability. It seems that many companies - including well known companies - have deliverability rates under 90%. In fact, many hover somewhere in the mid 80s. As anyone who was awake in the mid 80s knows, this can't be a good thing. Having your deliverability in the mid 80s is a bit like having Mister Mister as your favorite band. You can do it...just don't talk about it in public.

It seems confusing that any respectable email marketer can't regularly achieve email deliverability rates in excess of 95%. With inbox rates of about the same percentage. It's not that hard. People have been doing the deliverability for quite some would think that people get it a little better.

In the interest of the common good, here's a few hints/tips to raise your deliverability. For those of you whose performance is tied to increasing deliverability, this may mean cash. Don't worry, this advice is all commission-free.

There's a ton of stuff we can cover, but I'm going to need some material for future blogs. So we'll stick to a few quickies ...

(1) Regularly mail your file - Constant communication with your file is the key to building your reputation at ISPs. Whether your cadence is daily, weekly or monthly, you should always mail your entire file on a periodic basis. If your file is "dirty" coming in, you may need to slow down your send speed to handle the bumps...but constant mailing will raise the overall deliverability of your file.

(2) Aggressively handle opt-outs & bounces - This is probably the single most important thing you can do to improve deliverability. For those of you who use internal systems, the accurate and timely processing of your bounces and opt-outs is where you are most likely to fail. In the past I've used a very simple formula:

  • Hard Bounce = Immediate removal from file
  • Soft Bounce - try up to 5 times. If unsuccessful, consider it a hard bounce.
  • Unsub - Immediate removal from file (more on that in a bit)
(3) Use an ESP - I've done both internal and external email sends. Deliverability via ESP beat the pants off of internal deliverability. Why? Because you can't fire your internal IT... more often than not, email deliverability is about 27th on IT's "Things to Do". Plus, ESPs tend to have better relationships with ISPs that internal IT groups can. We all have a limit to the number of people we want to talk to...

(4) Clean up your code - It's amazing how many companies still sent crappily-coded HTML to recipients. Stop with the Front Page templates and have a professional review performed (insert blatant plug for Smith-Harmon here...). The purpose of cleaning your code is twofold. The first is to get the email through the ISPs filters. The second is to keep the recipients from clicking on "This Is Spam" because your code renders badly in gmail (yes, I'm talking to you, BSP productions).

(5) Use dedicated IPs. A lot of them - Every time you use a shared IP, you run the risk of jacking up your own deliverability due to some knuckhead also using the same IP. Do yourself a favor and get your own. They're cheap! The key is to have a range of IPs that you use - if one gets "blacklisted", then you swap in new and cleaner IPs to get your mail through. By constantly rotating your IPs (and doing all this other stuff) you'll build the reputation of those IPs, helping to ensure deliverability. If you're bringing back some old data - or sending to people you haven't sent to in awhile - use some of your "spare" IPs.

(6) When in doubt, slow down - Throttling your email sends can help prevent some basic ISP blocks - especially if you're sending to a list that might be a little bumpier than your normal list. While speed can be exciting, it can also cause nasty crashes.

(7) Send a confirmation email - Double-opt in is (usually) overkill, especially for sites where you're not doing much except signing up to get email. That said, it's still a great idea to send a confirmation email to the listed address. Keep those on a real-time stream (so throttling won't be an issue) and don't let the bounces make it into your mail email file. Garbage in = you have more garbage.

OK...anything more than this and we're getting into consulting territory...which of course is always an excellent Plan B...

I was tempted to make a bad Mister Mister reference here goes...Kyrie, take these steps to fix the broken wing of your email program...I told you that being in the mid80s was bad.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Brand, Brand, Brand!

I've had a lot of discussions lately about brand. You know, the five letter word that makes direct marketers stand up and scream "why can't I get a piece of that &*(^ brand budget!"

It seems to have become the modern day version of the Jets and the Sharks - brand versus direct. "Brand Oriented" companies have lots of coolness and sizzle, while "Direct Oriented" companies have short ties and toilet paper on their shoes.

Frankly, I've had a whole pantload of the panting, sycophantic admiration of "brand". Because brand is an after-affect. You can't create great brands and be successful. "Brands" only come around after the hard work has been done. Problem is, once things get into the hands of "brand marketers" - who think that their brand doesn't stink - the fun really begins. That's when we find out that - more often than not - brands that lose their focus can quickly become irrelevant. Fun like in "We're the Titanic - we ain't afraid of no stinkin' ice bergs!"

Think of it this way...great products are like parents who worked hard and built something for themselves. Maybe something really great and successful. Brands are sometimes like their spoiled children who don't know anything but success, then think the world owes them a living. The kind of kids who want to be lord and master of ALL the toys. The efforts of these children (often known as "line extensions") usually end up where they belong - on the scrap heap of effort along with their teenage guitar lessons.

If brands were as powerful as brand evangelists make them out to be, then the world would know the wonders of Nike Kitty Litter and BMW Toothpaste. But brands are just not that powerful. Just ask Lehman Brothers. Or General Motors.

I love the Japanese auto makers - they're not as wowed by the Brand dictum. When Toyota (a great and reliable "brand") wanted to go upscale, they developed a new brand. But Lexus wasn't successful because of the power of the then-unknown brand. It was successful because of the product that embodied "The Relentless Pursuit of Perfection". The brand was a guide, not a rule.

At the end of the day, the brand playbook looks pretty damn simple -

  1. Be first in the market and/or first in the mind.
  2. Narrow the focus of your effort - don't go too wide.
  3. Find a word or phrase you can dominate in the consumer's mind. Then dominate it.
(Many thanks to Al Ries and Jack Trout for their book - the 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing. If you haven't' read it, you should. It's short - your attention span can handle it.)

The job of branding is really #3 - find the word/phrase and dominate it. Like Lexus did. Which is - essentially - the essence of any good direct marketing copy.

Direct Marketers have enormous benefit from having a focused brand strategy. If your brand marketers adhere to rule #3 (which is essentially a direct marketing mantra), you'll both be way ahead in the game. It will allow you to craft messages that expand on simple and powerful themes. You can even play in the same sandbox. Even if you do have toilet paper on your shoe...

ADDENDUM (7/24 - 4:51 PM Pacific)

OK, I wrote this blog post without seeing this article...

Looks like the brand geniuses are at it again. Hey Cadillac - why not just make a better product?

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Visit to the Post Office

Last week I took a visit to our local SCF. It wasn't like I had a particularly large package to deliver...they were offering a tour (and offering BBQ). While the prospect of spending a couple of hours watching mail being sorted would run many people screaming towards the hills, it actually warmed the cockles of my DM-loving heart.

While we've all heard about the post office running big deficits - and the email marketers among us snarking about how "snail mail" is really just a Dead Man Walking - the visit was jarring on a couple of levels.

First off...there are no young people working at the Post Office (at least at this SCF.) To call the staff here "veteran" would be an understatement. It looks as if the Post Office' seniority-based employment model has resulted in lots of older folks behind the machines. Not that this is a bad thing but hey, these people are going to retire soon. Who's going to come in and lead the next generation of workers?

Second...there's way too many Post Offices. Maybe an obvious statement, I know...but this SCF is HUGE and not humming at full capacity. I would think that it's better to run one plant on two shifts rather than two plants on one...The Post Office has to do some serious roll-backs of physical plants in order to ever hope of making a profit.

Third...nothing but bills and commercial mail. We can blame email for this one (and maybe text messaging.) So if that's the case, why deliver mail every day? Who cares if your bill/magazine delivery date is off by a day or two? I live approximately 20 steps from my mailbox, but there's nothing that comes to make me run out every day and check the mail. I could certainly live with every other why not have one ZIP Code on MWF and the other on TThS?

Fourth...on the good news side, they're working hard to make use of technology. Handling mail - especially hand addressed mail (have you looked at your handwriting lately?) - is laborious. The Post Office has developed some pretty cool technology to cut down as much as possible on the hand work. Maybe they can use technology to handle to coming employment gap.

Lastly...I love direct mail. As a marketing tool, it's not as encompassing as it used to be, but it still can have a solid role in your marketing plan (just don't ask the emarketers for advice...) It's trackable and can reach people who don't like or respond to email (yep, they exist!). It is a lot "stickier" than online. It allows you to present your brand in a way that emarketing simply cannot approach. It would be great if one of our direct mail vendors could come up with some data on how direct mail drives online search activity...that way, the eventual blending of the worlds can finally start to happen.