The Top 5 E-Mail Marketing Questions Answered by WhatCounts’ Christopher Penn

June 18, 2012

11:47 am

“How do I improve my open rates?”  

It’s the question that every marketer has asked at some point.  You’ve spent hours crafting the perfect e-mail, testing every link, playing with different subject lines and delivery times.  Yet no matter what you do, a significant portion will never even open the e-mail that you’ve put so much work into.

And although everyone likes to talk about social, let’s face it, not everyone is on social.  Everyone e-mails.  Although it’s not sexy, e-mail is necessary.

So how can your small business dominate e-mail marketing?

Enter Christopher Penn, director of inbound marketing at WhatCounts, the co-host of the Marketing Over Coffee podcast, and co-founder of the PodCamp series.

We asked Christopher the following questions:

  • What’s the biggest mistake made in e-mail marketing?
  • For boot-strapping tech startups who have limited manpower, where do you rank e-mail marketing compared to social media and blogging in terms of importance?
  • What’s the number one piece of advice for optimizing open rates?
  • How import a role does design play in a newsletter?  Do you have any general tips for improving one’s e-mail layout?
  • What’s the most important question marketings aren’t asking in regards to e-mail marketing?

The video below is Christopher’s responses.  Let us know in the comments below what other questions you and your startup are facing.

Full transcript below:

Tech Cocktail:  What’s the biggest mistake made in e-mail marketing?

Christopher Penn:  I’d say the biggest mistake in e-mail marketing is not testing.  I’m constantly amazed by the number of people who assume they’ve got a best practice in place and they don’t test.  In this day and age, it’s all about testing.  Making sure you’re doing all of the things that are experimental, that you’re finding new and different ways to provide value to your community, new information to your audience, and serving them well.  There’s all kind of new innovations.  There are ad server innovations, there are ways to pull RSS feeds and blog posts in, there’s multivariate testing in e-mail.  There are many ways that people should be testing and they’re not.

Tech Cocktail:  For boot-strapping tech startups who have limited manpower, where do you rank e-mail marketing compared to social media and blogging in terms of importance?

Penn:  When it comes to the importance of e-mail, social and content creation, it’s not a linear scale of importance.  It’s more like the legs of a tripod.  You have content, the meat and potatoes – the value you can provide.  The distribution, which is e-mail and to some degree social.  And there’s conversation, which  is really social’s main domain of expertise.  These three things work in a virtual circle.  You have good content, you distribute to people, and then you have conversations which creates more awareness which gets more people back to the content, which gives you greater distribution, which creates more conversation.

These things happen in what I like to call a virtual circle.  If you do it right, it builds on itself and makes you a more powerful marketer.  With few exceptions, these can be relatively low cost to do. They’re a lot of work, a lot of effort – you have to build a lot of expertise.  They’re not going to be bank breakers like PPC is going to be or direct mail.

Tech Cocktail:  What’s the number one piece of advice for optimizing open rates?

Penn:  The number one piece of advice for optimizing open rates is this: provide really good content.  People will look for your e-mail – they will spread word-of-mouth about it.

I like hold up the gold standard of this, Peter Shankman’s Help a Reporter, his list – which has 200,000 people or something like that – he sends out three times a day.  In the world of e-mail marketing is totally nuts, but he has a ridiculously high open rate.  Every single version of his newsletter there’s an opportunity for you or a colleague or someone in a related industry to get some free press.  There’s tremendous value in that.  Every single issue of HARO – people spring to open it, trying to beat their competitors to replying to the journalists for the opportunity to get some free earned media.

So, provide really good value and people will want to open your e-mails.  If you provide value thats only so-so, then all the little tricks like pre-headers and subject lines won’t matter as much.

Tech Cocktail:  How import a role does design play in a newsletter?  Do you have any general tips for improving one’s e-mail layout?

Penn:  The role of design in a newsletter is reasonably important  It’s not as good as the quality of the content, but it’s still important to direct people to where you want them to go, what you want them to do.  That’s pretty typical of any kind of design.  If it’s not channeling people to do what you want them to do, it’s not going to preform as well for you.

That said, you don’t need to be creating master pieces of art.  You can if you want to and in some cases you have to if you’re a design firm, but it’s not mandatory.

In terms of improving your layout, design with a multitude of devices in mind.  Some people are going to read on their desktop, some people are going to read on their mobile device – their iPad.   All of these things have different form factors.  It goes back to the first question you asked – the biggest mistake made in e-mail marketing – testing.  Test your stuff out on different devices, and see what’s going to render best.  Something that is going to look great on a HDTV sized retina display MacBook is going to look real different on a tiny iPhone or Blackberry.

A good proxy for this is to go to look at your Google Analytics data.  Go under the “visitors” tab, and look at the operating system and display sizes that people are using.   If you’ve got a significant minority of people on a phone sized display, you need to be adjusting your e-mails to fit what your web analytics are telling you that your folks are visiting your website already.

Tech Cocktail:  What’s the most important question marketings aren’t asking in regards to e-mail marketing?

Penn:  I’m going to be a bit biased on this one because of the company I work for – WhatCounts.  Our tagline is “find and grow your email marketing ROI”.  People are asking that question, but I think they’re asking it in the wrong context.  “What’s the ROI of e-mail?” – no the question should be “what’s the ROI of your email?”

I get this a lot – people love industry averages.  They say, “What’s the industry average open? Click-through? ROI?”  It’s hard to say this but, that’s the wrong question and here’s why.  Even in niches there’s such dramatic differences between business that industry averages are pretty much worthless.  Think about it – if you have Golden Slacks Hedge Fund and Small Little Credit Union – they’re both financial services but with supremely different audiences.  Golden Slacks is catering to the Fortune 50 crowd and the credit union is trying to get grandma to take the quarters out of the jar on the kitchen counter.  These are really, really different audiences, still financial services though.  Their open rates are going to be different, their response rates are going to be different, the services they offer and the value of these services are going to be different.  You’re going to see different performances.

The best advice I can give is to not worry about an industry standard.  Worry about making sure your metrics are improving with each email.  Every time you send an email your open rate, conversion rate, click-through, conversion should be a little bit higher.  Tony Robbins calls it continuing and never ending improvement.  The Japanese call it Kaizen.  If you focus on this Kaizen, you will get a better newsletter.  You won’t really care what the industry average is.  You’ll know that your performance and the results you drive are going to be much better over time.

So that’s the one thing that marketers aren’t asking and should be, is “how can we get better over time?”

– Where you can find more – 

Check out WhatCounts or call 866-804-0076.  Take a look at Christopher’s blog or find him on Twitter

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When Zach Davis isn't getting lost in the mountains, he is hustling from Boulder, CO as Tech Cocktail's Director of Marketing. He is the author of Appalachian Trials, a book chronicling the mindset necessary for thru-hiking all 2,181 miles of the Appalachian Trail, a feat he accomplished in 2011. Zach is a green tea enthusiast, die-hard Chicago sports fan, and avid concert-goer. Follow Zach on Twitter: @zrdavis.

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