5 Signs You Don’t Have an Email Strategy

As a Professional Services organization, my team is called upon to help solve a variety of email marketing challenges. A missing email strategy is one of the most common, and perhaps the one that causes the most widespread damage, while also being particularly complicated to solve.

“Strategy” is often overused and incorrectly applied, so I will rely upon a few business experts here to clarify the definition. Richard Rumelt, author of Good Strategy, Bad Strategy, provided a very succinct one in an Inc.com interview: “Strategy and power derive from a clear-headed understanding of what the dilemma is, why it’s hard to do, and then the coordination of forces of energy to deal with that dilemma.”

Another useful definition comes from Lawrence Freedman in his book, Strategy: A History: "It is about getting more out of a situation than the starting balance of power would suggest. It is the art of creating power." But how? Patrick Lencioni created a specific model in The Advantage that lists the six critical questions healthy organizations need to be able to answer. These questions are just as relevant for marketers who need a plan for optimizing the email channel. I’ve simply rephrased them:

  1. Why does the email program exist?
  2. How does the email program behave?
  3. What does the email program do?
  4. How will the email program succeed?
  5. What is most important, right now?
  6. Who must do what?

If you can’t answer these questions about your email program, and there’s no alignment across your team or the organization as to what the answers should be, that’s a sure sign that you don’t have an email strategy. Here are four more:

  1. You can’t map the subscriber experience for your key segments. This is perhaps the most glaring indicator of a missing strategy and yet it sounds like something that should be simple. What types of email messages do each of your subscriber segments receive? What are the business rules that define what your subscribers receive and when? How is this affected by subscriber-level behavior across channels? For example, what is the exact content and cadence of messaging for a subscriber who signed-up six months ago, has made one in-store purchase, recently browsed for a specific product on your website using a smartphone and who has liked your brand on Facebook? How does this differ from other key segments (i.e., subscribers who’ve never made a purchase, made a purchase online, signed up more recently, etc.)?
  2. The email program has multiple stakeholders and none of them know what the others are doing. This commonly occurs in larger, multinational organizations or companies with multiple brands. Typically, email is treated as a free-for-all with a siloed approach for optimization. There’s no awareness of what the overall experience is for subscribers who interact with the company across multiple brands (see #1) and also a lack of education about how various practices can negatively impact the performance of the email program. For example, the sender reputation of a set of IP addresses used for sending email to a subset of subscribers can impact the reputation of the domain associated with those and other IP addresses. 
  3. You’re focused on individual campaign metrics but can’t define or track long-term engagement. I see this happening at a lot of companies; however it’s typically more prevalent in industries with seasonal buying cycles. The focus tends to be on figuring out the levers to pull to impact performance metrics across a handful of campaigns during a certain time of year. This is usually done at the expense of the broader program and is a short-sighted approach that can have a detrimental impact on long-term health. Marketers need to figure out how to “connect the dots” for email subscribers between campaigns and beyond buying cycles. Defining engagement and the metrics to measure it is incredibly important. An inability to do this often stems from not being able to explain how the email program creates true value for customers or prospects. Beyond an limited-time offer, how are you ensuring that your campaigns stand out from the digital noise and consistently deliver relevant and useful content? That’s a far more important driver of email program performance than measuring click-through rates for a handful of campaigns. 
  4. The brand experience is disjointed and inconsistent. This can often be a direct result of #1 and #2, or it can come from a poorly integrated channel experience. It can be as broad as whether or not the brand voice is clearly communicated (and heard) through the email channel. Or it can be as narrow as whether or not the terms and conditions for a coupon or offer are consistent in the promotional email message and on your Facebook page. If you want your subscribers to know, understand and appreciate your brand, it’s essential to create a consistent experience. With email, that includes everything from your from address to your creative design, the tone of your content and where you get delivered (i.e., inbox or junk).

While incredibly important, strategy is still only the first step. The second, third and one-hundredth steps are all about execution and creating an actionable road map of the tactics you’re going to implement to bring your strategy to life. To quote Sun Tzu: “Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.”