The 5 Dysfunctions of an Email Program

Posted by Margaret Farmakis on

There is a great book that managers at Return Path are encouraged to read called “The 5 Dysfunctions of a Team” by Patrick Lencioni. The basic premise is that there are five contributing factors that prevent teams from working well together. They are:

  1. Absence of Trust
  2. Fear of Conflict
  3. Lack of Commitment
  4. Avoidance of Accountability
  5. Inattention to Results


Considering the nature of my job, I often find similarities between the methodologies, best practices and frameworks for business success and those for creating successful email marketing programs. These five dysfunctions could easily apply to some of the common mistakes we see marketers making when it comes to creating best-in-class programs that remain healthy and viable over the long-term.

  1. Absence of Trust: Deceptive or misleading acquisition practices damage the marketer-subscriber relationship. While they may be tempting to implement in the short-term to drive sign-ups and encourage list growth, the long-term and lasting consequences aren’t worth the effort. Subscribers need to understand where their data was sourced from and how it’s being used. Without this information, they are less likely to engage with brands and more likely to take a negative action and complain, thereby damaging a marketer’s sender reputation which leads to poor inbox placement. In addition, encouraging brand loyalty during the early stages of the relationship by having simple sign-up processes that clearly outline what subscribers will receive (and how often) is a great way to lower the hurdle for engagement, response and purchase activity.
  2. Fear of Conflict: It is important to balance adherence to tried-and-true best practices with a willingness to take chances, adopt new approaches and leave room for channel innovation. The best email marketing programs can become stale and irrelevant if new techniques and ideas aren’t implemented. This doesn’t mean always chasing the latest “shiny” technology that promises to boost email channel ROI, but it does mean understanding the potential benefits for your business and your email program goals. For example, what can be gained from integrating your social media presence with your email program? Have you considered incorporating dynamic content, creating customized templates for mobile users or Gmail subscribers, using responsive design or implementing real-time image testing? Not every approach will be the right one, but it’s important to continually refine what works and what doesn’t to stand out from the grey mail and the inbox clutter and stay ahead of your competitors.
  3. Lack of Commitment: Disengagement and subscriber tune-out are symptoms of an email program that’s no longer meeting subscriber needs. This non-responsive segment also represents a significant amount of potential revenue, provided the right approach is taken to reengage and win them back. You worked hard to acquire them, so what happened between the early days of frequent opens, clicks and purchases and the growing percentage of subscribers who are deleting your messages without reading them? Avoiding this issue comes with a price: continually mailing to inactive subscribers can negatively impact deliverability as well as engagement and response.
  4. Avoidance of Accountability: This brings to mind the famous quote: “If an email reaches an inbox and no one is around to open it, does it count?” Well, that’s not verbatim, even if you replace “email” with “tree,” but without a solid testing plan in place and a methodology for implementing changes that will boost results, getting your messages to the inbox won’t automatically lead to increased response and revenue. Sending without a strategy means marketers are, at best, guessing and, at worse, assuming that what they’re sending is of interest to their subscribers. That’s not a recipe for long-term success.
  5. Inattention to Results: This goes hand-in-hand with the previous dysfunction. It continually amazes me when we come across marketers who aren’t tracking the most basic of email program metrics. Without a benchmark for performance, it’s almost impossible to gauge success, identify problems or make improvements. It’s also important to take results tracking beyond the basics and be able to tie program performance with revenue. For example, what is the average order value for an email subscriber or their average purchase frequency? How much revenue does the email program contribute? What is the value of an email address? In addition, illustrating the impact your program is having across channels can provide great insights. This includes attributing the results of email campaigns to website traffic, call center volume, store traffic and social media followers/fans. The more data you have at your disposal, the easier it will be to make informed decisions about program strategy and tie those adjustments to ROI and measureable program improvements.



Is your email program suffering from any of these dysfunctions? How are you addressing them? Which one do you think is most damaging to program success? Send us your comments and feedback.


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