AdAge Best Places to Work 2017
(571) 312-7688

Silverback Roundtable: The Best Email Programs Start Strategically

There's often an inclination to dive headfirst into a new project without thinking it all the way through. The initial validation — hey, I'm getting something done! — is soon trumped by frustration with the realization that key pieces are missing, the timeline is a mess, people you expected to help are unavailable...you're basically stuck. The project flounders, either struggling forward ineffectually, or just dies. 

Almost every marketer can point to an email program from their past that fits this description. Someone up the chain of command decided "Hey, we should be doing email," and suddenly you were faced with the expectation of launching a revenue-producing program without the list, creative, resources or guidance you needed to make this happen. Everyone who's been down that road should be given a tarnished, dented trophy in appreciation of their struggle.

Building Better Email Programs

We sat down with Emily Bliss, Silverback's director of content, and Kerianne Condon, our creative director, to talk about the process of establishing an email program. The takeaway: email marketing requires a lot of people to be on the same page before SEND is ever clicked on the first campaign. It sounds basic, but having the right people and the right plan in place is crucial — and yet those missing pieces can be a common theme.

Here's our conversation, edited lightly for clarity and length.

When you think about a successful email program, who needs to be at the table, or who needs to be supporting the people at the table?

Kerianne: I think content, design and development are a big part on the creative side, obviously. From the client side, ideally there's somebody who is realistic about the goals, no matter what their position is.

Emily: And that person, in addition to being realistic about the goals, can kind of act as a hub, to gather insight from across the client's teams. So any people we can match from our team to the team on the client side is always kind of cool. Even to the point of overkill — getting everyone into the same room at the project kickoff, and trimming from there.

Does it make sense for the "email person" to be more a project manager, rather than a jack-of-all-trades?

Kerianne: I think so, yeah. And Emily actually has a really good perspective on kicking off projects and engagements. I feel like Emily always brings in a huge group, and then kind of whittles it down as the process moves forward.

Emily: Because I want to know what someone could add to the project. Worst-case scenario, you don't need them moving forward, you've used 30 minutes of their time and that's it. But you get everyone to lay it out on the line at first.

Kerianne: And if you don't do that, maybe a month later, the IT guy who was never involved happens to mention that "Oh, shoot, we can't implement this one feature you needed."  But if he was in that initial meeting...

Emily: Exactly.

So this seems like such a simple question, but how do you build a list? Where do you start? 

Emily: What do you want your email program to do? Are you offering tips and tricks? Sharing informational videos? Deals? Engagement that leads to sales qualification? That's the first question to answer. Then start an acquisition strategy that matches that. 

Put it on the website, put it in social, tell people to subscribe. Be very clear with people about what they can expect and make sure that there's a variety of places that they can sign up for it.

Kerianne: If we know from the beginning of a web design project that email acquisition is important to the client, our first step is incorporating acquisition tools into all wire frames and all designs. We are strategically placing those tools where the email content would be relevant to the website content.

How do you build clean email lists? 

Emily: You start with very clear answers about the goals of the program — what it's designed to do and how you're going to measure success. Then, you need to work backwards. 

How are you going to measure your KPIs? What are the actions that users need to take to achieve your goals? How are you setting up customer profiles so you have insight into who took those actions? What are the pieces of a profile that are important to you? 

Maybe it's company size, maybe it's job title, maybe the region. You need to think about the ways that your email program will change or evolve based on those things. 

You actually go micro to macro  to understand what your acquisition strategy looks like — what the form fields are, how people are going to move through your email program. And then you make sure you're set up to do those things. 

How do you make sure an existing list is clean?

Emily: Age and engagement are the a big considerations. Looking at your list collection process, you need to ask yourself, how many years back do I need to go? And do you have a record that this person's been in touch with you, or has been an active recipient, customer or prospect?

It's really better to focus on list quality versus quantity. Not only the success of the program, but to preserve sendability and save your domain, too.

Let's say you're given a marketing list by a client or a business unit that has poor engagement metrics, poor performance history. Are there ways to "save" or "resurrect" an email list?

Emily: I start with deliverability. If it's not delivering to specific addresses, get 'em out.

As far as opens and engagements, you have to start somewhere. So we would start with an arbitrary number and probably pull anyone who hasn't opened a message in, say, the last 18 months. We've been sending and you haven't been opening, that's another sign of attrition. Content engagement is just as important a measure of list attrition as unsubscribes.

Would you remove them forever? Would you run a re-engagement campaign for those folks?

Emily: You can always back-burner them. But if you're starting your program, I probably wouldn't start that back-burner for another three months. 

Focus on your good people and get your program off the ground. Learn some things and then maybe bring those disengaged users back in down the road. Those re-engagements are important, but they've got to raise their hand in a big way to get opted back in. It's more than just, ooo, they opened it this one time!

But it feels good to have a big list.

Emily: Absolutely, but what's that really mean if it's a bad list?

A quick note about fields — we can back-fill all sorts of fields. When we're building a clean list, we want to collect the right information to start the engagement and create meaningful segmentation. We can continue to engage with users over time and collect more information that further informs the segmentation. We don't need every answer on the first form fill. 

Depending on how incomplete the data is in your current program, or dirty your list is, that's going to inhibit the amount of personalization you can have in your email program. If you're serious about segmentation and personalizing your content to appropriate audiences, you need to create a strategy that not only cleans out the "bad" but also increases the depth of data you have you have on the "good." 

How does segmentation influence the way you look at email creative? 

Kerianne: Well, consistency is important. But I think the design team would ideally get as much information about list segmentation as possible so we can create imagery, call-outs, whatever visual elements are needed on that specific piece of the campaign. 

Emily: Like sending someone a free trial at the end of a nurture campaign — the CTA's going to be the only thing they see on that message.

How does list segmentation change the way you're messaging?

Emily: It's kind of like corralling cats, you know?

Kerianne: What is the goal of this email campaign? That obviously affects the design very heavily. We've ran campaigns in which the goal is just purely informational. The design is geared to make that info as easily digestible as possible. But if it is something like free trial, or "get a quote" or something like that, it's about keeping the reader as focused as possible.

How do you balance email signups with other actions, like form fills that more directly lead to sales — like the "Get a Quote" form Kerianne mentioned?

Emily: We've had some forms where we just include a checkbox with a note that by filling out this form, you are going to get some marketing stuff. But you're not trying to trick people, right? If you're filling out a form thinking you're getting sales information, ideally you're not going to start randomly getting the newsletter.

Kerianne: I would probably measure the success of that, too. How many people are filling out the form and un-checking the box over time? Or how many people are unsubscribing after one email? We'd probably measure that over quite a long time, honestly, and then go after a different way if that was definitively not working.

How do you put together a plan to determine what someone's going to get once they sign up for an email program?

Emily: You work backwards from what you want them to do and you probably have to play with the frequency and the content and messaging that's in there. That is not a science. That's a test — get some data and adjust, and then get some more data and adjust again. 

We'll work with design on the things we want to put in each message. "This is what I ultimately want them to do." Kerianne's team will weigh in and say, "Yeah, it's too cluttered. They can't see what you want them to do." And then we adjust.

Kerianne: The goals of the email and the content of the email really drive format and design.

How important is it to take into consideration the time it takes to actually create quality campaign assets? 

Kerianne: Very important. As you plan a full campaign, there's probably an extensive period where you're really getting to know the client's brand and how this project fits into their existing marketing messaging. How will the parts of this campaign they play together with the greater marketing program, as a whole? That upfront phase is a big part of it.

And then you know, the actual production involves a lot of people. Scheduling, and being realistic about your timeframe, is really important to building a successful campaign that includes assets people will actually engage with.

On the flip side of that, if you do want to move fast to meet a certain moment, how can you be flexible?

Emily: I think the key to quick turnaround on assets and materials is simplicity. We just keep everything beautiful and clean, but simple and easily reproducible.

How does mobile affect the way you approach email design?

Kerianne: I think that has completely changed the way everyone does email. Five years ago, email templates used to be crazy. There were columns, there was overlap, and it was wild. Now, it seems like most emails that you look at in your inbox are a single image, a little bit of text and a button. Very structured, very easily responsive. You see it, you read it, you're done. 

How do you make creative testing part of your process rather than something you "should" be doing?

Emily: I think it should definitely be a part of your initial strategy, but you shouldn't start doing it until you've got enough sends under your belt to start identifying patterns. Give it some breathing room, for God's sake. 

I think sometimes strategies fail out of the gate is because you immediately second-guess everything you've done. You've got to gather some data to better understand what you want to test. 

Do you need to have x number of subscribers before you can have a statistically relevant test?

Emily: I think you need it statistically relevant size, but it is all relative. What really stresses people out is they want to rush the testing, because they feel like "I haven't made any strategic changes yet," as though making changes for change's sake show value. Well, if you only send it once a month you're going to need to wait a little while. If, over time, you're making conscious changes, based on real data, you're making great progress. At least in my opinion.

How do you know when it's time to change something? 

Emily: When we get tired or when the data shows. No one's reading the last two stories in our newsletter — maybe let's trim the newsletter, or consider a different layout. That could impact design.

Kerianne: Or when brands are updating. Sometimes clients are sick of it, too.

Emily: Which is fine.

Success — what's it look like? How do you judge success in working with a client? 

Kerianne: From a design perspective, I think it's client happiness with the design and the results. 

Emily: It depends on the original goals set, and if we're hitting them. If we're making progress toward our goals with each send. 

I would consider a program successful if we're always learning something new, too. We're getting smarter about the role that email plays in the larger marketing initiatives. I consider that a win.

Learn more about working with Silverback Strategies. Contact us today.