The Direct Marketing Association (DMA)’s &Then conference is in full swing this week in Boston. The conference brings together major vendors and practitioners of data-driven and direct marketing technology and solutions: from agencies to the big marketing clouds run by the likes of IBM and Adobe to the U.S. Postal Service. Fortunately, email hasn’t been overlooked! Our industry has been well represented through a focused “Ask the Expert” email clinic staffed by Dennis Dayman (Return Path), Ryan Phelan (Adestra), Dave Littlechild (Dot Mailer) and SparkPost.

As part of the focus on digital experiences driven through email, Dennis and Ryan ran an open Q&A session focused on “10 tips to grow an engaged email list.” The session wasn’t built with slides, prepared remarks, or premeditated morsels of wisdom. Rather, Dennis and Ryan focused on the attendees—the room was packed with email marketers perched on every last chair, table, and carpet to hear what they could to improve their email efforts! The attendance and exuberance validated what we already know: email is one of the most vibrant channels for one-to-one marketing, and its purported death is a figment of someone else’s imagination. Similarly, the questions and attendees also confirmed something we’ve observed in the past: there’s a knowledge gap between those that know and understand the medium’s real potential, and those that are still operating in a pre-personalized, pre-context driven fashion.

This is what we learned:

  • The inventors of email never envisioned the kind of scale achieved by the channel today. The basic technology has been augmented by layers of security and anti-abuse measure to help keep the channel viable and scalable. It’s a remarkable achievement, but one that has introduced new challenges and complexity.
  • Testing (and pruning) for reengagement is the road to a leaner but much more engaged list of subscribers. One company, Rose Brand, looked at their list and ran a re-engagement campaign that focused on users with limited engagement from 12–18 months. Marketing coordinator Anna Klimczuk said that once they removed non-responders, the resulting list performed markedly better and yielded a higher ROI per user.And when you consider the advice from Gmail’s postmaster, Sri Somanchi, this is not only a good business choice, it’s a prescribed one that fits ISPs’ aggressive filtering for user disengagement and ramping down volume to unengaged users.
  • A great comment from someone in the audience compared the approach some brands take towards email lists—namely, the idea that quantity trumps quality—as a hold over from the ad age when poor measurability meant success could only be counted in “” In the digital world, impressions, or the number of emails you send, is the wrong metric to focus on. Because email today has to pass through the eye of a virtual hurricane to be accepted by an ISP, we’ve developed best practices for achieving maximum deliverability. These rules actually encourage quality over quantity, making it less of a numbers game and more of an exercise in intelligence predicated on a thorough understanding of your customer’s behaviors and preferences.
  • Most attendees signaled that they operate in multiple geographies, with customers commonly in the U.S., Canada, and Europe. In light of that, we asked how many spoke to their privacy officer on a regular basis. A scant few raised their hand, indicating that email marketers didn’t have a working relationship with the person responsible to ensure that their efforts are compliant with the rules and regulations controlling digital communications and opt-in around the world. That’s a clearly an area in which we collectively should improve our operational practices.
  • The depth of data was a hot topic during the session. It wasn’t so long ago that an email address captured at retail point of sale wasn’t enough to achieve deep personalization and contextual relevance. Today, that’s quickly changing, thanks to increasing accessing to systems like big data. Email is the common denominator that helps establish a customer profile that can span multiple communication channels. But, richer data including real name, region, preferences and other demographic information are crucial to refining the communication strategy.
  • We all—laypersons and marketers alike—feel very personal about our email, so much so that Ryan referred to it as the ultimate marker of personally-identifying information. When you think about it, and I’ve used this metaphor in the past, your digital inbox is orders of magnitude more personal than your postal inbox. As a matter of fact, the inbox is so personal, and a hallmark of our digital working lives, that we’ve legislated what can and how it should be sent with laws like CAN-SPAM in the U.S., CASL in Canada, and others around the world. However, CAN-SPAM, now 12 years old, has been updated only once in 2008, and quickly is losing step with the reality of how data is being used today. According to Dennis, Congress isn’t planning on doing anything else with the legislation, but it does bring up the idea that perhaps what’s needed aren’t new laws, but better enforcement of the current laws.
  • Following on the heels of this, Dennis and Ryan offered advice on preference centers: there’s no right number of questions or data points to be captured. Rather, every brand and company operating a preference center should test the optimal number of questions to ask. For some it may be as few as 3—that’s simply the attention span of their audience. Other companies may be able to get away with 5 or 7. The point is you can’t take anyone’s word for it, you have to test it and determine the right fit for your program, product and brand.

Already, the DMA’s &Then conference has been illuminating about where our industry is headed, and it’s been a great chance to reconnect with some of the brightest in our business. And be sure to look me up if you’re here!

This post was previously posted on the ECC website


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