Email Marketing Is a Strategy Game

For years, email has been our solid companion, our owned audience. It’s the path of least resistance to the audience and serves the purpose of delivering content, promotions, advertising, and more. But it’s time for email marketing strategy to evolve because Google is changing the game.

Email marketing continues to be a dominant channel for audience engagement, sales monetization, and product sales. Why? Because it’s an owned audience. You own the direct relationship with that audience member … well, for the most part.

That direct relationship with the audience is increasingly under attack from Google, turning email marketing into a strategy game that is quite similar to ones publishers and brands have been playing for years with Facebook and Google itself. It’s 2020, and we all better be ready to play.

Remember when publishers were burned by Facebook back in 2014 when organic reach from the platform plummeted from 16% to a mere 6.5%? Publishers and brands had worked so hard to grab all of those friends (then fans, then likes), but then our voice was essentially snuffed out unless we forked over cash to boost content.

For years, email has been our solid companion, our owned audience. It’s definitely the path of least resistance to the audience and serves the purpose of delivering content, promotions, advertising, subscription offers, event invitations, and more. The barriers of entry are low; the tools are accessible, easy to use, and not too expensive.

But it’s time for email strategy to evolve. Publishers need to be ready to play because Google is changing the game. And although Gmail doesn’t have the same dominance in the email market that Google has for search engines, as of 2019, Gmail is leading the global email client market share with 27.8%. Apple iPhone is close behind with 27.6%, while Outlook is in third with 9.1%, according to Litmus Email Analytics.

In 2013, Gmail launched the Social and Promotions Tabs. This update was intended to offer Gmail users a better experience by segmenting emails based on their content and who they were from. Your contacts end up in your inbox while marketing and bulk emails (deals, offers, and other promotional messages) go into the Promotions tab.

“Mail classifications automatically adjust to match users’ preferences and actions,” a Google representative told nonprofit news organization The Markup. This means our inboxes are starting to operate more and more like our social feeds, influenced by our engagement and assumptive about the type of content we want to see. In free Gmail accounts, the Social and Promotions tabs also serve as ad inventory for Google.

The Markup conducted a recent experiment to determine how Gmail “filters political email from candidates, think tanks, advocacy groups, and nonprofits” into the Primary, Promotions, and Spam tabs and saw results all over the map. Candidates including Tom Steyer, Bernie Sanders, and Amy Klobuchar ended up in the Promotions tab most often, while Beto O’Rourke and Kamala Harris ended up in the Spam folder more often than any other inbox destination. Pete Buttigieg, by comparison, ended up in the Primary inbox 63% of the time but also had more than a quarter of his emails go to Spam.

Setting aside the anxiety these results induce in me about the influence of only one or two companies on our elections, they illustrate that publishers need to start paying attention to the ground rules that Google is setting with Gmail.

Last year, Gmail began to penalize publishers and marketers for continuing to send to email addresses that hadn’t engaged in more than 180 days, making it increasingly important to maintain a clean email database and regularly purge inactive email addresses.

All of these changes over the last seven years point to the fact that Google is increasingly making the inbox a competitive landscape that requires adherence to the rules set forth. Attention, engagement, testing, and reputation. Sound familiar? Don’t take email marketing for granted. It’s 2020 and publishers need to play the email game.

How to Not Waste Money on Facebook and Instagram Ads

As publishers, our relationship with Facebook is … complicated. In 2019, Facebook traffic returned for a lot of publishers, and many now consider the platform a reliable source of traffic. However, there hasn’t been much consistency in regard to Facebook’s Ads Manager platform in the last several months, amiright?

As publishers, our relationship with Facebook is … complicated.

In 2019, Facebook traffic returned for a lot of publishers, and many now consider the platform a reliable source of traffic. However, there hasn’t been much consistency in regard to Facebook’s Ads Manager platform in the last several months, amiright?

Facebook Ads Manager Continues to Evolve

First, Ads Manager was completely redesigned in July. Reviews were mixed, but overall the user-interface improved. Even still, there’s always a learning curve when getting to know a new version of an intricate platform.

In addition to visual updates, Facebook Ads Manager is a lot more complex than it was just 2 years ago. There are now 18 different placement options for ads, including Facebook, Instagram, Messenger, in-article, plus Facebook’s audience network — which allows you to target users off of Facebook-owned platforms and applications. Facebook clearly marks “automatic placements” as “recommended,” but this isn’t often the best selection for most advertisers — and it takes some savvy to understand which placements make the most sense for your campaign.

There’s also the various options for campaign optimization. Facebook has four different delivery optimization options: conversions, landing page views, link clicks, and impressions. More than that if you consider that there are several different ways you can define a conversion. That’s a lot of decisions to make and places where your campaign can go wrong.

Beyond the campaign criteria above, a typical marketer also has to account for varying audiences and budget optimization, along with creative and copy testing. All this is to say, it’s easy to waste money using Facebook’s Ads Manager when running campaigns on Facebook and Instagram.

Secondly, Facebook Ads Manager underwent some significant changes in November. You remember … the one right before Black Friday. Along with slight changes to the UI, these changes seem to have also placed an emphasized level of importance on a few small but key nuances in how you build and optimize campaigns.

Facebook’s Learning Phase

The learning phase is an often under-estimated way you can derail your campaign objections. As someone on our team once put it, the learning phase is “a dance more than it’s a science.”

Additionally, Facebook’s platform updates in November included “New Learning Phase Insights.” In this update, Facebook launched insights that display “the percentage of ads, ad sets and spend spent in the learning phase over the last two weeks.”

The learning phase of your campaign (the time period in which Facebook is getting to know what type of user is most likely to engage with your campaign, learning from those findings, and further refining your placements and targeting as a result) is roughly 7 days or 50 conversions. Depending on the campaign you’re running, 50 conversions can be a lot, which means most marketers have to wait those 7 days.

So what does the Facebook learning phase mean for marketers looking not to waste money? It means allowing campaigns around 7 days to start spending budget most effectively. And during that time period, any significant edits to the campaign can start that time period over from the beginning, so edit wisely!

Most of us know those impatient marketers. The ones that just can’t stop themselves from making changes to their campaign just a day or two after launch. Stop doing that! Making significant edits to the campaign before it has been live for around 7 days is a surefire way to waste your ad budget. Your campaign will start over from scratch and any lessons learned from your original campaign will not be relayed.

Since this update went live in November, campaigns can now move into a “Learning Limited” status after 7 days. According to Facebook, this happens when:

  • The bid control or cost control is too low.
  • The budget is too low.
  • The audience size is too small.
  • There are too many ad sets.
  • Other ad sets from the same ad account or Page are winning auctions instead.

Certainly use these insights to understand why a particular campaign or ad set cannot exit the learning phase, but also recognize that without paying close attention to the nuances of targeting and placements, as we discussed above, you may run ads for 7 days only to then find out that the platform can’t find enough people to engage with your campaign in the current targeting, placement, and budget allotted.

Also consider the learning phase when planning the timing of your campaigns. If you’re marketing tickets to an event and you want to really hit your audience hard in the 2 weeks leading up to your event date, you’ll spend half of that precious time with your campaign in learning mode — thus not spending your budget most effectively. To combat this, consider running an awareness campaign several weeks out from the event to allow Facebook to find audiences that will engage with your event content, and then retarget those who engaged but haven’t yet purchased tickets.

Objective Optimization of Facebook Campaigns

It’s important to evaluate your campaign objective. As mentioned above, there are more than a few campaign “objective” options you can select when starting your campaign, and each can cause the behavior of your campaign to vary wildly.

If you’re running a click-based campaign (in other words, your campaign “Objective” is “Link Clicks”), you may start to notice that you’re getting clicks, but your ultimate objective of traffic to your website isn’t being met. If this is happening, add “Landing Page Views” to your customized report and see what percentage of those clicking on the ad are actually landing on your website. Unfortunately, we’ve seen these numbers be as low as 35-40%. That means of 100 people clicking on your ad, only 35-40 are waiting long enough for the page to load.

So where did you go wrong? A campaign objective of “Link Clicks” is telling Facebook that all it takes to make you happy is clicks. Not refining your objective to “Landing Page Views” or “Conversions” means you can end up wasting a lot of money on “clicks” when, depending on your ultimate campaign objective, “clicks” don’t really mean that much.

So, consider and scrutinize your Facebook campaign objective closely. (Note: If you haven’t added the Facebook pixel to your website, you won’t have the option to optimize for Landing Page Views. Adding the pixel to your page lets Facebook see who actually results in a visit to your website.)

Running Ads on Facebook and Instagram Is Not for the Faint of Heart

Executing a campaign on Facebook is not that hard. But executing an effective and cost-efficient campaign is. With recent platform updates and an ever-changing algorithm, it takes work to stay abreast of best practices and knowing how to avoid the pitfalls of an ill-targeted or budgeted campaign.

Thoroughly plan your campaign strategy to avoid wasting money. Consider your objective, placements, and testing parameters closely. There are plenty of resources available to help you make the correct choices for your campaign. Or, get help if you need it. A strategic marketing team that can plan and execute your campaign strategy effectively is worth their weight in conversions.

Identifying and Engaging Your Most Valuable Audience Segments

Your audience is made up of a series of segments of audiences, all in a different place in their journey with your brand. From one-time visitors to the most loyal readers, each segment requires a different strategy for engagement and something different from your brand experience.

Your audience is made up of a series of segments of audiences, all in a different place in their journey with your brand. From one-time visitors to the most loyal readers, each segment requires a different strategy for engagement and something different from your brand experience.

To optimize your audience development strategies for 2020, you need to first identify these audience segments and then determine a plan for engaging with and growing each segment.

For the purposes of this blog post, we’ll use Google Analytics to create audience segments, as most readers will be familiar with and have access to the tool. There are, of course, more advanced tools like CDPs that will allow you to act even more strategically.

Note that when creating segments in Google Analytics you can typically look at a segment’s behavior for a maximum of 90 days. So for the purposes of analyzing these groups, we’ll be looking at them in terms of their behavior within a 90-day period.

Segmenting Your Online Audiences

This article overviews one way to segment your online audience into four categories. If this isn’t the right way for your brand, you can segment in a way that works for you. The lesson here is to develop your segments and then create a plan that prioritizes and engages each accordingly.

1. Drive-bys

Drive-bys visit your site once and likely won’t again, at least not for another few months. More than likely they stumbled onto your website through a Google search or a friend sharing a link on social media. They may or may not be in your target audience.

Find these users by creating a segment in Google Analytics and filtering by users who have exactly one session on your website. If your target audience is based on a geographic region, you can create two segments, one within that region and one without.

How to Engage Your Drive-bys

Drive-bys are the audience segment that is likely to be on the bottom of the totem pole in terms of priority, so your strategy for engaging them should be minimal. Monetize their visit with programmatic advertising, but invest little other efforts in engagement.

2. Passive Visitors

Passive visitors to your website are those who return to engage with your brand two or three times in a 90-day period. The fact that they have returned to your website after their initial visit suggests they might be within your target audience and should be engaged accordingly.

One way to identify your passive visitors is to create a segment in Google Analytics that filters users who have exactly or greater than two sessions on your website and more than 30 days since their last session. The second part of this criteria will eliminate your more frequent visitors — we’ll get to those soon.

How to Engage Your Passive Visitors

Passive visitors have much more value to your brand than the drive-by visitors. Based on their return to your website, they are more likely to be in your target audience and should be considered warm leads for your brand.

Keep passive visitors on clean, clutter-free website pages to avoid overwhelming their experience with advertising, if possible. You can do this by exporting audiences from your segments into DFP (Google’s ad platform). The ideal outcome is to secure their email address capture, so present these users with opportunities to sign-up for one of your weekly (or lower frequency) newsletters.

If you’re unable to capture an email address, happily settle for a social follow by targeting these users in DFP with ads driving to your social channels, or retarget these visitors on social media using the same process above.

3. Engaged Visitors

Highly engaged visitors are regularly engaging with your brand and are visiting your website at least once per month. Get excited because this is where your marketing strategies get fun.

When creating the segment in Google Analytics, filter by users who have exactly or greater than five sessions on your website. Based on our work with regional and niche publishers, these visitors are likely to be less than 10% of your total users, yet there’s a good chance they generate more than 40% of your website’s page views, making them an incredibly valuable audience segment.

How to Market to Your Engaged Visitors

These users are already engaged with your brand, so the next step is marketing more of your content to them and deepening their connection with it. If you do not have email addresses in your database for these users, your number-one goal should be to capture them. If you do have an email address, you should be using your email service provider to monitor their behavior with your emails and fine-tuning your content delivery based on their interests. For example, if they are recurringly visiting your food coverage, deliver them news about restaurant openings first or make sure they know about your upcoming food event.

Further engagement includes driving these readers back to your website with advertising on Facebook and Instagram. Consider experimenting with soft gates on popular pieces of content to force an email capture to read the articles. But keep their experience clean and clutter-free. This isn’t the audience you want to hit over the head with invasive or pop-up advertising. This audience is primed for a deeper relationship with your brand and your marketing actions can drive them to your site more frequently — or drive them away.

4. Loyalists

Loyalists visit your website at least 15 times over a quarter, which equates to visiting more than once per week. These folks are very likely to be on your email newsletter list or are highly engaged with your brand on social media. Based on what we see from our clients’ brands, loyalists may comprise less than 3% of your visitors but could be making up as much as 25% of your page views.

Create a final segment inside Google Analytics that filters by users who have exactly or greater than 15 sessions on your website. Remember you’ll be looking at these segments over a period of 90 days.

How to Market to Your Loyalists

Like your ‘engaged’ visitors, these individuals are already invested in the content you are sharing, and now your goal is to drive revenue from them.

If you have a metered paywall in place – or are considering putting one on your website – these users are the ones who will hit it. If you have a subscription product to sell, these users will feel the most inclined to support your brand financially.

A great way to extract more value out of these users is to get their feedback. As regular consumers of your content, they are more likely to share their time and their opinions. Whether you’re considering a new product launch or a shift in editorial coverage, this audience’s opinions will be valuable.

Two common ways to solicit feedback are through a traditional survey – typically sent via email (SurveyMonkey is easy to use for something like this) – or through a focus group. The latter especially allows you to gain a deeper understanding of the content they love, what kind of products they want from your brand, and most importantly what they would be willing to pay for.

Not All Audiences Are Created Equal

We know by now that not all audiences are created equal, so your engagement strategies shouldn’t be either. These high-level strategy suggestions are the beginning of engaging your various website audiences differently to make the most out of your time and marketing resources.