Here’s a Modest Proposal for Batch-and-Blast Email Marketers and Robocallers

The increased volume of data-driven marketing initiatives have taken digital marketing to the top spot in the media universe. There, it’s likely to be king of the mountain until the next fashionable tsunami comes along. Enter, batch-and-blast email marketers and robocallers.

Unnumbered terabytes have been squandered recently as the increased volume of data-driven marketing initiatives have taken digital marketing to the top spot in the media universe. There, it’s likely to be king of the mountain until the next fashionable tsunami comes along. Enter, batch-and-blast email marketers and robocallers.

Consumers who formerly complained about getting too much mail are increasingly (and rightly) up in arms about the intrusiveness of unsolicited emails, ads jumping onto their Internet pages — visually blocking desired content, just when they want to see it — location-driven cell phone promotions advising them of the goodies inside the retail shop they are passing (remember them) or receiving endless robocalls.

Anything is possible! In today’s world of almost endless permutations and combinations of digital sales messages, what faster than a speeding bullet Superthing can stop them before they plunge irretrievably into some black hole, never to be seen again?

Would you believe that the answer is neither a superman nor woman? No: It’s not even a humanoid. It is quite simply that elusive substance that is said to make the world go ’round: money.

The useful website AlterNet recently carried what could be the game-changing story for our industry. Why stop with the industry? It could be a game-changer for our society and sanity. Consumers may not complain as much about emails and push ads as they do about robocalls, but you can bet they get nearly as angry about their privacy being invaded. Wrote Matthew Chapman:

Americans are being bombarded with robocalls. It’s an epidemic, and it’s getting worse. By a recent estimate, 71 million of these scam calls are being placed per hour, [my highlighting] often completely illegally.

Robocalls make up the top source of complaints to both the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and Federal Communications Commission (FCC); both of which, in theory, have power to police robocalls. The problem is that it’s almost impossible to get rid of them.

Almost; but not impossible. As Shakespeare wrote:

“If money go before, all ways do lie open.” —Ford, “The Merry Wives of Windsor,” Act 2, Scene 2

Chapman reported that Roger Meiners, a professor of law and economics at the University of Texas at Arlington, has a brilliant proposal for how to defeat robocallers, once and for all. It has exquisite simplicity and can, by extension, apply to almost all of our batch-and-blast outrages. Professor Mainers’ proposal, which deserves nothing less than a Nobel economics nomination:

Levy a 1-cent tax on every outgoing phone call.

If codified into the law of the land, it would be collected automatically and digitally. Individuals and small businesses would hardly notice it. We’d all pay the tax but even for a heavy individual user who made 50 calls per day; his tab would be only $15.00 per month.

In the Wall Street Journal, Meiners explained how it would work:

Most taxes aren’t popular, but this one will be. Call it the Penny for Sanity Tax: a 1-cent tax on every call made. Fifty billion robocalls would cost $500 million — a powerful incentive to stop.

Because the tax would apply to all calls, it would avoid litigation about what can be legally disfavored. It would be impossible to evade by sneaking around classifications of calls. And it would not necessitate hiring more bureaucrats to enforce a complicated rule.

What a huge effect it would have if put into practice. The amount could be easily raised if it didn’t act as a sufficient inhibitor of batch-and-blast. The whole idea might also inform an app where the consumer could choose to get paid to look at ads. As the Bar proclaimed “ … all ways do lie open,” if there is coin to pay the piper. And imagine how even a little of this money might be used for the environment, the public good or worthy charities.

Now let’s stretch and imagine the application of the Meiners’ formula to email. The Radicati Group estimates the worldwide number of consumer and business emails sent per day in 2018 at more than 281 billion. If these were taxed at 1 cent each, (same as the calls, but harder to collect), the cost would be $2.8 billion per day. You get the idea.

Where technologies have run well ahead of the business models they support, not a lot of thought has been given to the actual costs of emails and robocalls. “Let’s mail another million. It isn’t costing anything. And then we can go to lunch” has an all-too-familiar ring to it, even if it happens to be more apocryphal than true. There is, as the saying goes, no such thing as a free email or robocall or lunch.

Because very few marketers have done the math to determine the real comparative bottom-line effect of over-promoting or looked at the medium- and long-term commercial and societal damage it causes, they might as well go off and enjoy lunch. Their C-Suite days are numbered.

Soon, they are likely to be replaced by a tribe of literate data nerds, a species currently in short supply. Their recruitment is driving up costs like international soccer stars. They are just what giant consulting firms, such as Accenture, need to support their acquisition of “creative” shops with funny names and casual dress and time-keeping habits certain to annoy the hell out of the senior partners, who are mostly former three-piece, dark-suited accountants who daily commute from the suburbs and arrive at the office with Swiss punctuality.

Imagine the culture clash. And imagine how in this radically changed game, our vision of response rates and costs — in fact, almost everything in our marketing sphere — would change for the better.

Best of all, when the telephone rings, we wouldn’t have to worry we were about to be propositioned or otherwise engaged in a time-wasting conversation with a robot.

Why the Email Batch and Blast Practice Is an Addiction and How to End It

It’s the junk food of marketing. We all know that the email batch and blast practice really isn’t good for anyone, but many marketers just can’t seem to wean themselves off of the practice.

In email marketing, “Batch & Blast” is a common practice. But dare I say, it’s the junk food of marketing. We all know that the email batch and blast practice really isn’t good for anyone, but many marketers just can’t seem to wean themselves off of the practice.

The addiction level in some cases is as bad as that of an opioid, not some casual black bubbly water loaded with sugar. I’ve seen marketers who are so addicted to it, they blast emails to “everyone” on the list multiple times a day. With the same creative and offer,.seven days a week. If that’s not junk mail — yeah, I said that ultimate dirty word in 1:1 marketing — I don’t know what is.

It’s a vicious cycle. With that many emails literally bombarding the targets, the list gets saturated. Open, clickthrough and conversion rates start to go down. To make up for lost sales, marketers send even more emails to cover the difference. And the downward spiral continues.

I’ve actually received requests from such clients to figure out how many “more” emails they can send out in situations like that. My answer? If everyone is getting 14 or more emails every week, there is no need for further study. Everyone in the database is over-promoted, so give them a break in the name of humanity, if not for best practice in marketing.

Nevertheless, many still see every email drop only as a sales opportunity, and they believe that more is always better. From the receiving end, however, it’s a nuisance — or even torture. Had it not been for the “unsubscribe” button hidden at the bottom of the email with the font size of a few pixels, many would have just opted out from the brand. Most email recipients would just “highlight all, then delete.”

Many marketers believe that batch and blast works, because some revenue comes in with every email campaign drop. However, in my opinion, that is like believing that prolonged trawling in the fishing industry is beneficial in the long run. Yeah, you’ll catch lots of fish that way. Initially, for a while. But if you and your fellow fishermen keep doing that, there won’t be many fish left in your area in the near future. Then what? Just eat more meat?

Sadly, many folks who are in charge of email marketing don’t even care about the long-term effects of indiscriminate and incessant email bombardment. They may not even be in that position in a particular company for long, anyway. Even if they do care, many email marketers are compensated based on the number of successful email drops and attributed revenue numbers. When the bonus plan is tied to such things, who cares about the long-term effect of batch and blast? Well, CEOs and CMOs must care.

Not that I will convince every email marketer here, but let’s pose the question, nonetheless. Why is the batch and blast practice bad for the brand in the long run? Let’s go down the list one by one.

Batch-and-blast emails:

  • Train the audience to ignore your brand: Sending non-personalized emails to everyone very frequently always ends up training valuable audiences to ignore the brand message. Yes, I do get multiple emails a day from certain reputable retailers, like Amazon. But I’m not always annoyed, because the email offers from Amazon are “somewhat” personalized for me, based on my past purchases and individual profile (or the profile of a segment to which I happen to belong). Sending irrelevant messages is bad enough. Do that every day, multiple times a day? You are literally asking them to ignore you. Tell me how that is good for anyone in your organization?
  • Opportunity cost, if not real cost: Proper targeting had been at the center of 1:1 marketing strategy in the days of direct mail. Because it costs so much money to procure lists, process data, print marketing materials, put postage on them and mail them out, every marketer needed to target better. In fact, modeling techniques for target marketing were paid for by the savings from reduced mail volumes. With properly built targeting models, we could achieve revenue targets without mailing to everyone. Math worked because, in general, it would cost more than $1 to send out a piece. No one would send an expensive catalog to “everyone” in the database if the mailer could get the same revenue by sending copies to 10 to 20 percent of the target universe. On the contrary, in the world of email, such costs are irrelevant. Marketers would still have to pay for an ESP, anyway; so why bother with targeting? In fact, why mail less, at all? But, we must think about the opportunity cost. Danger of un-subscription is real, if you consider the acquisition cost (which is always high). Dwindling open and click rates are very much real, too, bringing in less and less revenue per campaign as time goes by. And the cost of training customers to ignore brand messages? It’s hard to calculate a short-term monetary loss on that, but it’s a real loss in the long-run, nonetheless. You’d always need a fresh set of new customers, only to abuse them until the point of non-response.
  • No personalization: Batch and blast, by definition, is sending the same message to everyone, all of the time. In the days when we can’t avoid the word “personalization” in any marketing conference, that’s a real shame. There are plenty of studies and stats emphasizing that relevant messages lead to higher conversion rates. Claims vary — some are bolder than others, like eight times the conversion rate — but one thing is for sure. People respond better when the message is about them. I find it very difficult to convince batch and blast addicts to subscribe to the benefits of personalization. It is almost as difficult as converting a conservative person to a liberal, or vice versa. Now, why is that? Don’t they get tired of the same of messages from a brand as consumers themselves? I often hear about the difficulties of not having enough creatives. But that alone can be an excuse for not even trying. If it’s difficult to go for a more elaborate kind of personalization, then start with just two creatives first and add more layers slowly (refer to “Road to Personalization”).
  • Attribution: When you blast emails every day, multiple times a day, how would you ever know what really worked? What is the point of mixing up offers and creatives occasionally, if finding out how each drop performed is so difficult, or even impossible? Yes, one may rely on direct attribution (i.e., only counting direct clicks on email links leading to conversions), but we all know that is not the full picture. Consumers come back to the site not necessarily using the email links, and further, email isn’t the only promotion channel leading to the site. So, when “look-back” attribution is employed, how would you know what really worked when there are so many drops every day? Well, the answer often is that folks who just blast away emails don’t really care much about what elements of campaigns worked, for as long as they get decent — or usual — open, click and conversion rates (even if they are tainted figures). What a shame, in the age of 1:1 marketing via every conceivable channel.

How to End the Batch and Blast Addiction

Then, how do marketers wean off of the addiction?

Like any other type of addiction, it starts with the recognition. They have to realize that in the long run, the batch and blast practice is not good for the organization. I’ve been saying it for years, but let me say it again: 1:1 marketing (such as email campaigns) is about identifying “whom to contact,” and if you so decided to contact someone, knowing “what to offer, and when.” That’s it.

Even if you have a small customer base and you have no choice but to send emails to every available email address, can we at least agree that you must control the campaign frequency (i.e., “how often”), and try to send more relevant messages for each target or segment?

How do we control the frequency factor? To do that, marketers must be aware which target is over-promoted, under-promoted and adequately promoted. And such a calculation is not possible if you do not know both number of emails and number of responses on an individual level. One may say sending 20 emails to a person in a month is too much. Maybe. But what if the person purchased items more than two times in that period? Surely, that “20” looks quite different, doesn’t it?

If you keep track of response rates on a personal level, we can easily group them into Over-, Under- and Adequately-promoted groups based on response rates. Such rates often fit into a normal distribution curve, and dividing them into three groups would be simple (when in doubt, just use one standard deviation from each end, which will give about 16 percent from the top and the bottom). If anyone falls into the danger zone called “Over-promoted,” then put the red flag up for such a target, and suppress them before the campaign deployment until the flag is lifted.

Now, let me remind you that if you have been doing batch and blast for a prolonged period, do not bother with this type of data consolidation and calculation, as “everyone” in your base must be labeled as over-promoted. If fact, you may have to go the opposite way and decrease the frequency of emails for loyal customers first, to give them a break. “Loyal” doesn’t mean that you can abuse them or take them for granted. If you so must contact them frequently, at least treat loyal customers with special offers or invitations.

Of course, curbing the email frequency must come from the top. Without any elaborate calculation, CMOs may just mandate “maximum emails per person per week.” I’d say four to five times a week is a good start, but that depends on the product types and business model. The key is to give the target audience some breaks on a regular basis. If the benefits of such a practice is hard to prove to your fellow blasters, then create “hold-out” segments, and do not touch them for a set period of time. You may be able to see the before and after pictures after some hold out period (if the rules are honored by everyone in the marketing team).

As for personalization, I’ve written numerous articles about that for this fine publication. To summarize more than 10 articles in a few sentences (refer to “Key Elements of Complete Personalization,” for one), I’d say start with basic “heuristic” segmentation and try to offer different discount and products to each segment. Then move onto more elaborate segmentation or clustering techniques for better results, and ultimately develop individual level personas using modeling techniques for best combination of target and offers (refer to “Segments vs. Personas“). That may sound daunting to many organizations, so that is why I emphasize using even heuristic segments (such as high-value customers, multi-buyers, recent buyers, tenured customers, inactive customers, etc.) is far better than keeping sending the same message to everyone, every day.

The batch and blast practice is an addiction that will lead to list saturation and an unresponsive audience. Unless you have cheap and unlimited acquisition sources hidden somewhere, please cherish your customer base and do not bombard them as if they will be there forever for you to meet your email goals. Now, to wean off addiction, an organization may have to go through a 10-step process for alcoholics. Starting with the “recognition.”