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.

Fix Your Follow-Up Email Sequence or Be Ignored

It’s templated. It’s boring. It’s just like everyone else’s. It’s pushing for a meeting. It’s your follow-up email sequence. And it’s not earning much response. But why is it so difficult to converse with prospects who have already shown interest to engage?

It’s templated. It’s boring. It’s just like everyone else’s. It’s pushing for a meeting. It’s your follow-up email sequence. And it’s not earning much response.

Inside/digital sales development reps (SDRs and BDRs) are taking marketing qualified leads (MQLs) and converting them to conversations; then, passing prospects to sales reps for close.

But why is it so difficult to converse with prospects who have already shown interest to engage?

Because many SDRs are given one goal: Get the prospect on the phone. Qualify them. Fair enough. Problems arise when reps are not given an effective, repeatable way to earn time with prospects.

‘Faking’ as a Strategy

If your follow-up email sequence isn’t helping to book enough appointments with MQLs there’s a reason. Most likely:

  1. Reps are mindless drones, cranking out templated meeting requests.
  2. Customers see your meeting requests as unqualified (too big an ask, too early).
  3. Messages are self-centered, redundant and templated marketing speak.

Yes, persistence is 70% to 80% of the battle. But we live in an age where everything is templated and fake sincerity is easy to spot. As is faked, mail-merged personalization.

Templates don’t stand out. They scream “fake” and “insincere!”

Your Follow-Up Email Subject Line

The following is an actual sample from my inbox with names removed. This entire sequence screams “I’m insincere” and “I’m too lazy to hit your LinkedIn profile for a minute or two … to discover a way to make my approach relevant.

Along with a harsh critique (of what you may already be doing), I’ll offer a more effective alternative for reps to apply.

If your follow-up subject line looks like the majority of follow-up subjects from sales people you are done! And most do.

Subject line: [CRM vendor name] and Communications Edge [my company’s name]

Many inside sales teams are still using this dated subject line template. It’s like yelling, “sales rep looking to pitch you!” to a client.

Instant delete key.

I’m not sure who recommends this subject line format, but don’t use it. Let’s get to the meat …

You Have 8 Seconds (or Less)

If your follow-up email looks like most flowing in to targets’ inboxes — you’re sunk.

“Hello Jeff… my name is Jake, reaching out directly from [vendor name]”

What exactly does Jake mean by directly? As opposed to communicating with me indirectly?

Why is Jake telling me who he is and what he’s doing? I saw who he was before opening the message. He is obviously reaching out. That’s how his email arrived. He sent it. Duh!

As sellers we have plus/minus eight seconds to earn attention and curiosity of prospects. Jake just wasted two.

“… I’m curious to see if you have any concerns with your current systems for managing relationships and projects.”

Jake’s curiosity about my concerns isn’t relevant to me! In fact, he’s one of many such reps looking to set a call with me — based on their needs to fit me for a product/service.

Jake is blending in with other, needy sellers who clutter my inbox with “Can we speak so I can suit you up for my thing?” messages.

That’s another three seconds blown … for a total of five precious seconds down the tube.

Every. Word. Counts. Be deliberate with word choice. Be careful with every word you write in follow-up messages.

Your Follow-Up Email’s Ask

In his first message, Jake asks,

“Do you have 15 minutes this week or next for a quick chat to understand how we have helped similar companies in your position? Best, Jake.”

Jake is like many other sellers hitting my inbox daily. He wants my time — so I can understand how he’s helped people in my position.

My position. How does Jake know anything about my position? Most likely he doesn’t. And why would I want to invest time helping sales reps understand my position?

Jake should know my position before emailing. Make sure you/your sellers take a moment to understand (research the prospect) and state what is understood.

This authenticates you and makes your message relevant to your client’s selfish interests. Instantly.

Otherwise prospects will conclude: This rep doesn’t know me, hasn’t researched anything about me … claims he knows my current situation … and wants 15 minutes of my time for show-and-tell. Forget it!

So how big is your ask? Regardless of who you’re calling on, time is money. The most precious item customers can offer you is their time.

  1. Respect this.
  2. Don’t ask for time; don’t try to persuade; this looks needy.
  3. Instead, help your prospect feel “Hmmm … this might be worth my time.” (provoke curiosity)

Give prospects a reason to believe investing time is going to be worth it. Help them want to ask for your time.

This also helps prospects qualify out, naturally.

Personally, if I gave 15 minutes of my time to everyone who asked for it I’d fill half my day!

Instead, Jake should help me qualify meeting with him. If I can justify meeting with Jake, I’ll gladly do so. Demonstrating he understands something about my business would help me want to meet with Jake.

Follow-Up Email No. 2

The next day Jake returns with the second message in his follow-up sequence.

“Hey Jeff.”

Hey, Jeff? What are we fishing buddies? Old friends?

“Jake here, from _________ [CRM vendor].”

Again, Jake tells me who he is. Just in case my email client doesn’t display his name … and so he can, again, waste precious seconds.

“Do you have 5-10 minutes this week or next to hop on a call regarding opportunity and relationship management?”

Again, Jake persists. He wants a meeting to talk about “opportunity and relationship management.” Again, Jake makes no effort to help me qualify investing time with him.

He pushes for my time — so he can qualify me!

“We have been working hard to change the connotations around the CRM industry and as a result have the fastest customer acquisition rates out of any of our competitors.”

How selfish. How self-centered. This isn’t about you, Jake. This is about me.

How foolish. Sorry, but how can changing the way people view an industry result in faster customer acquisition rates? Noodle on that for a minute.

This is just one example of marketing nonsense that permeates today’s email follow-up sequences. Jake should be receiving guidance on how to communicate with potential clients.

I’ll spare you the remainder. Jake ticked off a few pains he perceives I have. Then, he asked for my time again.

Instead, Jake should resist guessing at my challenges. Everyone is doing this. Most reps are busy sending email messages demonstrating complete lack of research on my business. Jake should also stop promoting how great his company is. Jake should, instead, ask me a question that helps me decide if I can justify meeting with him. This helps Jake and me!

For example,

“Jeff, what would cause you to re-examine the way you’re currently managing sales leads?”

This is called a facilitative question — helping prospects reflect on the status quo situation without feeling you’re leading them toward a trap (a pitch). This use of questions, if done wrong, can be disastrous. But if executed well it’s an effective cold email and follow up technique.

Follow Up No. 3

“Hello, Jeff. Jake here, with _________ [CRM vendor] again.”

Ooof. Not again! Make sure your messages do not start with information your prospect/customer already has. Get to the point.

“If you do think you might want to evaluate something like _________ [CRM vendor] down the road, it’d be beneficial to hop on a quick call so we can get an idea of how we can help you when the time is right.”

First, that sentence is very difficult to read. There are extra and weak words all over the place. It reads “wimpy.”

More striking: Jake ignores how I’ve been using his CRM tool for a year now … and I’ve practically maxed out my free plan’s limits. Jake seems oblivious to the fact: I’m a prime target to upgrade.

Jake should be looking at my account usage — at minimum — and customizing his follow-up email message accordingly.

“Do have 15 minutes to spare for a quick introductory call either this week or next? Here is an article detailing our latest product release in the meantime!”

Setting aside the missing word (“you”) … wait a minute and premature meeting request. Does Jake want to book time with me or not? Apparently he realizes I will probably ignore him. He helps me ignore him by sending me to (ha!) his latest product release page on his website.

It’s like saying, “In the likely case you won’t reply … here read this about us!”

I’m laughing but it’s not funny. This is a respected CRM software business.

Take Time

What if Jake took a moment to research something easy to notice about me … showing me he was not a mindless, appointment-setting drone?

If your MQL follow-up email sequence is booking enough appointments most likely reps are behaving like mindless drones, cranking out templated meeting requests. Stop. Customers see these premature meeting requests as unqualified.

Examine your messages for self-centered, redundant and templated copy.

Good luck. What has your experience been?

Creating an Integrated Email Marketing Strategy

Keeping email in the sales tool box limits the benefits and keeps it from helping your company grow. Electronic mail is well known as a marketing tool that generates immediate cash flow. It works so well that many companies send daily updates that contribute a significant amount to their annual revenue. Some might say that this is the primary purpose for email marketing. Maybe they’re right but I think it is a shame to waste opportunities

Keeping email in the sales tool box limits the benefits and keeps it from helping your company grow. Electronic mail is well known as a marketing tool that generates immediate cash flow. It works so well that many companies send daily updates that contribute a significant amount to their annual revenue. Some might say that this is the primary purpose for email marketing. Maybe they’re right but I think it is a shame to waste opportunities.

Email is the only tool available today that can economically provide a one-to-one communication between company and customer or prospect. Perhaps it’s the fear that people will overwhelm already stretched customer service departments that keeps companies from capitalizing on the opportunities available. Maybe they’re spending too much time working on creating content in the hopes that it will go viral. Or it could be that email works so well as a sales tool little thought has been put into other uses. After all, when resources are limited, management tends to take an “if it’s not broke, don’t fix it” approach to projects.

This is a dangerous position because email as a sales tool is breaking. The days where emails sent to unengaged subscribers generated significant revenue with little effort are disappearing. The changes in Gmail’s interface are the beginning of a new email marketing reality. Begging people to move messages to the primary inbox is not a sustainable solution. Building relationships that makes them want to find your emails is the only way to continued sales success. Fortunately, email is a multifaceted tool that works well in relationship building.

The companies that change their strategy to include retention and education will gain market share, improve customer loyalty and make sales messages more profitable. There isn’t a downside to doing this because it delivers results at minimal cost. This strategy is part of an integrated marketing and service initiative that has far reaching effects.

The content created for educational messages establishes expertise, builds trust and can be repurposed on other channels. Google’s shift to conversational search requires marketers seeking better ranks to provide quality content. The best information speaks directly to the people who buy your products or services. Incorporating educational messages in your email strategy allows you to discover what drives sales and keeps customers coming back. The same messages will attract prospects.

Much of the information about relationship marketing implies that people want personal relationships with companies. They don’t. People want personal relationships with friends and family. They want companies to make it easy for them to solve problems. It’s a bonus if the company solves the problem without participation from the individual. Trust is established when company’s consistently deliver on their promises. Trying to create personal relationships with people who don’t want them is foolish and a waste of resources.

A better strategy is to find people’s pain points and make them disappear. This creates a trust relationship. Email is an excellent tool for sharing information and learning about your customers’ needs. An optimized email marketing strategy includes promotional, educational, and informational messages. Personalization is a key component that can be added by connecting historical data with targeted content.

We are entering a new era for email marketing. The timing is perfect for retailers and any business that peaks in first and fourth quarters. Optimizing your email strategy when the volume is at its peak allows you to learn quickly what works best. You can do this while still sending the promotional messages known to generate cash flow. Waiting to see if the changes to email delivery have an effect will put you behind the competition. Start immediately, plan well, test everything and use the actionable information to improve the customer experience and your company’s success.

A Goodbye
This is my last column for “The Integrated Email.” It is been my honor and privilege to share my knowledge with you. Thank you for the opportunity. Godspeed.

Editor’s Note: It has been a pleasure working with Debra. We are sorry to see her go, and hope she will be able to contribute in other ways in the future when her time permits. The Integrated Email will return in November with a new blogger.