A major charity recently asked me to give a “State of Marketing” address to their marketing team as part of their quarterly training and planning conclave. Over 35 marketing veterans and subject matter experts assembled and we all agreed that over the past five years digital marketing has undergone an immense transformation. This transformation has had its share of negatives (increased expectations from consumers, greater complexity for marketers and tougher to measure attribution) but it’s been balanced with positives (instantaneous communication tools, lots of data, the ability to execute faster than ever and more focus on customer experience). This principle of balance is important for marketers, especially in a sensitive medium like email marketing.
A blend of art and science
Marketing today is multi-faceted. More science is influencing an industry that has traditionally relied on creative horsepower and big ideas. Marketing leaders are bringing together the “right brain” creatives with the “left brain” analysts. The key will be to meld them into an agile team that can stay aligned, constantly learning from one another. The benefit is the synergies that can be created when the two come together (1 + 1 = 3).
There is more to it than just left brain meets right brain. Balance and alignment are important for organizations who are trying to transform their marketing. There are often so many moving pieces that a balanced approach gives marketers a wider perspective and better understanding of their ecosystem.
Below are some practical tips on how companies can find a better balance, or “zen,” at three different levels (starting with the easiest and progressing to the most difficult).
Level one: Creative that resonates
One size fits all creative doesn’t work in today’s marketing world. With shorter attention spans and constant interruptions, email creative needs to grab a recipient’s attention, be easily scannable and, most importantly, be immediately relevant. So what creative works? The answers can be uncovered through testing and measurement. Our suggestion is to deploy different creative and then use science and data to determine what really works.
[Note: the left side of the yin and yang email diagram represents the science side, while the right side represents the science side of messaging [disclosure: yes the author is an engineer with an MBA].
Each quarter our agency conducts creative audits for clients. Our analysts dive into the metrics and consumer behaviour, while our strategists look for creative patterns that work. Very often outlier data points appear that draw our attention, prompting us to ask important questions like, what happened and why?
The best creative strategy is to rely less on opinion and more on validated learning (not surprising because great creative usually evolves from a core insight).We have found that by more closely aligning creative (right brain team) and analysts (left brain employees) clients can improve their click-to-open rate percentage (CTRO%) by 12–30% (on a 12 month basis).
Instead of using general design principles, organizations should conduct a series of tests to prioritize the email design principles that work best for their business. Applying a set of heuristic rules can be an effective guide for better optimization.
If you want to take creative design to an even higher level, some marketers are testing biometric eye-tracking. Eye tracking video analysis and metrics prove hypothesized behaviour. In several cases, we’ve used eye-tracking to show clients what does NOT work and where the customer experience friction actually occurred.
The best balanced approach for creative is to have your creative and analytical team work in tandem in a game of “design collaboration.” Two perspectives are better than one and if ever in doubt just test the creative.
Level two: The optimal type and mix of campaigns
Email campaigns take a lot of resources. To save time, every email marketer should ideally have a contact strategy and content plan. There needs to be a careful balance of relational versus transactional messages and email campaigns shouldn’t be done in isolation.
Execution is how marketers win and marketing campaign management (MCM) can be a powerful sustainable competitive advantage. MCM excellence is about continuously and efficiently repeating five key steps: plan, design, execute, monitor/manage and analyze.
According to author and professor Mark Jeffrey, MCM can really make a difference and has a positive correlation to firm performance. Many organizations have all the pieces for MCM excellence but they aren’t aligned, partly because some stakeholders have a narrow view of their role in the ecosystem.
The four capabilities that support MCM are:
Selection: focus on key campaigns for your constituents and make sure you execute the right type of campaigns (note: it’s amazing that even today many marketers don’t have a simple email welcome stream).
Portfolio view: this is how marketers determine what messages get sent to a specific person or segment. The challenge is that in large organizations there rae a plethora of campaigns and often there is no 360-degree view of who receives what. Leading email marketers assign “air traffic controllers” to be the arbitrators of what campaigns are deployed when and to whom. Different companies take varying control approaches and set rules (sending rules that establish thresholds; rules of engagement) while others highlight blackout periods where no divisional email can be sent.
Adaptive learning: is a discipline practiced by many e-leaders. It involves disciplined testing and measurement. But remember, to be useful the learning must be proven, documented and shared… otherwise it gets wasted.
Monitoring: marketers need to be honest about what is working and what is not. Executives need to be aware that sometimes there is conflict between competing campaigns and that some campaigns may need to be adjusted or temporarily suppressed for the greater good of the organization. The important part of monitoring is that someone in the organization needs to oversee the contact strategy to ensure it is generating the desired results and that recipients have a good customer experience.
Level 3: The right talent on the bus, sitting in the right seats
Building a top performing digital team takes time and careful planning. Once the marketing vision and strategies are confirmed it is time for the tricky task of determining the optimal organizational structure. Top organizations hire a diverse mix of people with experience in different sectors. Additionally, team leaders should be versed in many of the nine skill areas outlined in the Digital Marketing Skills Framework.
There is a shortage of digital marketing talent, so you will need a mix of subject matter experts and leaders who can see the holistic picture. But also make sure you have redundancy and people who can challenge each other. Innovation and excellence come from asking the deeper questions. Don’t forget about strategic partners because they can provide informed opinions on scorecards, benchmarks and best practices that work.
The final element of talent is to nurture a culture of intrinsically driven and curious marketers. Encourage them to meet smart peers from outside their organization and to scour the internet for the latest conference presentations and notes. Have them allocate two hours of time, once a quarter, to think more deeply about their marketing and what the really important questions they should be asking are (see below). In a world of marketing disruption some of your core beliefs will get outdated; constant learning will keep your perspective current.
In an agile working environment, balance and alignment can sometimes be sacrificed for speed but remember that collaboration and integrating different perspectives is a stronger approach. While one of the downsides of balance is that not everyone gets their way (all the time); trade-offs are sometimes necessary for the greater good (for the holistic mission). You don’t have to always chase the micro goals. It’s more important to do the right things in a thoughtful manner. From my 25 years of industry experience, marketers who harness the above three levels of balance will find themselves achieving transformational outcomes like uber-engagement, a loyal base, and massive ROI!
Questions marketers should ask themselves
Business model validation:
What are the fundamental drivers and assumptions about our business? Are they still true today?
How are we building sustainable competitive advantages?
Who is my core audience? How well do we really know them?
What are the key communication periods for our team?
How many tests did we conduct this year? Where is the learning documented? Did we develop “bankable” insights?
When planning a tactic:
How does this strategy/tactic help my plan? Is it in alignment with our organization?
Does it generate measurable results that are tied to our KPIs?
Can we gain strategic insights that I can share?
How can I create a greater amount of valuable data (for myself and other internal teams)?