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Guest Q&A: Mark Brownlow on Email Marketing

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by: Loren McDonald (@LorenMcDonald)
21 November 2011

This month, I’m truly excited to have Mark Brownlow, the founder and publisher of Email Marketing Reports, answer my questions on several often-discussed email marketing issues. Mark has been my favorite blogger on email marketing since we first crossed paths in 2003—though unfortunately we keep missing each other during my trips to Europe—so I was thrilled to have him weigh in on the concept of “email best practices,” the email test result that most surprised him, and his predictions for email circa 2017. Here’s what he had to say:

Q: The common refrains in the email marketing industry to questions about best practices are always “It depends” and “Test it.” As an industry observer who has written more than 1,000 blog posts on email marketing practices and trends, where do you weigh in on the “best practices are dead” idea that some pundits are promoting?

[caption id="attachment_2636" align="alignright" width="120" caption="Mark Brownlow, founder and publisher of Email Marketing Reports"][/caption]

A: The underlying problem is simply that “best practices” is a phrase that’s been pushed toward irrelevancy by overuse.

So you have practices called best practices that aren’t best practice at all (say that 10 times quickly).

Then you have “true” best practices, where the basic concept is universally applicable, even if the exact implementation might need discussion. It’s hard to conceive of a scenario where a welcome email is a mistake.

Then there are the best practices that are really safe practices, like “avoid emails that are basically just one big image.” These developed primarily to stop newcomers from shooting themselves in the foot.

Taken at face value, the idea that “best practices are dead” is incorrect. But behind the phrase is the valid idea that you can sometimes get more out of your emails if you ignore certain safe practices. The important proviso being that you understand why your unique circumstances might allow you to do so.

Q: The email marketing industry is known for arguing about every conceivable practice—from the use of pre-checked opt-in boxes to subject line personalization. Do you think it’s important that industry leaders agree on at least a few foundational elements so that the industry has more of a common voice?

A: I see the problem not in the debate but in its exclusionary nature.

Most industry discussion inevitably takes place in a closed environment of dedicated blogs, lists, events and social media circles. The vast majority of people sending marketing email aren’t active there.

Equally, a lot of the debate is too nuanced or specialized for them. So if they do dip their toes in this specialist environment, it’s a tough ride because most of us participating assume a level of experience and understanding that many don’t have.

That’s nobody’s fault—that’s just how specialisms evolve.

I’m not sure industry leaders need to agree on a set of foundational elements: It’s enough to outline the issues so people can make an informed choice. But more important is presenting those elements and issues in a way that newcomers and the less experienced can understand and benefit from. Which means using a different “language” and different venues.

Q: In March of 2011 you created the Web page I know this was partially in fun but also a way of gathering some of the best responses in the industry to the recurring question “Is email dead?” If you were to create another, perhaps updated site in March of 2012, what would its focus be?

A: You’ll have to allow me a personal rant here:

Now that cat videos are the dominant form of media and customers are doing the marketing now, it seems people care less and less about the words they use.

But if attention really is at a premium, then even more care needs to go into what you say and how you present those words. Even more care needs to go into writing copy and content that captures attention and draws people into and through a story, pitch or presentation.

I’m not a copywriter, but I’m surprised at how little attention goes to email copywriting when compared with, say, email design or deliverability. Of course it’s important to get your emails delivered. Of course it’s important to get them to display properly. But what use is that if the words have no impact?

Q: Mark, you do a lot of testing of theories using your own Email Marketing Reports email newsletter. What is the one thing you’ve tested that most surprised you, that may have run counter to conventional wisdom?

A: Conventional wisdom is that your friendly “From” line is pretty much set in stone, especially if (like me) it’s been the same for 160+ newsletter issues. So I was a little surprised to find changing it from [site name] to [my first name + site name] lifted clicks by more than 20 percent. When I published the results, a lot of people weren’t surprised at all, which just shows how much I still have to learn.

I love the little tweaks that bump up response, but I’m not convinced they lead to significant sustainable improvements. My belief is lasting improvements can only come from increasing the fundamental value you deliver through email. Easier said than done, of course.

Q: You recently penned a funny and creative blog post “14 predictions for email marketing in 2031.” Looking into your more serious crystal ball, what do you think the industry will be talking about in 2017?

A: Predictions online are tough. In the late ‘90s, I remember making a joke about reading Tolstoy’s War and Peace on my mobile. Today I have the complete works of Shakespeare on my smartphone.

I think we’ll see gradual change, where senders continue to use broadcast email effectively but increasingly add-in “trigger” emails attuned to individual needs, behaviors and data.

The quality bar will continue to rise. The challenge will be getting into the inbox that matters (as opposed to the email account reserved for a once-a-month review) and getting a position in that inbox that matters (passing all the tests that the intelligent inbox  and inbox owner uses to rank the importance of incoming emails).

Speaking of intelligent inboxes, I’m looking forward to intelligent emails—where the content will update itself depending on outside factors, like current location, past location, prevailing weather, social media activity, inventory changes, etc. The technology is pretty much there already.

Oh, and we’ll still be arguing about pre-checked opt-in boxes.

Mark Brownlow is the founder and publisher of Email Marketing Reports, which includes the “No man is an iland” blog. Catch up with him on Twitter or Google+.


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