Don’t be too quick to dismiss established best practices for email


I’m noticing a tendency among some email speakers recently — when they want to promote a new idea, they slap down the best practice that relates to it.

This disturbs me because most of today’s best practices evolved from a longing for guidelines and innovation in email’s Wild West early days, when we had been writing and rewriting the rules almost every day as expectations and technology evolved.

Here we are, 25 years later, and we’re rethinking a number of the practices that, for better or worse, helped us build email into the machine it is today. I agree that some best practices have either outlived their usefulness or didn’t stand the test of time, but I wish we wouldn’t be in such a hurry to move past the ones who still hold true.

Best practices grew from email’s early days

This ’s why I’m not prepared to discard everything we’ve built up.

From email’s early no-holds-barred environment, we started to see repercussions, like pushback from customers and subscribers, spammers and fraudsters polluting the distance, ISPs and blacklists keeping us out of the inbox.

We also saw customers respond favorably when we worked them with to show them how to use this new electronic world.

This accelerated development wasn’t all bad in those days before CAN-SPAM, CASL and another national and state laws began regulating email. In case you haven’t been in the industry all that long, here’s what it was like:

  • We were mad. People tried whatever they could, emailing or even over-mailing. We developed send-time optimization since we were locked into emailing between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. That’s when people checked their email more often, from their work desktop computers in which they’d faster, more reliable internet connections.
  • Testing was minimal because most email platforms didn’t let it or limited you to simple A/B testing with long wait times to get results.
  • We didn’t have widely accessible platforms for sharing thoughts, like blogs or email-specific conferences, organizations or meet-ups. So, we innovated separately and aggressively.

Knowledge base begins to form

The email space began to formalize in the late 1990s. Enterprise-level and mid-market ESPs began to pop up. Individuals who were early leaders in the space signed on with the ESPs as strategists and account directors and began sharing their experiences and advice.

They aggressively implemented strategies and tactics that drove email innovation on a scale unmatched now. We were literally analyzing every new idea on hundreds of clients at a time  across verticals.

Industry newsletters, blogs, conferences, white papers — all of the things we rely on today for education and thought leadership bloomed immediately after that. We began to develop a knowledge base of acceptable and unacceptable practices and shared our wins and losses.

Our clients and subscribers were learning at the same rapid pace. We were teaching as well as learning on an immense scale.

Best practices evolved as a starting point

Brand marketers, agency specialists and customers were looking for assistance with email in those early days. That’s how best practices evolved — from personal experiences refined over a short time. Best practices gave us a leg up, less the sole means to execute on acquisition, engagement, retention or development.

These helped us move into the next era of email development. By way of instance, we knew enough that if we emailed customers who abandoned shopping carts, we stood a good chance of getting them to come back and purchase.

A best practice created — once you get your nightly file of abandoners’ email addresses from your web analytics provider, you take out an abandoned-cart reminder email.

Afterward, a CRM company challenged this belief. The strategy is right, the company said, but the timing is off. The platform had the technology to send the email within an hour after abandonment and study demonstrating that sending as soon as possible following the abandonment would get better yields.

Voila! A new best practice.

Best practices like this and others covered welcome emails, opt-down pages to mitigate the opt-out page, permission in acquisition, managing inactives and other needs. They helped give everybody — newcomers as well as veterans shifting their direct-marketing backgrounds to electronic — a leg up.

Best practices are a template, not the last word

As useful as best practices can be, they’re not supposed to be the final word. Rather, they’re something you use to establish a program, and then you develop the practice that is most appropriate for your brand, company and clients.

Take the win-back program. The best practice that evolved over many years of trial, testing and error is sending a three-email program spaced at different intervals with escalating offers, all aimed to bring inactive customers back.

That’s the ideal. But your brand might need only a couple of emails. A B2B company, especially one with long consideration cycles, might need five or more.

The best practice is the template. It gives you a place to begin planning. Then, you accommodate that template for your needs.

Why I’m not rushing to abandon best practices

In every vertical, space and aspect of marketing, we know certain things work, whether through our own experiences or what we’ve learned and adapted from our peers. We spent a lot of time testing to see what works and what doesn’t on a scale that’s hard to match today.

If we revisit and revise this body of generally accepted best practices? You bet. We do that every time we get together to discuss, debate, educate and experimentation. What worked 10 or 15 years ago — anybody want to revive the pre-checked boxes debate? — might not work now thanks to changes in laws, regulations, technology and customer expectations.

We’ve also been able to establish track records for long-term analysis of outcomes. To advocate discarding 20 years’ worth of the work seems more like a fast way to create a name for yourself, not something which ’s necessarily in the best interest of your clients or company.

This means for entrepreneurs

Email is one of the only channels in which you can do an internet search and find answers to your toughest questions from the very best minds in our business. And your voice is just as important once you have information to share that comes from your own testing and experience.

Write a white paper. Come up with a guest article where you share the results of a new testing program, a case study or something else which attests to your success. Ask questions on blog posts, during webinars and at professional conferences. Pretty soon it’ll be your turn to speak up and share your knowledge. And that will help shape the new generation of best practices.

It’s the responsibility of marketing people like you — yes, you. Really. You. — to share the knowledge that results in better-informed best practice and advancing our collective knowledge base. The best way to do that is through collaboration.

That yearning for knowledge and innovation is just as powerful now as it was 20 years ago. What can you do to respond?

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