December 19th, 2012


With or without a cause ...

OK, so I'd seen this referenced on Twitter or Facebook or G+ (or maybe in skywriting) and it sounded interesting, so I hit up the good folks at Pearson's QUE Publishing to get a review copy, and I'm glad I did. Now, I realize that for a lot of folks a book on email marketing might be somewhere south of “great moments in paint drying”, but this one rocks, or at least as much as a book about email marketing would likely be able to rock. No doubt this is due to the “rebellion” in DJ Waldow & Jason Falls' The Rebel's Guide to Email Marketing: Grow Your List, Break the Rules, and Win, as it takes a fresh approach to the subject that reminded me of what an eye-opener Scott Stratten's Unmarketing was when it came out. Visually, the book has a lot of the same design feel to it as Jess Loren's recent Pinterest book, also from QUE, although here it makes a bit more sense with copies of web sites, emails, and various elements thereof.

Now, I've never been in a position where email had been a significant part of the marketing mix (although I have been in situations where it had at least been “on the table”), so I have less baggage coming to this than I would for something on a subject that I've used extensively. I certainly have opinions on the topic, and have noticed since reading this that I have definite preferences for certain of the dozens of e-mail “newsletters” that show up in my inbox on a daily basis.

The first thing that the authors address here is the perception in some areas that “e-mail is dead”, and they provide some fascinating numbers to illustrate how non-dead it is. First of all, there are 2.9 billion e-mail accounts out there, compared with a world population of 7 billion. That's not everybody, but it's getting there! The number of daily e-mail messages is 180 billion, and that's not counting spam. If you figure that spam represents about 70% of all email traffic, it means that the actual volume of email is more than half a trillion messages a day (one note: the copy I have slips back and forth between “millions” and “billions” on these figures, and I did some research and the higher figure does seem to represent the actual numbers). That's a LOT of data … and what's being specifically considered here is the “permission-based, opt-in” email traffic.

The book is set up in five main sections, dealing with building one's (opted-in) list, what are the main elements for a marketing email, “breaking the rules”, integrating with social media, and a look to the future of email marketing. There are many screen caps of example emails from various companies and organizations, showing how some have approached the assorted elements being discussed. There is a good deal of “nitty gritty” material here, like calculations for “churn rate” (how much your list shrinks over a year) and “list fatigue”, which starts at about 30%, and moves up depending on how well you're engaging your recipients (or not). I, for one, would never have guessed the erosion of the list would have been that deep … and it certainly underlines how important it is to constantly be replenishing (and focusing efforts on) sign-ups.

Some of the “juiciest” parts here (it is, after all, the Rebel's guide) is in the “Breaking The Rules” section. There are some eye-opening examples of A/B testing where a “spammy”subject line had a lower open rate (27.2% vs. 31.8% … both numbers seemingly low to my expectations) than a more “descriptive” subject line, but had sales nearly four times higher because the people who opened it were very interested in the FREE offer being hawked. Text vs. graphical formats are also examined (if one has graphics turned off in one's mail reader, an all-image e-mail is pretty invisible even if it's opened), but the inclusion of graphics and even video elements are shown to greatly increase response. One of the irritation points for most e-mail is the ability to smoothly unsubscribe (I was doing that on a couple of things just this morning!), and they show examples where the unsubscribe button is ironically a major element in the design, to ones where it's buried so deep as to be unfindable (not recommended).

There are bunches of practical suggestions that one might not have considered, such as using “lightbox” coding (where the main page is greyed out and an element floats over it) on one's web site that at least asks for the e-mail sign-up before the visitor gets to your content (I've since suggested this to a couple of people I'm working on projects with). They also get into the convoluted question of social media elements. I have become sensitive to this of late, as I've found that if a “share” button isn't coded for LinkedIn, it doesn't work well to cut-and-paste a link there (I never get the graphic presentation like on FB or G+, just an abbreviated link that I'm pretty sure nobody will bother clicking). I've also been irritated to find follow buttons where I thought there would be share buttons, and they discuss how these disparate (yet visually similar) pieces can be included in one's emails and associated pages. On the general subject, they present an interesting quote, that “email is the 'digital glue' of the new media landscape”.

The Rebel's Guide to Email Marketing closes with a four-step approach to successfully using the instructions in the book:
1. Grow Your List
2. Plan Your Content
3. Determine Success Metrics
4. Send, Test, Analyze, Adjust, Repeat

Again, I was surprised at just how engaging this book was, and I found it interesting and entertaining, even though I didn't have particular project on which I would be able to put this all into play. Obviously, this isn't a “general interest” book, but if you're in a situation where you're looking at building up a permission-based communication channel, this is a great place to start. It's been out for just a couple of months at this point, so should be easy enough to find in the brick-and-mortar vendors, but the on-line guys have it at a bit over a third off of cover price. If there is one thing that I wish they'd looked at here, it would have been a “compare and contrast” over-view of the main services such as Mail Chimp, Constant Contact, etc. While some of these are mentioned there's not that much of “here's where you go to make all this happen”, which would have been quite useful, in my opinion.

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