By Mark Dolce
In the movie Hello Down There (1969), a groovy West coast record producer, Nate Ashbury, played with aplomb by a Nehru-jacketed Roddy McDowall, has a huge contraption in his studio that analyzes any song recording and produces a numerical quotient that correlates to its potential as a pop hit. Today, on the internet, the Nate Ashburys of email marketing abound, proclaiming that they’ve discovered the algorithmic elixir that produces the perfect email subject line, the perfect email length, and the best email keyword. But there’s no such thing as the perfect or the best email anything because email performance is not contingent on any one thing.
In 2012, one of the highest performing emails of Barack Obama’s digital presidential campaign had a subject line of exactly one word: Hey. No one could have predicted how well it would do. The open rate was huge, probably because no one had thought of a one-word subject line and because of a whole host of other contingent factors.
The idea of contingency, popularized by the great evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould in his book Wonderful Life, explores that constellation of factors that influence an outcome. (For Gould, it’s the survival of a vertebrate ancestor that gave rise to all vertebrates, including you and me.) With regard to email outcomes, contingent factors include your audience, the time of day of delivery, local weather, the news, email platform outages, and on and on. Some factors you control, such as time and day of delivery, but others may be out of your control. The goal is to try and control as many of those contingent factors as possible.
Given all these contingent factors that affect email outcomes, a sound practice is to analyze your results and test different approaches. One of the keys to the success of the Obama email marketing campaign is that it constantly analyzed what worked and what didn’t. Even though political campaigns require over-saturation, a maniacal level of tinkering, and micro-segmentation of audiences, the underlying principles of analysis and testing are universally applicable to any email campaign.
It’s also useful to be like the Newt Scamander of email marketing, collecting those magical emails that land in your inbox, deciphering how and why they are so magical and applying those elements or concepts to your own emails. Sign up for emails from analogous organizations or competitors, as well as from organizations and companies that have nothing to do with your line of work. For example, my email spirit animal is the clothing company Chubbies, who regularly innovate and push the boundaries of email marketing. I also have a distinct fondness for the email failures that crash and burn into my inbox, including those that I’ve written. Those are as instructive as the ones that work, and it’s a necessary exercise to examine those failures as well.
Mark Dolce writes corny jokes, email and other “punny” copy for MuckFest® MS, a nation-wide fun mud run series benefiting the National MS Society. He also really needs a haircut.