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How to Create a Winning Email Strategy: Research, Plan and Be Willing to Fail

It’s a heady experience, being able to create an email marketing campaign of your own. You don’t have to patch the holes in someone else&#...

It’s a heady experience, being able to create an email marketing campaign of your own. You don’t have to patch the holes in someone else’s plan or try to scratch out a change of direction on a company plan that has been set in stone for years.

That’s the good part. You can toss out what doesn’t work anymore and build on the good things that survive the shake-up.

Who wouldn’t jump at the chance to chart your own path? You’re ready to start looking at re-targeting, creating a quiver full of triggered emails, nurture programs and some gorgeous fresh content to go with all these.

Whoa, Speedy! This is where so many marketing programs go off the rails. You’re so excited about what you can do that you aren’t taking the time to think about why you should do them.

What strategy is – and isn’t

Here’s the hard truth about creating and executing on a new email marketing strategy plan: You need to do a lot of research and planning work before you can get down to the nitty-gritty of building out specific strategies and supporting tactics. Think of this as your “planning to plan” phase.

Before you can start creating your plan, you must understand what strategy is and how it differs from the other roadmaps that guide your company operations.

It’s not the same as your company business plan. Your business plan covers the “who,” “what” and “why” of your business.  Your strategic plan, on the other hand, covers the “how” and the “when.” It’s the action plan for your business, setting out tasks, goals, resources and a timeline for achievement as well as the metrics you use to measure your performance.

It’s more than a bunch of tactics. Many marketers confuse tactics with strategy. This leads to an unorganized, incoherent process that wastes time and money.

Your strategic plan has three parts: objectives, strategies and tactics. Clarity about the role each part plays is crucial for your success:

  • Objectives: This is your goal. A typical goal is “increase annual revenue.”
  • Strategy: Strategy supports your objective. Here, your strategy to increase revenue could be “increase sales on the website.”
  • Tactics: Tactics are the things you use to drive your strategy and achieve your goal. One of your tactics could be “implement a cart-abandonment program to reduce lost sales.” But a tactic like this must have a strategic imperative if you want it to work.

Tactics often are associated with new technology. Let’s say you switch email service providers, and suddenly you can launch that abandoned-cart program you’ve been dreaming about for years. It’s a great tactic for many businesses, but is it right for yours?

Your strategy will dictate how you set up your program and how you measure success or failure. You won’t succeed if you start with the tactic and then try to retrofit your strategy to accommodate it.

Remember: The objective comes first. Then you create the strategy to help you achieve your objective. Then, and only then, you pick the tactics that will help you carry out that strategy to achieve your objective.

Ready to start?

Begin with the data: 4 key sources

Data is your greatest ally in this stage of the planning process. Don’t hurry through this research time. If you don’t have all the facts as you go into strategic planning, you could end up steering your company way down the wrong path.

This data-gathering effort will focus on your customer data: Who are your customers? Why do they buy from your company? What do they buy, and when, and how much?

The four points I outline below are not an exhaustive list – they’re the basics that you will add to with data sources unique to your company.

1. Gather the data: It’s everywhere, but sometimes we overlook some obvious sources.

  • Analyze your analytics. These include email, web, social and app on the digital side. Look for trends, up or down, and what was going on in the company at the time.
  • Talk to your customer service representatives. They are on the front lines of customer contact and know the issues that customers have with your products or services. Spend an hour with them as they talk to customers on the phone or watch them interact in online conversations. If your company uses chatbots and other interactive devices, see if you can get your hands on these exchanges.

2. Talk to everyone: This is an important piece of the puzzle whether you are launching a marketing plan for a new company, joining the team as a new member or stepping up to the position within your company.

  • Talk to the head honchos: Sit down with your C-level executives, your company president, the founder or founders if available. Prepare questions in advance to help you understand the company history, why it was founded, what the vision is and where they think the company is headed.
  • Talk to customers: You can’t understand what your customers are thinking unless you talk with them one on one in a controlled environment. List out about 10-15 customers from your email list and ask them for feedbacks about your email program. This will help the new team members in being aware of their work and customers’ viewpoint.
  • Target both longtime as well as new customers, non-buyers and buyers, and a demographic representation that will reflect your database.
  • Get in touch with each panel member separately and ask them about your email program. Interview them with questions such as, How many emails of yours do they open? Do they actually read the entire email or just glance through it? What changes would they want to see in the email format, content, frequency or relevance?
  • Stay in touch with your panel for a year. Document your conversations and look for trends.

3. Review everything that has been done before: Trace how your company’s marketing efforts have evolved in all channels as well as the evolution of email marketing strategy and thinking.

Look at everything the company has tried, even the strategies that were tested and declared failures. You’re not wasting your time! All too often, if something didn’t work, it could be that the team structured it wrong, tested it wrong or didn’t give it enough time to work.

4. Look at your competition: Know what other companies in your space are doing. Also, attend industry conferences to learn from your peers and others in your market niche. But don’t try to copy someone else’s playbook.

What they’re doing might not be the right thing to do for your company. It might not even be right for their companies! If you don’t have the numbers to show how well a strategy or tactic worked, then it’s all just guesswork.

Don’t risk taking your company down a disastrous detour just because it worked for the cool guys up on the podium.

Set up your strategic planning program

Once you’re ready to start creating your email marketing strategy plan, get your team together. These would include your marketing team and the C-level executives you report to plus other stakeholders Even if you’re a one-person marketing department, you need a group of people who know and understand the company and have a stake in its future.

Plan a strategy retreat: Once you get a team together, get them out of the office and away from distractions like their phones, calendars, to-do lists and people popping into their offices without warning.

A retreat is ideal for this because you can focus everyone’s attention on the business at hand. If you can’t manage an off-site retreat, find a conference room where you can work undisturbed. Lock the door if you must!

But do plan to take your time. Don’t expect to finish this work in a day. You’ll need time to generate ideas, structure them into a plan and then polish and review it before submitting it to your executive team.

Generate ideas: Use what you learned in the data reconnaissance plan I outlined above: what worked, what didn’t and what you should consider as you sketch out your strategy.

Your goal during your strategy day is to generate ideas. Don’t let the conversation get sidetracked by objections based on cost, technology or skills. You can deal with those later. Right now, just let people dream big.

Use a whiteboard and lots of sticky notes. Ask someone to keep track of ideas as you and your team thrash them out and to compile them into notes you can use to write your final plan.

Refine your plan:  You won’t end up with that polished, final plan during your strategy session. That will come as you review all the comments and findings and synthesize them into a program that makes sense, including both short-term and long-term objectives, strategies and tactics.

You’ll probably need several meetings with your core planning team. Circulate copies of your drafts to your stakeholders for guidance and suggestions.

Your goal is to create a document that outlines strategies and programs to implement and will guide your decision-making, resource requests and allocations, personnel needs and timelines through the year.

Hand it off to your executives: Include plenty of supporting statements and data to bolster your planning, along with business KPIs that will show how you plan to measure success and line up with what your management values for the company.

Also, have a backup plan in case your executives reject your recommended marketing strategy. Consider creating one major new initiative and two smaller ideas that address key issues. Focus your energy on the most promising ones, and understand that program improvement is a cumulative process.

If you come up with just one or two new ideas that will make your team a hero in the company – plugging a big resource drain or finding a new revenue source – you will be ahead of the curve. If you plan three years out, you could end up with six new programs in that time. Way to go!

Once you get the official go-ahead, give every stakeholder a copy, from your workers on the floor to your investors.

Does this process really work?

Yes, it does. This is the process I followed when I came to Adestra in 2014 to run the North American division of our UK-based country. I had no marketing strategy to follow – I was given that blank slate I mentioned earlier.

My first move was to meet with our founders, who started Adestra with a clear vision of the company’s mission and vision. It was quite enlightening to learn about the company firsthand from the people who were there from Day One.

I also took what I knew about marketing strategy for technology providers in the email space, studied the company’s UK strategy and did my due diligence on collecting data as I outlined above.

I also looked at competing companies and their marketing strategies, at the content they produced across all channels: print, email, social media, events, etc. The plan I created based on all my intelligence-gathering, what I knew about the email industry and what the company’s executives envisioned.

And then I failed…

Your marketing plan is a living thing that you can adjust, fine-tune or even throw out and start over.

I failed a lot when I put my early marketing strategies to the test. Failure isn’t a sign that your plan is wrong. But that’s why you test things before you set them in stone. You just never know what will go wrong.

Sometimes you succeed through careful planning and execution. Sometimes you’re lucky. Sometimes you fail because you interpreted the data wrong or because marketing conditions changed.

I could plan for failure because I had a research and development budget that let us test things. No matter how carefully you plan, you can’t control all the external factors that affect your plan. But, you can structure your marketing plan so that one failure won’t scuttle your entire program.

Write down what’s working and what isn’t

Your marketing strategy is not carved in stone. Once you get the ball rolling on it, you should review and update it regularly. Document what worked, what failed (including detailed notes and data) and what you did to follow up.

Print it out, too, and look at it periodically. Adjust it as needed to accommodate changing company and marketing conditions, changes in management direction and new ideas from your team or others around the company.

Wrapping it up

I get it: You’re itching to get started on all those great tactics you’ve been hearing about. But leading with technology and tactics rather than strategy is like setting off on a vacation in a fabulous car without knowing where you’re going or how you’re going to get there.

You might be behind the wheel of your dream car, but if you don’t have a clear roadmap showing you how to use it or where you’re going with it, you’ll end up on the road to nowhere. That’s no way to run a vacation – or a marketing program.

Take the time up front to plan your planning process. Equip yourself and your team with the data, the company knowledge and the game plan that will get you on the right road to marketing success.

Want to improve your Email Marketing ROI? We can help you in creating winning Email Marketing Strategies. Get in touch now!

Ryan Phelan_Adestra Ryan Phelan has over 17 years of online marketing experience from companies like Acxiom, Sears, BlueHornet and Responsys. Ryan, a respected thought leader and nationally distinguished speaker is responsible for the Adestra’s marketing efforts in the U.S. Ryan serves as Chairman Emeritus. EEC Advisory Board, and member of the board of directors for the ESPC.
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