Technology

Email Marketing: Time to Rethink What's Possible

By / Nov 25, 2014 (iStock/Thinkstock)

It’s easy to look at something that’s long been consistent and reliable—such as email marketing—and think you’ve mastered it. Careful, though: You might unintentionally be holding back your potential.

Last week, an iconic figure learned the hard way what happens when you laugh in the face of possibility.

Back in March, skateboarding legend Tony Hawk took part in an elaborate prank, organized by the comedy site Funny or Die, where he tested out a “Back to the Future II”-inspired hoverboard called HUVr. The sketch—which also featured Christopher Lloyd (who played Doc in the movie series), a DeLorean, and (for some reason) electronic musician Moby—was meant as a joke, timed just ahead of the year when the 1990 film was set. But some viewers thought the HUVr was real, and  Hawk had to apologize for his role in the gag, saying that he “wanted to believe it just as much as you did.”

It’s understandable why he did it: Hawk is considered the Michael Jordan of skateboarding, a superstar who has done everything that can be done with a slab of wood and four wheels. Riding a hoverboard is basically the only thing that could top what he’s already done in his career.

But it appears Hawk laughed too soon, because recently, he got to ride an actual prototype hoverboard—one that required no wires or cranes. The Hendo Hover, an electromagnetic-driven device being promoted on Kickstarter, is a proof-of-concept largely being pitched to tinkerers at this juncture. (It’s not like the movies, at least not yet: As The Verge notes, it only runs for a few minutes on a special surface, and it’s kinda noisy.) Nonetheless, the creators produced a skateboard-style device that Hawk could ride as he was eating crow.

The saga is a nice parable on what happens when you think too small about what can be done in a given situation.

Consider what’s possible

For a lot of associations, email marketing is kind of like the hoverboard—an area where it doesn’t seem like there’s much possibility. An area where we’ve already maxed out on potential.

What if we haven’t, though? What if there were room to disrupt the way we do our marketing and to reach new levels of innovation? What if, instead of limits, we saw opportunities?

A few of those opportunities:

Building an email with a human voice out front: Most associations, for obvious reasons, make the institutional voice the lead one. But what’s stopping us from putting a smart individual out in front of our email marketing? If you look at current trends in email, that’s where we’re headed. Some of the most successful emails out there—like Dave Pell’s NextDraft and Rusty Foster’s Today In Tabs—have put the focus on the individual voice. It’s an effective approach that associations would be smart to look into.

Moving away from old-school designs: For too long, we’ve let the oldest email programs in our user base define where we go with our creativity. Some companies use Outlook 2003’s annoyingly out-of-date email interface, and they make life heck on the people who have to send these emails. But we need to raise our standards on the design front, because marketing emails of other stripes are doing the same. Our users are on mobile more than ever, and our focus should start with them.

Rethinking the nature of our email communications: Quite often, we use emails to focus on messaging, to tell members about news relevant to the industry, or to simply remind people that we exist. But what if other strategies might be more effective in certain cases? Example: Let’s say you have volunteers that you commonly work with on a certain task—say, community moderation—and as a way to keep them engaged, you send out a daily progress report commending members on what they’ve managed to do in a single week. Rather than focusing on the ask, you focus on the progress made. There’s a startup called iDoneThis which does basically this for businesses. This concept could totally translate for volunteer-type functions. Likewise, a constant feed of curated updates, akin to the Launch Ticker, could work for certain associations.

Embracing newer tools: Email tools in the association space tend to be able to slice and dice data, organize massive databases, and A/B test so aggressively that writing that email feels more like science than communication. But (apologies in advance to email-marketing-client makers) there’s a good chance those tools won’t win any beauty contests. What if the strategy we’ve used to turn emails into well-oiled machines made us miss some better strategies along the way? For example, I could see a lot of folks accustomed to hand-coding HTML looking at the Pocket-like email curator GoodBits and thinking … whoa. What if something like the dead-simple email service TinyLetter made sense in certain contexts? I’m not saying they should be our primary tools. But we should be willing to take more risks from time to time, to see what life’s like on the other side. If nothing else, we should constantly be researching changes in the market.

See the Potential

Recently, I’ve been pondering the nature and value of email marketing, and I wonder if traditional strategies are losing their punch.

Admittedly, my line of thinking is inspired by Google’s Inbox. It’s simply a brilliant tool, one that, according to TechCrunch, was built to focus on the heavy email users in Google’s audience.

Inbox, which is still invite-only, is basically smart enough to tell the difference between an email you don’t really care about and one that your entire morning depends on. For marketers fighting for mind-share, that might be scary. (It’s not the first time Google’s taken aim at the sacred cows of email marketing.)

It’s a reminder that there’s a lot of junk in our members’ email inboxes—even among the stuff that isn’t spam. And associations risk falling into the “don’t really care” pile more often than we’d like to admit.

This raises some big questions: Are messages that republish press releases doing the job? Are our news roundups hitting the mark? And is the focus on an organizational voice hurting the possibility of making more powerful connections with strong voices within the organization?

I don’t have all the answers here, nor will I claim to. But I think we should look long and hard at our email marketing strategies and expand our vision of what’s possible.

In Back to the Future terms, it’s the difference between getting away on a skateboard and playing catch-up in a hoverboard race.

It’s always better to be ahead of the competition.

Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the social media journalist for Associations Now, a former newspaper guy, and a man who is dangerous when armed with a good pun. More »

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