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

  •   July 3, 2019

I’m noticing a trend among some email speakers lately – when they want to promote a new idea, they smack down the best practice that relates to it.

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

Here we are, 25 years later, and we’re rethinking many 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 that still hold true.

Best practices grew out of email’s early days

Here’s why I’m not ready to discard everything we’ve built up.

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

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

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

  • We were crazy. People tried whatever they could, emailing or even over-mailing. We developed send-time optimization because 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 where they had faster, more reliable internet connections.
  • Testing was minimal because most email platforms didn’t allow 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 ideas, 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. People who had been 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 today. We were literally testing 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 rapidly after that. We began to build up a knowledge base of acceptable and unacceptable practices and shared our wins and losses.

Our customers 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 clients were looking for help 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, not as the only way to execute on acquisition, engagement, development or retention.

These helped us move into the second age of email development. For example, we knew enough that if we emailed customers who abandoned shopping carts, we stood a good chance of getting them to come back and buy.

A best practice developed – when you get your nightly file of abandoners’ email addresses from your web analytics provider, you shoot out an abandoned-cart reminder email.

Then, 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 research showing that sending as soon as possible after the abandonment would get better returns.

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 transferring their direct-marketing backgrounds to digital – 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. Instead, they’re something you use to launch a program, and then you develop the practice that works best for your brand, company and customers.

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

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

The best practice is your template. It gives you a place to start planning. Then, you adapt that template to 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.

Should 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 experiment. What worked 10 or 15 years ago – anybody want to revive the pre-checked boxes debate? – might not work today thanks to changes in laws, regulations, technology and customer expectations.

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

What this means for marketers

Email is one of the only channels in which you can do a web search and find answers to your toughest questions from the top minds in our industry. And your voice is just as important when you have information to share that comes from your own testing and experience.

Write a white paper. Come up with a guest post in which you share the results of a new testing program, a case study or something else that attests to your success. Ask questions on blog posts, during webinars and at professional conferences. Pretty soon it will 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 leads to 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 strong today as it was 20 years ago. What can you do to respond?


Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Marketing Land. Staff authors are listed here.