Winning at email marketing automation: an interview with Karen Talavera

Skip, our Client Services Director, takes some time out to grill somebody else for a change, on some of the challenges and the conversations faced by US-based email marketers.

From August 11, the East-Coast US city of Philadelphia will play host to eTail East 2014, a key global online retail conference. dotmailer is hosting a pre-conference roundtable discussion, at the  Email Marketing & Optimzation Summit, chaired by email marketing strategist and a colleague, Karen Talavera, President of Synchronicity Marketing.

A globally-recognized digital marketing expert, Karen’s expertise has seen her work for a diverse range of enterprise and SMB clients, ranging from ServiceMaster, Bank of the West, AAA, and the Chicago Convention and Tourism Bureau. I took a break with Karen, and posed some of the bigger questions that face marketers in the space of email marketing automation.

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Karen Talavera

Q: Even getting broadly targeted email marketing campaigns out the door can be so time-intensive, that applying a more sophisticated approach with automation, seems a little overwhelming. How much can one marketer really do?

Talavera: The greatest stress points always seem to boil down to resources – namely the number of people working in the email trenches, and of course time. Smart marketers are more aware than ever, of what can be done with data and automation-driven email programs, but they’re so busy maintaining broadly-targeted email programs that more sophisticated automation efforts – which take time to strategize and set up – get relegated to the back burner.

Knowing what’s possible, but being unable to execute is painful. However, smart marketers eventually use money to buy time. They invest financially in a variety of ways such as hiring a consultant or agency for additional bandwidth, adding staff headcount, or of course, upgrading to a faster, more nimble email marketing platform that integrates with behavior- and data-driven predictive targeting and automated messaging tools.

Q: When it comes to applying automation to email, where does it make sense to start, and why?

Talavera: It’s starts by picking the “low-hanging fruit” of untapped revenue, and that revenue is easily obtained at specific points in customer relationship and browsing/shopping cycles.

For example, welcoming new email subscribers with an offer for first purchase is pretty standard practice these days, and makes perfect sense. Someone who voluntarily subscribes to email is automatically qualifying herself as an interested prospect, and likely planning to buy, so why not accelerate the process with an incentive right out of the gate?

Triggered browse and shopping cart abandonment emails are also a natural opportunity to re-capture otherwise lost revenue due to interruptions, distractions, or buyer hesitation. But of course those are only the beginning of automation practices – approaches become much more sophisticated once marketers begin intelligently using past behavioral data to predict and make cross-sell, up-sell, and reward offers that convert at five or ten times their average promotions.

Q: How important is creating a “conversation” or “dialogue” in B2C marketing & how does this differ from B2B?

Talavera: I think it’s essential. While simple “sense and respond” triggered email like abandoned cart, up-sell, or even birthday campaigns almost universally outperform broadly targeted campaigns (especially with consumers) I’m passionate about teaching marketers a longer term, conversational mindset.

We must go beyond asking our customers to take a few steps with us and instead, think in terms of inviting them to dance! Too many marketers stop at the two-step “action-response” tactics and don’t go the extra mile to choreograph an email-centric dialog over time, which is really akin to intentionally mapping a customer relationship over time.

So after first purchase, think about what ideally happens next based on who the customer is;  what they did/purchased; and how much they spent. And then, what happens after that? And after that? There will likely be several paths that customers can travel down, and we should be thinking those paths through, in detail, and aligning email to the various journeys.

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This is where, strategically, email marketing becomes quite complex. It takes time to understand the customer journey and message appropriately along a consideration path. But the beauty of technology is that once we understand those paths, we can deploy messages that authentically guide our customers down them.

The B2C customer journey can be fundamentally different in length, cadence and need for information from the B2B journey. Many business buying cycles are longer and more complex – often requiring level upon level of approval and consensus – than consumer cycle are, yet each person – whether as a consumer or professional – deserves to be in a relationship in which their needs are being anticipated, nurtured and met.

You may have heard email marketing being compared to dating: You don’t go from asking someone out for coffee to proposing marriage – at least, not if you want a second date! Therefore, neither should our email programs take that tack. When we maintain a conversational approach, subscribers see we’re genuinely interested in cultivating their business and trust, and in getting to know and serve their needs. This makes them far more likely to buy and remain loyal over time.

Q: ‘Optimization’ is a term tossed around like the holy grail of email marketing. What does it mean to you and can companies even achieve it? If so, how?

Talavera: I define “optimization” in terms of email marketing performance, as achieving the best possible return at any given time. Given constantly changing circumstances and resource levels, it may be possible to continually optimize – so I believe marketers should think of optimization as a continuous improvement process.

Can companies achieve it? Of course! In email marketing, there are not only numerous simple automation practices not being take advantage of (such as the ones I already mentioned) which can immediately improve returns, but there are also data-driven technologies which, based on past subscriber behavior, can pinpoint the best time to send email, the best next product or action to recommend, or the best offer to use, subscriber-by-subscriber. This is immensely powerful and constitutes true 1:1 marketing.

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Still, I think it’s instructive to realize we can optimize at a point-in-time, but we shouldn’t rest on our laurels. There is no upper limit. There is always more we can test and experiment with to achieve better results. Over time, we have greater amounts of data to model, or from which to determine future messaging.

Really, the job is never done.

Q: Do you think automation is essential to achieving optimization?

Talavera: In a word, absolutely! Automation is essential for 1-to-1 targeting and customization in email. And those 1-to-1 email messages are the key to revenue and response optimization, because they convert at ten to twenty times higher than generalized broadcast campaigns.

Who among us wouldn’t want to feel as if a company we receive email from is speaking directly, specifically, and relevantly to us? Everyone craves personal attention, even more so in a world where personal service is disappearing. Through dynamic content, data-driven mass customization and automation, we can make our email messages and entire email dialogues appear personalized to each subscriber or customer.  That in itself is worth its weight in gold.

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1-to-1 email is impossible without automation. Trying to manually deploy hundreds of different email message versions to thousands of subscribers is too monumental an investment in time and money to ever pay off.

Q: How do we optimize time? Is it like digging a hole in the sand where smaller, less important tasks just naturally fill the vacuum, or can we ever get ahead to the point of making significant and deeper contributions from the channel?

Talavera: Yes, we can optimize time, but it costs us money. I’ll go back to where we started this interview and emphasize once more that we optimize time by getting faster and more efficient at how we do email. Which means – like it or not – investing in strategy, systems, and people which deliver speed and leverage. It’s the old “time-money” equation – you can save money but it will cost you time, or you can save time but it will cost you money.

For email marketers, what they make up in time savings by investing in automation, more nimble email marketing platforms, analytics and strategy more than makes up for the financial cost of the investment because of the much higher conversion rate of automated email.

Finally, remember that the real cost is never present money, its lost future opportunity. Email is a rapidly evolving channel. We can’t slowly dig ourselves out of the sand hole because the sand keeps pouring in too fast. In the end, we must leap.

You can follow Karen on Twitter (@SyncMarketing) or Facebook for daily tips and links to emerging email and social media marketing trends, facts and research. To request a free Breakthrough Session revealing the path to greater visibility, revenue and results from your company’s email marketing, click here

Meet Karen or the dotmailer team at eTail East – Booth #68 – and learn how you can develop lasting relationships with your customers through email marketing automation.