3 Email Marketing Pain Points that Are Actually Awesome

2016 is the best of times and the worst of times for marketers. It’s the best of times because we have access to more tools for acquisition, engagement, and retention than ever before: we can reach audiences in creative and personalized ways. Not to mention, marketing technology is still in its infancy, and it’s only going to keep getting better (read: you can teach an old dog new tricks).

So why is it the worst of times?

These same marketing channels are backstabbing us. They’re getting competitive and in some cases, expensive. There are too many companies with six and seven figure marketing budgets trying to reach the same audiences.

Marketing ecosystems are flooded. And one of the most tumultuous channels to navigate is email. Why is that, you ask? It’s well known that email has the highest ROI out of any marketing channel. That’s because it’s the most direct way to reach audiences 1:1. With the right strategy in place, you can achieve high profit margins and retentions and a low cost.

At the same time, email is a competitive, fickle, and confusing channel. It’s competitive because your target recipients receive way too much junk (and legitimate email too). It’s fickle because consumers opt out of lists for many different reasons, all the time–in many ways, list growth is unpredictable and dependent on industry trends. It’s confusing because underlying causes for trends are difficult to pinpoint, deconstruct, and explain.

Your biggest email marketing challenges may great news for your business. Here are 3 scenarios that explain why:

(1) Your oldest, most loyal subscribers are dropping out of your list

At first glance, you may assume that your email marketing strategy isn’t working anymore—and maybe that is, in fact, the case. It could be that your content is generic or that a competitor is doing a better job of engaging your audiences than you are.

But there may be another, more positive explanation.

Think back to the types of people who subscribe to your email lists: they’re interested in your products and likely using them to solve a key pain point. An unsubscribe, as a result, may be a sign that your subscriber has achieved his or her goal and moved on to life’s next milestone. In other words, your company did its job.

Caveat: This explanation only works for companies in which there is a “graduation” point. Some types of companies like publishers and e-commerce brands, for instance, should be able to deliver experiences that audiences never outgrow. But SaaS, education, and services companies usually fit into a particular stage of a company’s lifecycle. When clients move on, it means these companies have done their jobs.

How to figure out what’s going on: Make sure that you have an opt-out survey. Ask pre-populated questions as to why customers might be unsubscribing. Ask them to rate the quality of your email list, and included open-ended form fields for qualitative responses (sometimes, closed-ended responses fail to communicate the nuances of a story). Ask of some of these unsubscribers would be willing to opt-into a 30 minute phone conversation where you could interview them (maybe offer an incentive like a gift card or coupon as a thank you). Figure out what might be happening with your list.

Once you prove or disprove your theory: If your subscribers are graduating and moving on from your company, all is not lost—you can always create another, more tailored email list to your audiences who need more advanced material. On the other hand, if your subscribers are frustrated with your list, there are still steps that you can take. Just course-correct your marketing actions with messages and value propositions that are more appealing.

(2) Your one-size-fits-all marketing messages don’t work anymore

Conversion rates should be trending upwards rather than downwards over time—when you get to know your audiences, you can better tailor your marketing messages. So downward-spiraling conversion rates may seem alarming.

What might be happening?

Doom and gloom say that your audiences aren’t responding with your marketing messages anymore: they’re failing to engage with offers and, even worse, they’re unsubscribing.

But try to see a silver lining, and another story will unfold.

It could be the case that your company has grown so much that your customer segments have changed in composition. Maybe you’ve grown in one area but shrunk in another. Maybe you’ve onboarded an entirely new audience.

In any case, you need to analyze your segments.

How to figure out what’s going wrong: First, you need to backtrack your list and conduct a thorough audit of what might be going wrong. Try to eyeball your database to create psychographic profiles. Then, map your subscribers to these personas. A freelance virtual assistant can help with the manual parts of this process. Look for trends in your marketing messages and changes to your conversion rates. When subscribers opt-out of your list, ask why in a follow-up survey. Ask your unsubscribers if they would be open to a follow-up interview in exchange for a consulting fee.

How to course-correct: There are two parts to this process. First, you need to re-design your opt-in process. Ask subscribers what they’re interested in learning about so that you can send them more targeted mailings. Now comes the fun (read: tough part). You need to backfill this missing data from your existing subscriber list. To accomplish this goal, you’ll need to group everyone in your database into customer persona categories. Then, you can merge your old and new lists. If you’re familiar with statistics: this process is known as imputation (read more about the technique for handling missing database records here).  

Bonus points: It could be the case that there is no silver lining and that your marketing messages just aren’t working. That’s okay because the process referenced above will also help you figure out what’s wrong with your messaging so that you can iterate and improve.

(3) Audiences aren’t converting into subscribers

Let’s face it: you could have the best blog content in the world, and audiences still won’t want to sign up for your newsletter. If you have a “subscribe to our newsletter” widget or CTA on your website that isn’t converting, you’re not alone.

It doesn’t necessarily mean that your content isn’t doing its job as an educational tool, however. The likely scenario is that your audiences are way too bombarded with email. They may love your what you’re publishing but would prefer to receive updates via ‘stream of consciousness’ (like a Facebook or Twitter feed).

How to figure out what’s going on: It tough to know why audiences aren’t subscribing. The first thing you’ll want to figure out is whether this behavior is typical of the customer segments that you’re trying to reach. You’ll want to start by conducting qualitative research and hosting interviews with customers. Ask them what newsletters they’re subscribed to and why. After identifying the value propositions that resonate with them, adapt and adjust your opt-in messaging to reflect these needs. You may also decide to change your email strategy.

How to course-correct: In your opt-in process, make sure that you clearly articulate a value proposition that your audiences will care about. Don’t assume that a free tool or whitepaper will do the trick: if you’re trying to reach executives, for instance, you probably won’t get much traction with an in-depth guide or whitepaper. Change your messaging to what your audience cares about. It’s that simple.

Final Thoughts

Even the smartest founders and marketing leaders have trouble connecting the dots to explain sporadic trends. It’s easy, as a result, to compartmentalize trends as either good or bad. But to fix the bad, marketers need to get a sense of the underlying trends: which usually incorporates some element of good as well. Pessimism will only carry you so far. Focus on the silver lining (helping your customers), and you’ll solve your email marketing challenges.