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Doug Dennison, the founder of the UK-based email marketing agency MailNinja, learned most of what he knows through trial and error.
“For a long time, my client base was very, very local,” Dennison says. “When I was first starting out, I tried to do as much as I could with my skills as a designer. Learning how to market took time.”
But Dennison has put in the work. By focusing on a niche—email marketing—MailNinja has been able to attract large clients like Sotheby’s, Stanford University, Eventbrite, and hundreds of others.
“And this despite being a small agency an hour outside of London,” Dennison says. “One of the things we’ve learned is how to tailor our services around the client and their customers.”
“It’s good to be influenced by your competitors, but you can’t assume that everything that works for them will work for you.”
Here are a few of the other hard-won lessons MailNinja has learned over more than a decade in business.
1. Automation is at the heart of e-commerce.
“Regardless of the campaign, automation has to be a component for it to be a success,” Dennison says. “It safeguards you against missed opportunities.”
Think of automation as your safety net. At those points during a campaign when a customer might slip through the cracks—after first signing up, after abandoning a cart, or even after making a purchase—automation ensures there’s always another moment of contact and another opportunity.
2. Never take a subscriber for granted.
“If you’re in e-commerce, email is your golden ticket to more sales,” Dennison says. “But it takes a lot of work to get someone to subscribe and interact with your emails. If they’re in your ecosystem, you have to show you value them.”
Maybe it means offering special discounts and coupons. Maybe you thank them directly. But however you do it, it’s important to let your subscribers know that they’re more than a name on a list. They’re your customers, and you value them.
3. Pay attention to language.
“Whenever we do an audit for a new client, one of the things we look at is the language that they’ve been using,” Dennison says. “We want to understand what kind of language works, and when it connects with the customer.”
Sometimes, it can be difficult to tell which variables cause some emails to succeed and others to fail. But at the heart of good email is writing and language. As you’re running an audit for a new client, make sure you’re not only looking at subject lines and CTAs—also take a careful look at the body content.
4. Every great idea needs great data.
“When we can show a client tangible evidence about how people are engaging, we get better traction,” Dennison says. “We have enough experience to know what’s good strategy, but being able to generate a report or comparison with the client’s own data makes the argument for us.”
The data available with each of your clients will vary, and sometimes a client might not have much for you to sift through. But as you develop strategy, using client data to support your case will help to affirm your recommendations.
5. Make a habit of testing.
“Trial and error is a good thing. With email—and marketing in general—you can’t be afraid to test things,” Dennison says. “But it has to be a habit. It has to be something you do with every email you send.”
Every email you send is an opportunity to collect information on your subscribers. Are you taking advantage of it? Like any habit, it takes a little repetition to get this one to stick, but once you’re used to regularly using every email to test a variable, you’ll see that it’s actually pretty easy to keep up with. And for a relatively small time investment, the payoff is huge: accurate, actionable data.
6. Take advice with a grain of salt.
“Every subscriber is different. There’s a lot of advice out there—a lot of articles detailing best practices for when to send emails, how to write subject lines. But that’s only ever a start. Your testing is what’s most important,” Dennison says.
Yes, we recognize the irony here, but it has to be said: Articles dispensing advice on email can only take you so far. Hundreds of thousands of words have been written on how to get the most out of your email campaigns, but the best intelligence you’ll ever get is what you test and measure with your actual subscribers.
7. Don’t make big assumptions from small numbers.
“You want to split test a few times, but you don’t want to keep split testing the same thing forever,” Dennison says. “You need enough information to say, yes, this data is correct. But you always want to make sure you’re testing multiple variables over time.”
Let’s say the first time you used an emoji in your subject line, the open rate spiked. Is that enough information to decide how you’ll run campaigns from now on? Certainly not. But by the same token, that emoji can’t be all you test—100 split tests on that 1 variable won’t yield much useful data.
Find the happy middle. Repeat a few tests, but also test multiple variables. The data—and your conclusions—will be the better for it.
8. Cherry-pick your way to success.
“It’s good to be influenced by your competitors, but you can’t assume that everything that works for them will work for you,” Dennison says. “For a whole host of reasons, you may see different results. So pick and choose the things you like and think will work, but be ready to adjust as needed.”
The best thing about having competition is that they often make mistakes before you do. Likewise, they can be a great source of new ideas when you see their success. But there’s always wiggle room: Pick and choose the bits you like and leave the rest alone.
9. Don’t. Move. The goalpost.
“Things go better when we have a little more autonomy, and that’s not least because we have control of the strategy,” Dennison says. “When there are multiple layers of management overseeing what we do and people who keep redefining the goals, we can’t give them the best results.”
With some clients, it’s an unfortunate truth that you’re going to have a lot of people making demands. But what really causes trouble is when nobody’s on the same page, or there’s disagreement about what you’re trying to accomplish. Define your goals early, and fight to keep them unchanged until the results are in.
10. You’re so money and you don’t even know it.
“People signed up for your newsletter for a reason. They’re interested in you, in your products. Don’t think on it too much,” Dennison says. “Start sending your emails and focus on your value, the reason to buy, the things that make your products special. Just get going.”
It can be easy to get caught up in planning—doing the research, analyzing statistics, developing strategies. But it’s also important not to lose sight of what you bring to the table. Go forth, and email with confidence. Your subscribers signed up for a reason.
Illustrations by Jess Rotter, a Los Angeles-based artist whose illustrations have appeared on public murals, album covers, and a whole lot of T-shirts. Her first book, I’m Bored, was released in October 2016.