How To Avoid E-Fail, Email's Irritating Cousin

Posted by Alec Biedrzycki

Feb 13, 2013, 2:55 PM

Today's marketing challenge speaks to the importance of building buyer personas and analyzing your sales process when launching an email campaign. It was submitted by Matt, who says:

"We have a small online store using Volusion template. Business is small and steady. Sales are 80% to university research labs and 20% to research labs in the private sector and government. We tried direct email marketing using Constant Contact and the stuff we put out was pretty good content-wise. It resulted in absolutely no increase in sales - zilch, nada. Don't know why. We expected some increase but there was nothing. Wondering why direct email was such a failure." With all this preparation and strategy there's nothing worse in marketing when a campaign like this falls flat--especially one that seems so promising. Plus, email marketing can be a very powerful channel, so seeing it fail is discouraging.

Based on what you've shared, it seemed like a well thought-out initiative for your eCommerce website. You have a defined target market (private sector and university research labs) with a sales-focused end goal in mind. You also had some good content that you thought would get some traction.  So what went wrong? Let's diagnose some of the key areas on why this campaign might've fizzled out:

Persona Development: Have you really dug deep into what each segment cares about? I'm assuming that the two audiences (university and private sector / government) you defined are separated for a reason. To some degree, each audience must have different characteristics, so you should spend some time determining what these attributes are and how you convey your message to each one. This will help you define persona segments that you should target separately. Getting your prospects to buy the product is the ultimate end goal, but we need to get each segment there differently. So how do you create these persona segments? Here's a quick five-question exercise to go through :

  1. What is the persona struggling with that your product helps them solve?
  2. What position at the company does this persona hold?
  3. What is the ultimate value that your product brings to this persona?
  4. What are some common objections this persona has to your product?
  5. What does this persona care about most in buying a product like yours?

The answers to the above questions will help craft your message in the content you create to market to each persona segment. The next stage is then defining the sales process and the phases each persona goes through before buying your product. For example, I think Old Spice has nailed their target persona-- so much in fact that just about EVERY product that targets the 20-30 year-old male demographic has shamelessly ripped off the Old Spice campaign:

Defining the Sales Process: Have you ever impulse-bought a car? Chances are, you haven't (if you have, just go along with my example here--also, I'd like to hear the story sometime if that's cool). Anyway, my point here is that there's quite a bit of research one does before buying a car. Similarly, about 99% of purchasing decisions follow through some sort of sales process. You ask questions, get hounded by a sales rep, try to get the best deal, compare the competition, etc. The same applies to your product or service. People aren't always ready to buy. Oftentimes, they need to learn more about your product and your company before committing. To ensure your email campaign is as successful as it can be, it's best to define your buying process, map out the lifecycle stages your personas go through and then align your content strategy by persona and lifecycle stage. Some basic lifecycle stages you can use are:

  1. Lead: Someone who opt-ed and expressed some interest in your product or service
  2. Marketing Qualified Lead: Typically an individually who has shown a repeated interest in your product or service by re-opting in or completing some marketing action (examples: opened an email, visited a specific web page, downloaded a brochure, etc.)
  3. Sales Qualified Lead: Someone who has been qualified for a sale.
  4. Customer: Don't think I need to define this one...

Content Alignment: Continuing from the point above, it's best to divide up your audience by persona and lifecycle stage and serve up the content that's specifically tailored to that group. For example, a lead is most likely someone who's looking for more information (not ready to buy just yet), so we'd want to send them a high level brochure or piece of collateral that provides useful information on how your product or service solves whatever they're struggling with (see the persona development point above). On the other hand, a Marketing Qualified leads may need to see a brochure that explains your products in more detail and why your company trumps the competition. And customers? Still good to keep those guys engaged-- give them discounts from time to time. Keep them involved with your product and make them love it. A happy customer is a repeat customer.


Messaging: Persona development and content alignment are the two structural foundations of any successful email marketing campaign, but the messaging is the glue that holds them together. You'll want to make sure that each persona segment is getting the right piece of content with a clear message as to what the intended course of action is. If you're trying to get leads to become marketing qualified leads, think through the content you'll need to send them (perhaps a product brochure), if the collateral is aligned with the target persona (is it valuable for them?) and if the messaging has a clear call-to-action. This will ensure the right people are getting the right content to move them closer to your business' goal.

The List of Contacts: The first question I ask when someone wants to spearhead an email campaign is almost always "who are you going to email?" Rented or bought lists are about as useful as a freezer in the Arctic. If you launch a well-planned email campaign but the recipient list is full of out-of-date email addresses or the wrong type of prospects (which is oftentimes the case with bought lists), you're gonna have a bad time. From what I understand, folks who opt in to be part of a paid list service do it for an incentive (monetary) that's not aligned with the solution or service you provide. I'd recommend figuring out an opt-in strategy for the website--providing free, useful content that people want and have them opt-in to receive it. Sure, it's a bit more of a process but this is the best way to generate quality email addresses.

My recommendations for "Take #2":

So say you were running this campaign again. Here are the steps I would take to ensure it's more successful:

  1. Audit the Contact List: If it's bought, you're most likely going to trip right out of the starting gate. If this is the case, I'd recommend either confronting the individual who purchased it and swiftly bonking them over the head (if you were the one to buy it, use your discretion in self-bonking) or devising an opt-in, lead generation strategy for the website. Here's a great article from Kiss-Metrics on how you can integrate lead generation tactics to your website: Remember to create content that appeals to different lifecycle stages of website visitors so you're catering to each audience.
  2. Define the Personas: Take some time to really nail down the personas. Have a team meeting to discuss. Personas are the backbone of all the marketing efforts you do, so you'll want to ensure you're not missing out on any opportunities to be more appealing to them.
  3. Create Content That's Aligned with Lifecycle Stage: This is probably where the brunt of the work comes in, but it can pay off in HUGE ways if done correctly. You'll need to map out the lifecycle stages that your customers go through and then put together a piece of content that will appeal to each. Create a high-level guide to foster lead conversion, a product brochure to grow marketing qualified leads and special discounts to drive more customers. Not only will these be great pieces of content to send to your existing email database-- they'll also be effective at capturing organic website traffic through opt-in efforts.
  4. Custom-Tailor Your Messaging: Take the time to define the goal of your email campaign and map out how you're going to reach it. Then, ensure the messaging is contextually relevant to the target segment, has explicit value conveyed and a clear call to action.

I'd give it another go with the above steps, if possible. One thing I've learned from marketing is that you need to fail first in order to succeed. Rarely does a campaign take off on the first try. While it's discouraging, you can always learn from your missteps. Chin up, Matt. Chin up!

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