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How (and Why) to Centralize Your Email Marketing

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Picture three email campaigns. The first is poorly written, with broken links. The second has a fancy design, but it renders so badly that half the recipients can't see the offer. The third has great content and great design—but gets not-so-great results.

Our third entrant—by all accounts the creative "winner"—in fact loses, because all three emails came from the same company and hit the inbox on the same day.

There's a message here.

According to JupiterResearch, a mere 38% of companies have a single department handling email communication—while a whopping 24% have six or more.

With silo marketing teams running the show and a chronic resource-to-ROI imbalance forcing marketers to juggle email and two dozen marketing duties, it's no wonder that different business units produce dramatically different results.


Marketers in one group may teach themselves how to test, optimize, and segment email; their counterparts in another group may blast away with little concern for what isn't working.

This is why centralized email marketing is emerging as a best practice. Centralization is about putting a core team of email-marketing experts in place to handle the complicated and mundane tasks most marketers aren't equipped to handle.

There are two broad approaches:

  1. Creating a completely centralized group that acts as an internal agency and handles every aspect of every group's email marketing program.

  2. Tasking a central team with email oversight. Business units still produce their own emails, but the centralized function offers advice and oversees execution.

No matter which path you take, you need dedicated gurus who live and breathe email, understand the challenges, apply best practices, and focus strategically on how to use email to drive business results.

What Tasks You Should Centralize

The goal of centralization is to free marketers to focus on campaign strategy: better messaging, segmentation approaches, stronger offers, the most effective use of the email channel.

The centralized team should take on those tasks that require email-specific expertise:

  • Sharing of best practices, with the centralized team cross-training internal staff, from brand managers to designers to writers to Web site programmers.

  • Overseeing permission and privacy policies that ensure compliance with CAN-SPAM, as well as all applicable international, federal, and state regulations.

  • Controlling quality—and therefore brand perception—by enforcing email design, messaging, and programming best practices. All business units use complementary templates, along with From and Subject lines that make sense. The central team catches brand-damaging mistakes, such as broken images, expired offers, and incorrect links.

  • Production, with a dedicated team refining the process of execution and so achieving greater efficiency to accommodate tight or unexpected deadlines.

  • Data management that encompasses the inputs (list rental, email addresses, and demographics) as well as the outputs (reporting and metrics), because collecting the right data points up front is the only way to segment and personalize down the road.

  • Reporting ROI and communicating the value of email marketing to management and across departments—in the language the boss understands.

  • Conducting market research, such as customer-satisfaction surveys, that give all departments the customer feedback they need to better understand the user and accordingly improve offers.

  • Managing vendors, agencies, and technology. As part of the centralization process, many companies discover to their chagrin that they are under contract to multiple email service providers, and are working with multiple agencies or freelancers with varying degrees of expertise.

How Other Companies Have Centralized

Here's how two real-life companies benefited from centralizing email marketing:

  1. An online financial services company with mortgage, home equity, and auto loan business units was deluging customers and prospects with email. Each business unit was independently extracting lists from the company's database and launching email campaigns, and the Web site itself was spitting out a high volume of transactional email.

    The company put a centralized team in place to discover exactly how much email was going out and from whom. It developed unified branding for all the company's emails. Most importantly, the centralized team authorized only a handful of people to send messages, essentially shutting off the email-marketing valve. This put the company in charge of the user experience.

  2. A major technology publisher that delivers nearly 200 newsletters each week to millions of subscribers has 16 distinct brands, each run by a separate business unit. The parent company established a centralized team of five operational staff and seven engineers to handle newsletter delivery and back-end processes.

    This approach empowered each business unit to control the strategy, messaging, and content for its newsletters—but eliminated a great deal of redundancy. Many of the business units had come into the fold via acquisition, bringing their own email service providers, IT staff, and email-marketing processes with them.

    Over a five-year period, the centralized team standardized the entire company on one ESP, brought software tools in-house, and built a sophisticated database with a common methodology for managing subscriptions.

    The email operations team is now known not only for its reliability but also for its sophisticated reporting and best practices. The group routinely recommends one business unit's innovative approaches to the other brands, assuring that success in one business unit gets replicated across the entire company.

Four Steps to Centralized Email Marketing

To move your company toward a more centralized approach:

  1. Do detective work to reveal how much mail is going out and who runs which programs. Your companywide email inventory should include your sales organization's messages from the CRM system, various marketing teams' campaigns, and your Web site's transactional engine.

  2. Get buy-in from the bottom up and from the top down that your current email-marketing processes aren't nearly as effective as they could be. Marketers must agree that it's important to protect customer assets and brand reputation. Management must step in and say, "Here's how we're going to run email marketing."

  3. Appoint an "email czar"—usually a director or manager of email marketing. Pedigree matters. The email czar needs to be the in-house employee that the other email marketers look up to or a respected outsider who brings instant credibility to the role. A junior marketer just won't cut it, because the email czar must champion the user experience—with the power to enforce guidelines on how often subscribers can be contacted and what kind of messaging they receive, and the authority to direct IT and creative services resources as appropriate.

  4. Establish a companywide email-marketing calendar, an ironclad system for deciding who sends what and when. Owned by your email czar, it predetermines which departments or types of emails get higher priority. It sets frequency caps that limit how many company emails an individual may receive per week or per month. All affected departments have a say in setting the calendar, and all must abide by it.

Conclusion

Establishing a core team of email-marketing gurus to service various business units helps you avoid the inevitable erosion of quality that comes from silo email marketing.

You solve today's issues, such as deliverability and rendering, with a team of experts who champion best practices. You also prepare for tomorrow—a dynamic-content future characterized by personalized subject lines, offers, articles, and products.

Your future success depends on having in-house know-it-alls with deep email-marketing expertise.


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Loren McDonald is vice-president of industry relations at Silverpop, an email service provider for B2C marketing initiatives and B2B lead-management processes. Reach him via lmcdonald@silverpop.com.

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