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Is email marketing a ‘failure-friendly’ channel?


Marketers are incredibly split on whether email marketing is a channel that’s forgiving of mistakes. Litmus polled more than a 1,000 marketers and roughly a third said email was “failure-friendly,” another third said it wasn’t, and the remaining third was unsure.

Is email marketing a 'failure-friendly' channel?

How marketers feel stands in sharp contrast to how most experts feel. Litmus spoke to email veterans at Barkley, Adobe, Red Pill Email, Oracle, RAPP, and Adestra about this issue. The vast majority said that failures in email were, at the very least, less painful than in other channels, and at most, necessary for optimizing the channel.

Easier, Faster Trial and Error

“I would define failure-friendly as a channel that allows for fast trial and error with minimal wasted investment (compared to other channels) and high potential for pay off,” says Jessica Best, Director of Data-Driven Marketing at Barkley. “In that case, I absolutely consider email to be failure-friendly!”

“‘Failure-friendly’ means you get smarter faster, and with every email you send.” —Jessica Best of Barkley [Tweet this →]

Best points out that A/B testing is now relatively easy in email marketing and that testing results are available “almost immediately.”

Kristin Naragon, Director of Product Marketing for Adobe Campaign, also equates failure-friendliness with A/B testing.

“Failure is necessary for growth and the best way to fail in email marketing is in a controlled environment and in the context of testing,” she says. “Testing different content, timing, or subject lines may not always work out, but should eventually help the email marketer create a program that performs better in the long run.”

Naragon stresses that the short-term “failures” involved in testing are different from long-term failures where programs flounder and chronically underperform, hurting the brand’s image and the experiences delivered to customers.

Failing More Cheaply

“A long time ago I learned that if you aren’t failing at least some of the time, you aren’t taking enough risks,” says Jeanne Jennings, VP of Client Strategy and Creative Services at Red Pill Email. “The key about email is that, if you execute correctly, your failures won’t come with a large loss of revenue. Your learnings in this channel are more ‘affordable’ than on other channels due to the low initial investment.”

Bradford Johnson, Senior Director of Strategic and Analytic Services at Oracle, agrees that your email results can be used to improve other channels, like the web, where failure can be much costlier.

“Email should be a quick proving ground for website initiatives before they’re pursued,” says Johnson. “Due to email’s reach and immediacy, you can use it to help the website decide which projects to consider.”

Even outside of A/B testing, you should embrace failure as a cost of doing business. Business are often too risk-averse when it comes to their email marketing programs, says Cinnamon Brunmier-Keller, VP of Technology Services at RAPP.

“Companies need to release the sacred cows and be open to trying not only something new, but also something that didn’t work before but might work now,” she says. “The key is to keep pivoting based upon the learnings and the insights.”

“Even a ‘failure’ is a success in terms of insights.” —Cinnamon Brunmier-Keller of RAPP [Tweet this →]

At Litmus, we view email marketing mistakes as a matter of “when,” not “if.” As we explain in our How to Recover from Email Marketing Mistakes ebook, email marketing is too dynamic, too complex, and too quick of a medium to avoid mistakes completely.

How to Recover from Mistakes

This free report shares advice and real-life examples that help you recover from email marketing mistakes quickly and with grace.



Fear of Failure

While it appears that email marketing is a channel that’s very forgiving of mistakes, company executives are much less so.

A shocking number of marketers personally know someone who lost their job because of an email marketing mistake that was made, according to a Litmus poll.

Fired for a Failure

That may be a big reason why marketers were so split on whether email is a failure-friendly channel. This is deeply unfortunate because the chilling effect caused by this may be discouraging email marketers from trying new tactics and strategies, which hurts their company’s competitiveness in the inbox.

It may also be encouraging email marketers to cover up their mistakes rather than confessing to them, leading to subpar customer experiences for brands. That may be one of the reasons that most marketers don’t send an apology email over the course of a year—they’re afraid to acknowledge their mistakes for fear of retribution.

What Marketers Can Do

For those of you who don’t see email as a failure-friendly channel, or who are on the fence, here are a few strategies for changing the culture at your company:

1. Make fuller use of A/B testing

Company leaders are quite supportive of A/B testing, so make use of this support to normalize experimentation, which intrinsically involves the success of one variation and the failure of the other.

Executive Support for A/B Testing

Currently, email marketers use A/B testing mostly for subject lines and a few other elements, according to our State of Email Design report. Think bigger! Test different layouts, different messaging approaches, different kinds of email triggers. Increase the stakes so your executives can clearly see that bigger one-time failures are the cost of creating bigger ongoing successes.

2. Use A/B testing to settle disputes

Also consider using A/B tests to settle disagreements between yourself and your teammates, managers, and agency partners. With most companies embracing data-driven and customer-centric approaches to marketing, using A/B testing to work through disagreements should be the expectation. Then everyone can get an appreciation for just how frequently gut instinct can be wrong.

Currently, nearly one-third of marketers have never used A/B testing to settle a dispute. That’s an opportunity to be more data-driven and customer-centric.

Diplomatic Use of A/B Testing

3. Extrapolate your successes

Sometimes an A/B test of an email campaign only impacts the performance of that one campaign. But if you’re A/B testing a new design, messaging approach, or other long-term change, then be sure to quantify that positive change in performance and multiply it out over the subsequent campaigns.

Periodically review the results of your tests and experiments and show the impact over time. Consider creating a profit and loss (P&L) statement for your testing to help communicate the value in a way that will resonate with executives.

4. Couching failures as successes

In addition to extrapolating your success, consider flipping that around and talking about loss-avoidance.

“I once did a test with a $10,000 advertising budget,” says Ryan Phelan, Vice President of Marketing Insights at Adestra. “The campaign was supposed to run three weeks. Five days in, we found it wasn’t performing. So, I cut it off. I spent $3,000 on that campaign. Did I say, ‘Sorry, I blew $3,000?’ No. I learned we didn’t have to spend $10,000 to find out it didn’t work.”

Those are four approaches that email marketers can use to foster a failure-friendly culture that’s more supportive of experimentation and testing as a data-driven path to superior performance. But email marketers can’t change their company culture on their own.

“Email marketers must not be afraid of failure for email marketing to be failure-friendly.” —Ryan Phelan of Adestra [Tweet this →]

For true change to happen, leadership has to be involved.

Get your boss on board.

As a culture, we’ve been trained to instinctively see every mistake and every failure as bad. Yes, mistakes aren’t great, but our research shows that not making any apology-worthy mistakes could be a sign of much bigger structural problems within your email marketing program and within your company. We explain why in our Why a Lack of Email Marketing Mistakes Is a Red Flag leadership brief, which we encourage you to read and share with your manager.

Download the free report →

This Leadership Brief is part of Litmus’ Email Marketing Leadership Series. Other briefs in the series include:

Chad S. White

Chad S. White

Chad S. White was the Research Director at Litmus