The myth of Sisyphus tells the story of a man punished by the gods to forever roll a boulder up a hill only to have it roll down again once he got it to the top.
Rather like looking at your email every day.
The most important real estate in an email is not in the email itself. It is the recipient’s inbox, where your email subject line will take its place among many others that arrive every day, for many reasons, fulfilling many purposes. The success of your email campaign depends on your successful management of your place in your recipient’s inbox.
If you are old enough to remember the 1990’s, you may remember that, prior to the advent of the commercialized internet, the printed catalog ruled the physical mailbox. Imagine if every Shopify or boutique store on the web was delivered to you as a semi-large print magazine, with glossy images, itsy-bitsy copy dedicated to telling you a story about a product or summarizing the features of the same for your entertainment.
For a while, mailboxes all around the US were flooded by prospecting catalog companies that had purchased lists from one another or from list brokers and were trying their luck to expand their audience to meet ever higher business goals. In those days, physical mailboxes were considered an amazing expanding infinite space, capable of taking in as many catalogs and selling publications as could be crammed into them by a mail person.
A physical mailbox has one clear advantage over a digital one. If the mailbox owners are likely to clear the mailbox, entirely, every time they open it. You end up with Mailbox 0 every day, and you don’t have to worry about leaving stray letters or magazines in the mailbox. Normally, you take them all out and you make decisions about them: this one comes inside the house, this one goes straight into the recycling bin. Which selling pieces survive the tired decision making of the mailbox-owners and avoid a trip to the recycling bin is usually determined by three primary elements: whether the mailbox owner knows and expects the company that sent the catalog and whether they consider the selling piece important to them at the moment they look at it. This could be triggered by a headline or an image.
The third element is the mental state of the person while dealing with the mailbox-clearing task: If the person had a lousy day, or been fired, or is having a day where they’ve been contradicted by everyone they’ve talked to, or are simply tired of making decisions all day, chances are, regardless of the brilliance of the images and headlines available in the catalog, that the desire for simplifying life, for making the decision making process as simple as possible, leads the person to take one decision: unless it is a check, or an essential notification of some sort, or a personal letter, everything is going into the recycling bin.
The eyes glaze. The headlines go unread. The beautiful images are unseen. Only the minimum engagement is needed to make that decision.
Who sent it? Is it important? Is it personal? No? Then out it goes.
There may be a bit of a thrill in rejecting all the calls to your attention embedded in the pile of physical mail.
Buy. Read. Watch. Wear. Do.
Not today. (Ha! Owned you!)
Digital mailboxes don’t have the luxury of providing a catalog cover with multiple headlines to increase the chance of a single one grabbing the attention of the inbox holder. You only get one line. And perhaps you get to display your secondary text below it, if the inbox is set up that way. And while most people deal with their physical mailbox only once a day, dealing with an inbox is a constant task during the day and night, a task that is repeated, day after day, like Sisyphus pushing his rock up the hill until the end of time.
This means that you are more likely to find yourself at the wrong end of the same impulse that a physical mailbox owner experiences when decision-exhaustion hits. In the trash bin. Or worse, in a fit of anger, labeled as Spam.
Establishing a relationship cannot be done ‘top down’, with the business taking the ‘top’ and directing the customer to have an enforced relationship with them on the basis of consent to email. Establishing this type of relationship, on a remote basis, with email, requires consensus on both sides on the boundaries and benefits of it.
As customers scan row after row in their inbox, day after day, their eyes glaze over the beautifully thought out subject lines, the emojis crying for attention, and they stop seeing you. They stop looking for you in their inbox.
How can the customer see you in their inbox? How can you get them to seek you out there and smile when they see a message from you?
By treating the recipient’s inbox real estate as a scarce, not infinite, resource.
This isn’t simply a matter of cadence of messages. There are times, as when a purchase has happened, where a customer is happy to receive progress reports of the purchase completion and delivery. The messages received are understood to be like passing road signs that don’t require additional attention or action, but that by appearing in the inbox, help transform a remote purchase into something real.
The problem appears after the first purchase, or the first newsletter signup. Most email marketers assume that because there’s been consent to receive email, there is a relationship there, and they gleefully start piling messages into the inbox like someone who can’t believe their luck that anyone would agree to pay attention to them and now that they have successfully ‘breached your defenses’ they are going to take advantage of that situation until told to stop.
That’s how emails in the inbox get to be ignored, deleted and/or labeled spam. The assumption that consent to email is the establishment of a relationship between recipient and business is simply incorrect.
The relationship still has to be built. Step by step. And it is up to your email marketing to do it.
How do you build that relationship? It is a combination of the number of messages and the approach the messages take. It is possible to test the cadence of messaging using tools to establish how a delivery schedule can be optimized beyond the basics. That is relatively straightforward.
The tougher part is where no tools exist to assist you. The part where you as a business has to build and nurture a relationship with someone who may or may not want it.
The first step, then, is to assume that you have no relationship with the customer, even though you have consent to email. The second step is to assume that consent to email really means consent to test whether a relationship between the two parties could exist. From that point of view, you have to create messages that aim to build that relationship and put it on a solid footing so both sides understand where they are in relation to each other.
One way to do this is view your prospect or paying customer as another version of you. A more evolved version of you. One that you are curious about and want to learn more about simply because you feel that you still have to understand them.
Use your email to greet them and talk to them as that more evolved version of you. The You that you would like to be.
The Zulu greet each other with the word Sawubona. It literally means “I see you, you are important to me and I value you”.
By thinking of your email recipient as a more evolved version of you, you can make your messages carry the Sawubona feeling that you see and value the recipient and that you want to learn about them and understand them better.
Email messages provide the opportunity to demonstrate this state of affairs via text, copy, images and the description of your business actions. By exploring this situation from your side, you may find that the relationship has a good chance to exist and survive over time.
And by using the concept of focusing your emails on a more advanced version of you that you want to learn about and understand, you may find yourself respecting their inbox and modulating the cadence of your messages to meet the shared mutual importance between the two members of the relationship.
It may not always work. Not everyone wants to be close to you. But you improve your odds of success by treating the potential of a relationship as just that, instead of assuming that consent to email means you can fully deploy the tricks to trigger a sale.
Daniel Loebl is an experienced Marketer focused on expanding the recognition of customer value inside a business and keeps a 'beginner's' mind approach to business problems.