6 tactics to create recession-proof email marketing

Are we in a recession or not? It doesn’t matter whether the national economy meets the classic definition (i.e., when a country’s gross domestic product falls in two consecutive business quarters). What our customers think matters more — and right now, they’re pretty pessimistic.

Up to 91% of consumers are changing their shopping habits in response to bleak economic news, according to a new SheerID study. Furthermore, 76% of UK and 70% of U.S. consumers don’t expect their countries’ economies to improve over the next year.

As marketers, we know what this means. When times get tough, marketing budgets get cut. We also know businesses that keep investing in email marketing are better off when the economy improves. How do you make that happen with less money and fewer team members?

I can answer that question with six tips. They combine quick wins for short-term gains with longer-term strategic revisions designed to work now during economic uncertainty and later when times improve.

Besides my own recommendations, I also asked five other email experts for their best advice for recession-proof email marketing.

1. Go for quick wins to get more from your marketing now

Getting started can be the hardest part. These four approaches make your email marketing program more effective, build stronger customer relationships, and use your resources more wisely.

Do an email audit to uncover gaps and reveal opportunities

This is almost always my first step with clients because it can show you where you can act quickly using your current resources.

Create or update your strategic plan

Whether you have a spreadsheet full of strategy or a bare outline, having a plan can help you allocate time and energy more efficiently. If you don’t have one, come up with one, even if it’s just for the present quarter.

Establish or upgrade an email testing plan

An email testing plan will help you learn more about your customers and measure your email effectiveness. Go beyond subject lines and button colors.

Test one campaign-level approach against another, such as emotion versus urgency or value. This will give you deeper insights you can apply beyond your next campaign.

Get more email into your customers’ inboxes

How long has it been since you looked at a post-campaign delivery report? You might discover you’re blocked or restricted at a key ISP. Call a deliverability expert to help you break through a logjam and get seen by more customers.

2. Fine-tune your marketing program to show customers you know who they are

Think back to the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic and how your company shifted gears to reach customers. It’s an appropriate comparison, Adam Purslow of TheLoyaltyCo told me. 

“Similar to what we saw during COVID-19, people have less disposable income,” he says. “The key is to push on with engagement and speaking to customers and being aware that people aren’t going to spend as much. If people are going out to eat only once a year or so now, being the restaurant people go to becomes more important.”

Email retains its advantage over search, social and web marketing because we can message our customers at tactical times. We can gently nudge customers so they can act when their wallet allows. That’s why we need to be in their inboxes regularly with great deals and relevant content.

But we must continue with empathy and a customer-centric focus on our recipients. We are grappling with meeting KPIs, but that thinking is more about the brand and less about customers. When you help customers achieve their goals, they will help you achieve yours. 

Dig deeper: Authentic storytelling: 5 rules for the new frontier of marketing

3. Protect your profit margin by targeting the right customers

“Use segmentation and targeting to find the people who might have lapsed but are more likely to re-visit before customers who are slightly warmer,” Purslow says. “You have to be careful with your targets and not blanket them with money. Keep monitoring your uptake and reporting.” 

Scott Cohen of SmileDirectClub says the email channel has a target on its back “because we’re [perceived as] cheap. We are also the channel to nurture and market to the purchase cycle, which gets longer. We have to balance that longer cycle against immediate returns.”

According to Tom Ricards of Bloomreach, we must also be aware that customer segments are fluid. “Understanding the customers is absolutely everything,” he says. “We need to be able to respond to changing segments in real time.”

4. Gather more customer and transactional data and listen to what they’re telling you

As I mentioned in my previous MarTech article (3 ways data can steer you wrong — and how to glean better insights), we need more than data. We need the insights we get from the data we have.

As email strategist Jennifer Hoth told me, “Now is a great time to gather first-party and zero-party data to understand why they’re buying and to get to know them better, to go beyond just the transactional data to know them personally. 

“We need to understand who they are, what their world is like now, what’s keeping them engaged, and to be sure with your data that you’re sending relevant communications.”

5. Don’t let fear hold you back

In my 24 years of doing email audits, I have found that most marketers leave money on the table because they aren’t sending emails often enough. That’s because of fear of deliverability issues. 

I’m not saying, “Forget the fear and blast your list!” You have to be smart and work out the best frequency or cadence for your product or service and audience. Don’t refrain from sending out of fear because you could make things harder for yourself.

You might even have more leeway with frequency than you realize, says fractional CMO Skip Fidura. “You know every email you send out. Your recipients don’t know every email they receive. You might feel as if you’re sending out a lot, but it might not feel like that to your recipients.”

An email program that relies on an unending stream of “buy this now” emails will be even less effective if your customers have cut back on spending, no matter how many incentives you tack on. This is the time to put your data and insights to work for more personalized and personal emails.

“A client of ours sent out a small amount of highly personalized emails,” Purslow says. “Deliverability and open rates were great because the emails made subscribers feel like we were talking to them. As long as you’re clever with personalization, deliverability will not be an issue.”

6. Keep testing and learning

“It’s very important to know your audience and to always be testing,” Hoth says. “[Your audience] is always changing, especially in times like these. I appreciate being able to do A/B testing and to find out what tone works best with customers is genius, and it doesn’t cost what it would take to install a new technology.”

I’m just as passionate about testing, especially beyond campaign-level factors like subject lines. In both tough times and prosperity, it can pinpoint what moves your customers to act and whether your strategies and tactics effectively achieve your objectives. 

Dig deeper: 7 common problems that derail A/B/n email testing success

What these tips have in common

Yes, they do take time, and you might not have that luxury if you’re under more pressure to meet your goals. 

But these six tactics also force you to learn more about your customers: whether they’re stressed, looking for bargains, buying regularly or less often, or even disengaging. This gives you the knowledge to email more effectively now without shifting gears when prosperity returns for your customers. 

Email is the only tool you can adjust on the fly like this for quick results. Invest some of your precious time now to understand what’s happening and where you can adjust for short-term gains and long-term success.

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