Daniel Burstein

The Hidden Side of Email Marketing: The once-and-done option, A/B testing and a supersmart kind of dumb

May 19th, 2015

What assumptions do you make about your customers? Your competitors? Your industry in general? More importantly, what do those assumptions cost you?

At MarketingSherpa, we write case studies to help you execute your marketing strategy.

We also talk to writers, researchers and, well, renegades to help you challenge those assumptions and create an effective strategy to begin with.

I’m talking about people like Stephen J. Dubner. Not only has Dubner learned about economic theory and customer behavior as co-author of Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything and, more recently, Think Like a Freak, but he’s also a very successful digital content creator in his own right as host of the Freakonomics Radio podcast, which nets more than 5 million downloads per month.

Customer behavior. Digital content. Sounds like a guy who could offer a few words of wisdom to email marketers to help them challenge their potentially costly assumptions. I sat down with Dubner at the Media Center at MarketingSherpa Email Summit 2015 before his featured speaker session later that morning:


If you really want to challenge the status quo, you have to admit what you don’t know.

“Let’s find a way to use experimentation to show us what’s actually going on, as opposed to what we think is going on,” Dubner encouraged marketers.


Don’t just focus on current customers

What about the people you haven’t engaged yet because they don’t fall into your current paradigm of customers?

This was one of my favorite pieces of wisdom from Dubner. He used Smile Train as an example. Although a successful nonprofit, having raised $1 billion in 15 years, Smile Train only had one way of engaging with donors. Once people donated, they were inundated with 15 to 20 pieces of direct mail solicitations every year.

This worked well for the natural do-gooders who wanted to be engaged and were current donors. But what about those who didn’t fall into that category?

Smile Train tested a “once-and-done option.” Essentially, people could donate without continually getting solicited. This went against the status quo thinking, which is that customers are expensive to acquire, so once they are acquired, you must market to them endlessly. Not only did this experiment turn out to be very popular, but Smile Train also reached a new type of donor it previously hadn’t been engaged with — those wanting to help but were aware that if they donated once, they would receive a never-ending stream of (in their case, unwanted) solicitations.

“Any time you’re selling anything, you have to think of your population as very heterogeneous,” Dubner said. “It’s very important to identify and appeal to the heterogeneous components of a population.”


What is your company’s once-and-done option?

Who are the customers who want to do business with you but don’t appreciate your current terms?

Find a new way to think about your marketing strategy, challenge the status quo and test to learn how to best serve your current and potential customers. After all, as marketers, you have a distinct customer insight advantage with the business or any other organization for that matter.

“A/B testing is such a valuable tool. It’s so basic. It’s so easy. It’s fun. It’s not expensive,” Dubner added. “It’s a marvel that it’s not used more in government and in corporate life in general, but in marketing, it really is. And partly, the digital revolution has made it so great and doable.”


You can follow Daniel Burstein, Director of Editorial Content, MarketingSherpa, @DanielBurstein.


You might also like

Watch an excerpt of Stephen Dubner’s featured session at Email Summit 2015, along with HD video of 14 full sessions from the event

MarketingSherpa Weekly Book Giveaway – Sign up by Sunday, May 31 for a chance to win a copy of When to Rob a Bank…and 131 More Warped Suggestions and Well-Intended Rants by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner

Email Research Chart: How often customers want to receive promotional emails [More from MarketingSherpa]

Are Surveys Misleading? 7 Questions for Better Market Research [More from MarketingSherpa]

A/B Split Testing — How to use A/B Split Testing to Increase Conversion Rates, Challenge Assumptions and Solve Problems [From MarketingExperiments]

Email Marketing: How A/B testing raised $500 million for Obama for America [From MarketingExperiments]

How Safe Is Your Job? [From Freakonomics Radio]

The Maddest Men of All [From Freakonomics Radio]

4 Essential Marketing Insights from Freakonomics Author Stephen J. Dubner [From MarketingExperiments blog]

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Daniel Burstein

About Daniel Burstein

Daniel Burstein, Senior Director of Editorial Content, MECLABS. Daniel oversees all content and marketing coming from the MarketingExperiments and MarketingSherpa brands while helping to shape the editorial direction for MECLABS – digging for actionable information while serving as an advocate for the audience. Daniel is also a speaker and moderator at live events and on webinars. Previously, he was the main writer powering MarketingExperiments publishing engine – from Web clinics to Research Journals to the blog. Prior to joining the team, Daniel was Vice President of MindPulse Communications – a boutique communications consultancy specializing in IT clients such as IBM, VMware, and BEA Systems. Daniel has 18 years of experience in copywriting, editing, internal communications, sales enablement and field marketing communications.

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