Skip links

Email Is a Conversation: How to Use Principles of Communication to Drive Sales


Marketing pioneer John Wanamaker once famously said “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half.” In the multi-channel, digital marketplace, businesses have more opportunities than ever to acquire customers and increase customer lifetime value. While many marketers have email marketing strategies they are missing major opportunities to engage and win customers. By converting your email strategy from a sales pitch to a conversation, you will decrease the cost of customer acquisition and increase lifetime customer value. Measuring email performance can also help you eliminate failure and drive marketing success.

The main purpose of email is to facilitate communication. Retargeting your email strategy towards a conversational format will cultivate familiarity, perception of expertise, and generate goodwill towards your company. It will build a relationship that will enable you to get more out of your consumer, for less. Still, the most common email marketing message is essentially a newspaper ad — throwing out a bunch of popular products and hoping the prospect sees something they like. This ‘spaghetti-to-the-wall method’ works, but not particularly well. According to the ReturnPath summary of 2015 email metrics, only 14% of marketing emails are read by the recipient. The bulk of these messages are ‘spaghetti-to-the-wall’ emails, designed to capture an immediate sale but running the risk of fatiguing customers.

Here’s an example. If someone you have never met comes up to you on the street and says “Hey, want to help me move?”, what are you going to say? “No”, of course. If every day for a month the same guy comes up to you and asks the exact same thing, you will likely continue to say “no” while growing increasingly frustrated and doing your best to avoid him. Relationships and trust are built through conversations. To create an email strategy that accomplishes this, consider the four elements of conversation: telling, asking, listening, and thinking.

Telling is the most common email marketing message, the spaghetti-to-the-wall method we discussed before. While it shouldn’t be the foundation of your entire strategy, there is certainly a place for it. When a prospect signs up for your email list, they may not know what your company is all about. After your welcome email, your first few messages should be informative messages outlining what your company does and how they can help the customer solve their problems. It is often helpful to have longer content available to boost product knowledge, including blog posts, white papers, and videos.

Asking means presenting an offer and seeing how it works with your market. Like telling, asking is a primary component that marketers focus on in all messaging. Telling and asking are both messaging strategies from traditional media, so this is where many marketers stop innovating. As an email marketer, you need to think like a salesperson selling directly to a single person — your goal is to connect with them on a personal level, learn about their needs, and recommend the best solution possible. This cannot be done without paying attention to the response your prospect gives to your offer.

That’s where listening comes in. Listening is the process of observing your target and collecting data. This is what sets email marketing apart from more traditional advertising: communication helps your customer get to know you, and vice versa. In email, behavioral clues can include everything from simple open/click/conversion rates to post-email behavioral data (e.g. E-Commerce transactions, microsite interactions, etc.) Collecting data gives you invaluable information about your customer’s perception of your messaging and allows you to alter messaging to suit your customers.

Of course, listening would be nothing without thinking. Thinking is the most important component of the conversation and yet it is often overlooked by marketers. The principle is simple: find out what works and do more of this, find out what doesn’t work and do less of that.

The most common technique for improving message reception is A/B testing the subject line. This process splits the email you send into three groups: the first 10% get subject line A, the second 10% get subject line B, and the remaining 80% get whichever subject line performed best. You can also A/B test email content, call-to-action buttons, offer, and link landing page. Over time, you will build a repertoire of successful and unsuccessful email techniques that will be akin to your customers’ likes and dislikes.

Your prospect’s inbox is a crowded place. Treating your communications like a mutually beneficial conversation will make your campaign stand out against competitor communication. Ask questions, record results, and think critically about your email performance. By following the principles of conversation, you will be able to reap the benefits that make email a unique marketing channel. Your consumers will better able to understand your brand and you’ll be better equipped to understand their needs.

Connor Collins
Web Developer