I received my first HTML email marketing message in 1999. I had just been hired to establish an email marketing technology start up. It was during the “dotcom” craze – a time flush with cash but funnily enough devoid of any SPAM. The business I worked for was part of a small “stable” of Internet start ups, funded by some very wealthy people.

Our offices were split across two floors of a six storey building overlooking Auckland’s waterfront. A perfectly good lift took us from the ground floor carpark to our office. Nevertheless it was decided that it was too much effort to ferry us between floors. So a brand new architect-designed marble stair case was cut into the two concrete floors. No expense was spared.

How times have changed. I can assure you there are no marble stair cases at Permission HQ! And while there are billions of HTML based emails flying around the planet, SPAM makes up the high percentage. But through all this email continues to hold its own against the other options available.

To do this it has managed to flex and wane to meet the growing demands placed on it by marketers wanting to communicate ever more complex messages. Here’s my take on three core stages of complexity that most marketers work through.

Stage one – let’s get started.

This is where intentions meet actions and the first few email campaigns are the result. It’s the classic “load and blast” stage where one message is sent to the one list. The content is written to appeal to everyone and designed to look both colorful (with HTML formatting) and functional (with a complementary text version). Legally, things are taken care of with the appropriate unsubscribe option and details of who sent it, where they are located and why the subscriber received it in the first place.

All this is usually dispatched using a hosted web service, in such a way that it looks like it has come from the business. Before it’s sent a few test emails are generally dispatched to three or four different email clients, just to ensure it looks OK.

Once the “send” button is pressed the reporting begins. The technology usually shows who opened the message, if they clicked on any of the links and whether they decided to end it there and unsubscribe.

Ideally the list will grow by new subscribers joining via a web form hosted on the website. Those that unsubscribe are automatically removed, as are those that either a) have their email message “bounce” more than a set times per month or b) if they are automatically deemed as having an address that will never work.

It’s all very functional. But still there’s a lot to learn for the newbie email marketer so the first few campaigns take longer than you would think. Then they get into some sort of a rhythm, and the campaigns start to take on a momentum of their own. Dispatching one a month doesn’t seem too hard. The beast has been created. Now all you need to do is produce the content to keep it happy – which is the real time commitment.

Stage two – Let’s become relevant

The bridge from stage one to stage two is usually preceded by someone standing back from the tactical day to day experience to review progress. So they dive into all the stats, costs and time invested to see where’s the room for improvement. Not everyone does this. A fair chunk remain in stage one forever – which is fine. For them this is enough work thank you very much, and the results? Well they’re OK – nothing amazing – but still OK.

Nevertheless, the rest head off into the land of increasing complexity, hunting out higher returns on their email marketing time and money. Most start by altering how they define who gets what message. In stage one just being a subscriber counted you in. This is changed so that age, gender and perhaps location are used to define who gets what. No longer is it one message for everyone – improving message relevance is the goal here.

Sometimes an upgrade in email sending technology is required to work in this stage. Not every tool can send out different types of message within the one send. This makes proofing the message a bit harder too, so a seed list is created that ensures all the different variations are seen during the testing phase. Tests are now sent to 30 or 40 different email clients to ensure that a high proportion of the list can see what they should.

The web form on the website gets a remodel too. Now it is placed in a more prominent position and perhaps a subscription offer is run to drive list growth. And while previously a new subscription was met with just a simple “Thank You” page on the website, in stage two an automated “welcome” email message is dispatched. (As an aside, this type of message usually has a 25%– 50% increase in open rate from any campaign message you send them, the simple reason being because it’s expected.)

Knowing if all this extra work is worthwhile requires an upgrade in message tracking also. All the traffic generated by these stage two campaigns is configured to sit nicely within their own analytics “bucket”. Now the marketer can correctly match up sales or conversions to the email campaign responsible for them. So simple sums like campaign sales less campaign costs become a breeze to run.

It’s a more complex space to work within, but usually the rewards are there to make it worthwhile – with higher opens, clicks and conversions than stage one.

Stage Three – the death of the campaign

This is not the stage for those wanting the easy life. There’s more technology and marketing headaches in here than you can shake a stick at. And I realize this contradicts what most email tech vendors will tell you. But after living in this place for a small selection of clients for a few years I have seen what it requires to make it work well.

The critical difference between this stage and the two prior is that your campaigns are no longer driven by what you do, but by what your subscriber does. You set up the rules, define the messages, make the technology “talk” amongst itself and then sit back and let the subscriber experience it all in its wonderful form.

So for instance you could set up a campaign that welcomes new customers to your business via a series of five email messages which begins when they make the first transaction on your website. Or if they haven’t purchased for three months, when they used to regularly, they are sent a special offer to get them purchasing again. Another stage three message could be sent out to those e-commerce customers who placed a product in their shopping cart but didn’t make it all the way to complete the transaction. You could have a myriad of fully automated campaigns working 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. A complete “lights out” marketing operation that runs with no manual involvement. Sound attractive?

Well before you get too excited, do realize that there’s a jungle of technology to work through to make these operate properly. Email tools need to talk to billing systems and possibly e-commerce applications. Yes, it’s set and forget, but with a fair amount of time spent on the setting.

Still, once you get there your campaign statistics can soar upwards. A 2x increase in open rates when compared to normal load and blast strategies is not unheard of. Click through and end conversion rates can also leave the earlier stages for dead. There is work involved, but there are also results.

So there you have it. Your three stages of email marketing complexity. Some marketers will live at stage one – others will operate campaigns across all three levels. Very few will not do any. Why not start exploring the merits of the stage ahead of you this month?