Stop Treating Your Email List Like Geese

When geese migrate for the winter, they typically do so in flocks. One bird takes the lead and the rest follow in a uniform V-pattern. All their heads and necks point in the same direction, and their seasonal flight path is predictable.

Source: sarniebill1 / flickr CC

Despite having feathers and beaks, owls have little else in common with geese. Owls operate at night. They feed on live prey. Perhaps the most important distinction (at least for the point I will attempt to make here) is that owls are solitary creatures. When is the last time you saw a flock of owls?

Source: gbrettmilller / flickr CC

I submit to you that your email recipients, especially those designated for an automated program or message track, are not like geese. They are owls. Too often email tracks are designed with a one-way experience in mind that offers little flexibility for the recipient. We cannot expect every single person on our list to react the same way. They may have similar end-goals, but their primary interests and motivations for getting there are different and unique to the individual. Automated messaging programs must provide for singularity.

To explain further, here’s what a sample email track in which a prospect is nurtured over a sales cycle may look like:

Likely story.

The problem with the approach above is that it assumes everyone of your email recipients will want the same thing out of your product or service, and further, they will all react in the same manner to each iteration of your message. Thus, you cannot expect great results when designing for the flock. Allow for message adjustments to which the individuals on your list will gravitate.

To alter the previous track, a revised email automation program may look more like this:

Need an example? Automation programs or tracks are often used for high-dollar products that require some hand-holding and probably a longer sales cycle. Let’s say you are selling speed boats.

Message A: Thanks the recipient for her interest in your speed boat shop and offers some information about price ranges, specific models based on performance and ideas for storage.

Message B: Based on the recipient’s click behavior within Message A, you deliver:

  1. Monetary Focused Message: A short list of speedboats organized by price
  2. Product Focused Message: A short list of speedboats organized by features and performance
  3. Size Focused Message: A short list of speedboats organized by boat length and storage requirements

Message C: Still building off the individual’s previous behavior, this third message continues to customize the message and focuses on call to action:

  1. Featured Product based on price selection with call to action to receive a call, tour the showroom or attend a web event demonstration
  2. Featured Product based on features selection with the same call to action options
  3. Featured Product based on size selection with the same call to action options

Message D: Provide a follow up to the prospect that aligns with their chosen call to action

  1. Thank you for your time, a sales person will be contacting you
  2. Thank you for visiting, a sales person will be contacting you
  3. Thank you for attending, a sales person will be contacting you


  • Allow some time in between sends. Every industry is different. Choose 3, 7, or 15 day intervals or whatever reflects your particular buying cycle. For example, if your product/service has a two-week buying cycle, deliver messages within that period.
  • Not everyone will click every time. There must be some decisions about what an individual should receive if there is no response to Message A, B, C, etc. Determine whether it would be best to push a prospect through a track or to send alterations of each staged message and waiting for click behavior before proceding
  • Similarly, if this track ends without a sale, it must be determine whether the prospect record should be pushed into a re-engagement campaign or moved into a general list category for ongoing, informative messages (e.g. newsletter).
  • Advanced tracks require some tight synchronization between your email service provider, customer relationship management CRM tool and sales team. Whenever possible, work to keep individual customer records as up-to-date as possible to enable delivery of the right message to the right prospect at the right time.

While this alternative approach to email marketing automation is obviously a bit more complicated and involved than the typical straight-line approach, so too are the motivations and interests of the individual consumer. The more we can make our email marketing messages relevant to each person on our list, the more success we can achieve.

By continuing to believe that every member of your audience thinks, acts and feels the same, what kind of results improvement can you expect to achieve? Goose egg.

Thanks to @davidhibbs for his notes on this post.