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How incremental innovation drives steady and strategic change


I talk a lot about how marketers have to change their email programs to succeed in today’s email universe. But I also know that time, resource and money challenges often prevent marketers from trying all the innovations they see, read and hear about.

Most of the marketers I’ve met are barely able to get their promotional emails out the door, let alone add a complete arsenal of email triggers, because every time they turn around, there’s somebody wanting to send yet another email.

Are they doomed to the same old marketing day after day? Absolutely not.

One change at a time

Here’s what got me thinking about incremental innovation: A client once showed me his list of 300 to 400 triggers. Mind-boggling, right? “How did you do this?” I asked. His answer? “I started with the first one.”

That changed my perspective on bringing innovation to strategy. People think that because we’re in digital media we can evolve instantly. We know that’s not true, especially in email marketing, where marketers seldom get the props they deserve.


This week, look at your email program and look for something you can do differently in one campaign. Make that change. Next week, change something else and add it to your list. The week after that, add another change to the two you’ve implemented already.

How small changes add up to something big

You’ve got roughly five months until Thanksgiving – wait, Thanksgiving is in five months? Reflex panic! – and you’ve got four months before you turn into a marketing zombie. But there are also 16 potential small changes you could make by then.

Eventually, you can say, “I added these triggers, and here are the results.” That’s what will impress your execs.

That’s also the whole idea behind incremental innovation. It intends that you evolve toward innovation regularly, whether daily, weekly or monthly, or whatever schedule works best.

If your goal is to add one trigger a week – say, adding a reminder email to an abandoned cart notification – and you achieve that goal, don’t be disappointed that you aren’t adding two, five or 10 at a time.

When you go after one achievable goal at a time, you get to enjoy the feeling of winning, and that’s fantastic.

Plan to change

Even with slow progress, however, you can’t just wing it. Sit down, if only on your next break, and map out changes you would like to see and what you must do to achieve them.

Create a weekly plan, and keep it simple. You don’t have to change something in every campaign. Maybe change the demographic or add a dynamic function to an email message. Change the headline in the email you send to one of your segments. It doesn’t have to be a change that will make you millions of dollars more. You just have to do it.

Two changes to consider

    • Go (a little) crazy. Think of something that’s so goofy that you would think it could never work, and then try it. For example, create a segment of 20,000 customers and send it an email message that’s so completely out of the box that it was never in the box in the first place. What’s the worst that could happen? OK, the worst that could happen is that you’d screw up your brand equity. So be smart. Don’t send to your entire list or do something that so completely off-message that your customers will rebel. I don’t want you coming back to me and saying, “Thanks, Phelan. I got fired!”
    • Bring ’em back to buy again. Think of a repeatable action your customers might take with one of your products. Would they need to reorder it in a year or even three months? Do you sell something else that they could use with this product? Create a trigger that will send an email with that item after a reasonable amount of time. Incremental innovation assumes that you won’t hit a home run/score a touchdown/win the Oscar every time you try something new. But every change you make will start a snowball running downhill, gaining momentum as it goes. Run something up the flagpole, and see what salutes.

And now I’m out of metaphors. So, it’s up to you. Time to innovate!

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